EGA Five Facts to Know: State of the Union Recap

President Biden delivered a forceful and lively State of the Union Address last night. During the “soft launch” of his 2024 reelection bid, the President previewed the theme of “Let’s finish the job.” Unlike the last time the President addressed Congress, this speech was in the shadow of a midterm election that just reset the political status quo. With Republicans now holding a slim majority in the House of Representatives, divided government has returned. Last night was an opportunity for the President to put that new status quo in context and explain his vision and role in leading a divided government.

Here are five things to know about last night’s State of the Union:

1. The President Gave a Determined 80-Minute Speech

President Biden delivered a determined speech that signaled he feels in command of the job. He spoke for 80 minutes, defending his agenda and laying out the theme for his presumed reelection bid: “Let’s finish the job.” However, as he prepares for a potential run in 2024, he and his team know they must address concerns about his age. Consider the numbers: If Biden seeks a second term, he would be the oldest president to run for reelection and, if he were to win, he would be 86 at the end of his second term. Biden’s approval rating among Democrats is over 80%, yet according to a recent CBS poll, only 37% of polled Democrats want him to run for reelection. Last night’s State of the Union provided Biden’s largest televised national audience an opportunity to judge for themselves if Biden is in command of the job.


2. The President Stressed Bipartisanship

President Biden began his speech: “I start tonight by congratulating the members of the 118th Congress and the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. Mr. Speaker, I look forward to working together.” He went on to emphasize the bipartisan nature of his legislative accomplishments. “…We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together...but over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong.” Biden cited infrastructure legislation, gun reform, burn pits, and the CHIPS and Science Act as bipartisan wins. He concluded with a nod to a former Republican President, George W. Bush, and the work done through PEPFAR to transform the global fight against HIV/AIDS. His message of bipartisanship is targeted specifically to Independents, an area of the electorate where he suffers, with an approval rating of only 36% in January. Biden’s address is intended to show them that he – and his party – have risen above the partisan fights, and he is prepared to work across party lines.


3. The Medicare and Social Security Wars Return

The fight over raising the debt limit may be the defining legislative battle of 2023. The President warned Americans that some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to “sunset every five years.” He continued: “That means if Congress doesn’t vote to keep them, those programs will go away. Other Republicans say if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they’ll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history. I won’t let that happen.” The President’s comments appeared to be based on a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) who promoted reauthorization of all federal spending every five years, a proposal Republican leadership has rejected. Republicans, angry at the remarks, pushed back vocally, some calling the President a lair. Speaker McCarthy, who has insisted that these cuts are not on the table, was seated behind the President and could be seen mouthing “no” at this moment. Biden proceeded to insist to the nation that this outcry was an agreement to leave Medicare and Social Security alone.

The President brought up these programs for a specific reason. Seniors are a critical voting block – and last spring, he was down seven points in the polls with seniors – so he wants to shore up their support and portray Republicans as the threat to Medicare. But with Speaker McCarthy taking Medicare off the table in debt ceiling negotiations and the Biden Administration floating cuts to the popular Medicare Advantage program, the President risks losing this messaging fight over the next several months.


4. Climate Change and the Energy Transition

The President also defended the Inflation Reduction Act as the “most significant investment ever to tackle the climate crisis,” which he referred to as an “existential threat.” The President highlighted several overarching policy priorities:

  • Rebuilding for the “long term” as part of emergency recovery
  • Building 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, with union labor
  • Tax credits to incentivize electric vehicle and energy-efficient appliance purchases
  • Conservation efforts as “responsible stewards of our lands.”

The President acknowledged, in a line that did not appear in his prepared remarks, “We’re still going to need oil and gas for a while.” The President pointed out that “Big Oil” has reported “record profits” but has “invested too little of that profit to increase domestic production.” The President commented that when he “talked to a couple of them, they say, ‘We’re afraid you’re going to shut down all of the oil wells and all of the oil refineries anyway, so why should we invest in them?’ I say, ‘We’re going to need oil for at least another decade.’”


5. Biden Was Diplomatic on China

The 118th Congress kicked off with a bipartisan focus on China. A new Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (the House Select Committee on China) has been created and drawn bipartisan support, and early congressional hearings have focused on China. Last week’s surveillance balloon incident drew intense media focus. While the State of the Union is not a foreign policy speech, President Biden did address the elephant in the room, warning, “…If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.” But given the heightened US-China tensions, the President’s remarks were diplomatic and restrained: “I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict. I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating…Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.”