8 min read

Six SOTU takeaways

Biden leaned into jousting with Republicans and leaned out of foreign policy. And more takeaways from his second State of the Union.
Six SOTU takeaways
(White House)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, February 8, 2023. The 2024 elections are 636 days away.

If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

Six takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union

Over his entire career, Joe Biden has comfortably flitted between two political styles that rarely go together, acting as one of Washington’s top bipartisan dealmakers on some occasions while playing the role of hard-nosed partisan brawler on others.

In that way, his State of the Union address last night was vintage Biden: folksy, even snarky and combative at times, while also reaching for lofty rhetorical ground and plenty of across-the-aisle patriotic flourishes. Here are my key takeaways from the speech:

Biden 2024 has begun.

Biden hasn’t officially declared his plans to run for president in 2024. But if you have any doubts that the 80-year-old wants another term in office, you weren’t watching Tuesday night.

The address easily doubled as a 2024 launch speech, even containing a ready-made slogan for the campaign trail: “Finish the job,” a three-word phrase meant to convey both the accomplishments he’s notched and the fact that he’s not done yet.

Biden exhorted lawmakers to “finish the job” no less than a dozen times last night, calling for action on many of his 2020 “Build Back Better” promises that have so far been left on the cutting room floor: expanding Medicaid, implementing universal pre-K, funding public housing, and more.

He also devoted plenty of time to what had already been passed, boasting about his legislative achievements and about the economic growth the country has seen in the past two years.

“As we gather here tonight,” Biden declared, “we’re writing the next chapter in the great American story.” It’s clear Biden sees himself as that chapter’s penman.

A rowdy audience.

To the extent last night will be remembered — State of the Union speeches typically don’t have much of a shelf life — it will be for the truly unusual amount of back-and-forth Biden and congressional Republicans engaged in.

As I wrote Tuesday, the State of the Union has been growing more rowdy and less ceremonial for years, from Joe Wilson shouting “you lie” in 2009 to Nancy Pelosi ripping up the president’s address in 2020. But no SOTU in memory has been as raucous as this one, with Republicans continually interjecting to boo and jeer Biden.

The interruptions got to be so frequent that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — who had promised before the speech that Republicans would behave — could be seen from the rostrum repeatedly shushing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and others.

The most noteworthy exchange came when Biden, discussing the debt ceiling negotiations, claimed that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.”

“Liar!” Greene got to her feet and shouted, while another member yelled out “bullshit!” and others booed.

“Anybody who doubts it, contact my office,” Biden responded. “I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.” When that didn’t quiet them, he flashed a grin: “I tell you, I enjoy conversion.” Moments later, Biden circled back: “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?”

Backed into a corner, many Republicans joined Democrats in standing and applauding. “All right,” Biden said. “We’ve got unanimity!”

The back-and-forth was less revelatory from a policy perspective (McCarthy had already ruled out cuts to Medicare and Social Security) than a political one, an ad-libbed exchange that showed Biden can still be quick on his feet at times, in contrast to the “Sleepy Joe” image Donald Trump has tried to paint.

Watch the exchange here:

Unity agenda redux.

In last year’s State of the Union, Biden focused on outlining a “unity agenda,” a platform of popular ideas he hoped to receive bipartisan approval for.

“Yes, we disagreed plenty,” Biden said, reflecting on the last year. “And yes, there were times when Democrats went alone. But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together.”

Noting that several of the proposals had been approved — including legislation to aid veterans exposed to toxic burn pits — Biden called for the rest of the “unity agenda” to be turned into law.

Many of the ideas he focused on were populist in nature, from combatting “junk fees” to capping the price of insulin at $35 a month. Several others proposals, including targeting Big Tech companies and the production of fentanyl, roused even McCarthy and other GOP lawmakers to their feet. With Republicans in control of the House, they represent some of the few areas of possible bipartisan cooperation in the next two years.

“To my Republican friends,” Biden said, “if we could work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well.”

Ideological tap dancing.

Biden has always been hard to pin down ideologically, having flip-flopped throughout his career on a variety of issues. Through it all, his talent has always been finding the center of the Democratic Party at a given moment and planting himself there. Last night was no exception.

