March 5. 2024. 1:48

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‘Pride is coming back’: Biden touts victories on jobs and climate in State of the Union address

Joe Biden called on Republicans to help him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and restoring faith in American democracy in his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night, as he made an unfettered call to action on police reform, gun control and the climate crisis.

Addressing a divided Congress for the first time, Mr Biden made the case that the nation was stronger and more stable than when he assumed office two years ago.

Midway through the first term of his presidency, the president credited his policies with helping to wrench the country from the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, usher in record job growth and strengthen a democracy threatened by anti-democratic forces at home and abroad. But to continue making progress, Mr Biden argued, he would need support from the very Republican House majority eager to unravel his agenda and undermine his political prospects as he prepares to seek a second term.

“To my Republican friends, of we could work together in the last Congress, “ he said, “there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,”

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He opened his nearly 75-minute address by congratulating the newly installed House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, seated behind him on the dais.

“I don’t want to ruin your reputation but I look forward to working with you,” the president said to Mr McCarthy, drawing laughs.

Addressing the nation from the House rostrum, Mr Biden trumpeted the legislative accomplishments from his first two years in office – including a sweeping health and climate package, an infrastructure law and major new investments in the domestic semiconductor industry. He also pointed to signs of a brightening economic outlook, easing inflation and the country’s unemployment rate, which hit a 53-year low of 3.4 per cent last month.

“Jobs are coming back,” he said. “Pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”

Even as he appealed for bipartisanship, Mr Biden made the explicit case against the economic agenda of his political foes who have sought to repeal key pieces of his signature domestic policy accomplishment: “Make no mistake: if you try to do anything to raise the cost of prescription drugs, I will veto it.”

Yet the prospect of sweeping bipartisan legislation is dim, as emboldened House Republicans launch a series of politically charged investigations into the president, his family and his administration.

Tensions on display

Those tensions were on display in the chamber on Tuesday night. On several occasions, Republicans interrupted the president by jeering or yelling comments, despite Mr McCarthy’s attempt to control the emotion.

Mr Biden introduced a father who had lost his daughter to a fentanyl overdose in 2014. Vowing to confront the fentanyl crisis, he was met with shouting from Republicans who blame the president’s border policies for worsening deadly drug trafficking. Above the din, a Republican screamed: “It’s your fault.”

The opposition then booed when Biden charged that some of them wanted to cut social security and Medicare, popular retirement and healthcare programmes, as part of their efforts to reduce the deficit.

“Liar,” shouted far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Acknowledging their response, he teased that he was happy to have Republican assurances that those programmes would be protected. “We got unanimity,” he declared, bringing members of both parties to their feet in applause.

Although a number of Republicans have rejected proposals to overhaul Medicare and social security, some members of the party, including have suggested that the programmes should instead be subjected to regular approval. Such a policy could result in them being eliminated.

Striking a populist tone, Mr Biden implored Congress to “reward work, not wealth” by passing his proposal for a billionaire tax. Touting a new $35 cap on insulin for Medicare recipients, he said legislators should go further and extend the rule to cover all Americans.

Mr McCarthy has demanded government spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, but Mr Biden has insisted on a “clean” bill to raise the nation’s borrowing limit with no strings attached. The treasury has warned that the US could be at risk of default unless the debt ceiling is raised by June.

Police brutality

To a nation convulsed by videos of police brutality and a string of mass shootings, Mr Biden, echoing the calls of activists and families, demanded Congress “do something”.

In an emotional appeal for action, he turned to the box where the first lady, Jill Biden, was seated alongside the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old African American father who was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers. “Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true: something good must come from this,” he said.

He then acknowledged Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old man who disarmed a gunman during a shooting in Monterey Park, California. Praising his bravery, the president called for a ban on assault weapons. “He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well,” he said of Mr Tsay.

And as Republican-governed states rush to restrict abortion, he vowed to veto a national abortion ban that some Republicans have called for.

Also seated alongside the first lady Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi who was assaulted in the days before the midterm elections by a hammer-wielding assailant who allegedly sought to injure the Democratic politician.

And, for a second year in a row, Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, also attended as a guest of the Bidens. The president boasted about the successes of the international coalition the US helped marshal to help Ukraine defends itself against Russia’s invasion.

“Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led. We united Nato and built a global coalition,” Mr Biden said. “We stood against [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people.”

Mr Biden made no direct reference to the downing by the US military of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, but alluded to the decision by declaring that “if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country”.

The newly elected governor of Arkansas, Sarah Sanders, who gained a national profile as former president Donald Trump’s press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Mr Biden’s speech.

‘Leftwing culture war’

Ms Sanders, currently America’s youngest governor at 40, attacked Mr Biden over inflation and accuse Democrats of waging a “leftwing culture war” against average Americans, according to excerpts of her prepared remarks.

“Republicans believe in an America where strong families thrive in safe communities, where jobs are abundant and paychecks are rising,” she said.

Yet Mr Biden was relentlessly optimistic, challenging Republicans to stand in the way of the vision he believes elevated him to the White House two years ago, and helped deliver his party and expanded Senate majority in the November midterms.

“That’s always been my vision for the country and I know it’s many of yours’,” he said, “to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America, America’s middle class, and unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job, in my view.”