As is often the case in Biden speeches, there were lines for both the centrist and progressive Democratic camps to celebrate.

“I’m a capitalist,” Biden declared, while also adopting an Elizabeth Warren proposal to raise taxes on billionaires.

There was no mention of a “Green New Deal,” but he did pour focus on his efforts to invest in clean energy and refer to climate change not just as a “crisis” but an “existential” one.

Finally, he applauded police officers as “good, decent, honorable people,” but — with the parents of Tyre Nichols in the audience — also spoke emotionally about “the talk” Black parents have with their children about the police that he never had to have with his.

He continued his decades-long dance across the Democratic Party spectrum Tuesday, landing — as always — smack dab in the middle.

Not much on China.

After the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon this weekend, there was some speculation that Biden’s aides would be furiously rewriting the State of the Union to address the controversy.

But it appears they stuck with their first draft. The spy balloon received only a glancing mention in the speech: “As we made clear last week,” Biden said, “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”

In fact, world politics as a whole received scant notice in Biden’s address. A former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden’s previous two speeches to joint sessions of Congress contained longer foreign policy sections, with his 2021 theme about the global battle between democracy and autocracy and his 2022 opening about the days-old war in Ukraine.  

This year, he stayed light on the international talk, besides for a brief homage to Ukraine and the quick China reference. Perhaps it should be taken as yet another sign of his approaching re-election bid, as Biden turns inward and focuses on the domestic electorate whose votes he’ll soon be courting.

The parentless culture wars.

“Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace,” Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in her Republican response to Biden’s speech, “but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

Sanders went on to claim that “every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols” while also accusing the government of colluding with Big Tech to “strip away” the freedom of speech.

But if Sanders insisted that Republicans weren’t starting any culture wars, it didn’t appear that Biden was eager to launch any either. He studiously avoided most of the hottest-button social issues, from the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills to the debate over history education in schools. (Sanders, on the other hand, name-dropped critical race theory and the term “Latinx,” both derogatorily.)

Although Sanders accused Biden of being the “first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob,” there was little that would normally be described as “woke” in the address, except for a suggestion that the U.S. would not be using oil in more than a decade, which drew laughter from Republicans.

“The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left,” Sanders said. “The choice is between normal or crazy.” There’s a line you can expect both Biden and his Republican challenger to repeat a year from now.

More news to know.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. (Shawn Moore / Labor Department)

Biden administration.

The first Biden Cabinet secretary is about to resign. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who served as the “designated survivor” for last night’s speech, is reportedly stepping down to become executive director of the NHL players’ union. Two other top Biden aides — White House chief of staff Ron Klain and National Economic Council Brian Deese — are also preparing their departures.


George Santos and Mitt Romney got in a spat before the State of the Union. “You don’t belong here,” Romney told Santos, according to a lawmaker who witnessed the exchange. Santos claims that the 2012 presidential nominee called him an “ass” and that he responded, “You’re a much bigger asshole.” Romney later described Santos to reporters as a “sick puppy.”

In the states.

Democrats swept a trio of state House special elections in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. The victories give Democrats clear control of the legislative chamber, filling three vacancies that briefly handed Republicans a slim majority. Democrats may now install a new speaker, after weeks of standstill resulting from the election of a “unity speaker” in January.

The day ahead.

All times Eastern.

President Biden will kick off his post-State of the Union travel with a speech on the economy at a union training center in DeForest, Wisconsin. (Watch at 1 p.m.)

Vice President Harris will hold an event on combatting climate change at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. (Watch at 2:10 p.m.)

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One. (Listen at 11:30 a.m.)

The House will vote on H.R. 185, which would end the requirement that most foreign air travelers to the U.S. be vaccinated against Covid-19. (Watch at 10 a.m.)

The Senate will take the day off as both parties meet for their annual policy retreats.

The House Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on Twitter’s October 2020 suppression of reporting on Hunter Biden’s laptop. Three former Twitter executives will testify. (Watch at 10 a.m.)

Before I go...

Here’s something fun: Last night, President Biden became the first president to use the words “McDonald’s” and “FedEx” in a State of the Union address.

Here’s a quiz, via the Washington Post, on which presidents were the first to say other words, from “abortion” to “astronaut.”

👍 Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe