Feisty Joe Biden Is Back

The president called for national unity around shared goals, particularly delivering economic benefits to working families.

A black-and-white photo of Joe Biden shaking hands with members of Congress
Jacquelyn Martin / Getty

It was a raucous, interactive, and argumentative State of the Union like no other. And when it was over, President Joe Biden had provided a clear signal of how he plans to contest the 2024 presidential election.

Leaning hard into his populist “Scranton Joe” persona, an energetic and feisty Biden sparred with congressional Republicans heckling him from the audience as he previewed what will likely be key themes of the reelection campaign that he’s expected to announce within months, if not weeks.

Biden’s speech showed him continuing to formulate an economically focused alternative to the cultural backlash that Donald Trump has stressed throughout his political career—and which Trump’s former White House press secretary, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, revived in her bellicose GOP response. Whereas Sanders summoned “normal” Americans to rise up against a “woke mob” allegedly erasing American values and traditions, Biden called for national unity around shared goals, particularly delivering economic benefits to working families.

It’s easy to view those sharply contrasting messages as a preview of the 2024 election. Almost any GOP nominee—but particularly Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the two early front-runners in polls for the nomination—is likely to stress the cultural notes that Sanders hit in hopes of maximizing turnout among the GOP’s core constituencies of older, noncollege, and nonurban white voters and expanding the party’s 2020 beachhead among culturally conservative nonwhite voters, especially Latino men.

Biden’s emphasis on economic concerns reflects his belief that the best way to counter that strategy is to downplay culture-war fights while defining himself primarily around a practical agenda to lift average families.

Well into the speech, Biden delivered an unflinching pledge to veto any GOP effort to ban abortion nationwide (which has no chance of passing the Senate anyway). Near the beginning and end of his remarks, he also pointedly alluded to the threats to American democracy unleashed by Trump and the insurrection on January 6, 2021.

But given how important both of those issues proved to the unexpectedly strong Democratic performance in the 2022 midterms (particularly among white-collar suburbanites), Biden gave them only passing attention.

The difference in emphasis between Biden and Sanders was unmistakable. Cultural concerns dominated Sanders’s speech. She painted a dark vision of the “radical left’s America,” where “our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race,” “violent criminals roam free while law-abiding families live in fear,” and “normal” Americans “are under attack” from a “woke mob” pursuing “a left-wing culture war that we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.” Her remarks showed again how the fear of cultural and racial displacement in an America that is inexorably growing more diverse, secular, and urbanized remains the most powerful motivator for what I’ve called the Republican “coalition of restoration.”

By contrast, the core of Biden’s speech was his pledge to both create good-paying jobs for working-class families and provide them with tangible economic help, such as by reducing drug prices and fighting surprise airline and hotel fees. As he often has before, Biden called his agenda a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America” and stressed how many jobs that do not require college degrees would be created by the troika of major bills passed during his first two years: legislation promoting clean-energy industries, more domestic manufacturing of semiconductors, and infrastructure construction projects nationwide. He delivered repeated populist jabs against big corporations and billionaires paying lower tax rates “than a nurse.”

It was telling that the most extended of the several remarkable back-and-forth exchanges with Republicans came not from abortion or any social issue, but Social Security and Medicare. Echoing the “you lie” cry from a GOP representative during a 2009 Barack Obama speech, several Republicans apparently called out “liar” when Biden noted, correctly, that some Republicans (specifically Senator Rick Scott of Florida whom he did not name) have proposed to sunset all federal programs every five years, including Social Security and Medicare. What the exchange made clear above all is how comfortable Biden is creating a contrast that Hubert Humphrey would recognize, with Democrats claiming their historical ground of protecting the social safety net.

Polling during the midterm election, and right through the days before last night’s speech, revealed that Biden has not yet convinced most Americans that his economic agenda will benefit them. Most Americans continue to express downbeat views about the economy, and in an ABC/Washington Post national survey released this week, more than three-fifths of Americans said Biden had accomplished not much or nothing at all.

After hosting a focus group of voters who watched last night’s speech, Bryan Bennett, the senior director of polling and analytics at the Hub Project, a Democratic polling consortium, told me in an email that although their reactions suggested that Biden “was successful in telling a positive story about how the economy has improved over the last two years … the issues of inflation and spending remain deep pain points that he and his administration will have to continue to work on.” Yesterday’s speech showed that Biden similarly believes (rightly or wrongly) that his fate will be decided more by voters’ assessment of his impact on their financial situation than by whether they share his values on the kind of cultural issues Sanders hammered.

The other thematic pillar of Biden’s presidency has been his promise to unify America and work across party lines. But Biden’s speech continued a recalibration of that message that began last fall.

In the midterm campaign, Biden differentiated between “mainstream” Republicans who were willing to reach bipartisan agreements and what he called the “extreme MAGA” forces that represented a radical threat to democracy and individual freedoms. In the State of the Union, he offered a variation on that theme. He began by congratulating the new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and stressed how during his first two years as president, “time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together” to pass big legislation, such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

But as the speech progressed, Biden pivoted from where he thought he could deal with Republicans to where he insisted he would resist them. Biden forcefully called on Republicans to pass a “clean” increase in the nation’s debt ceiling, without any conditions, and pledged to veto any effort to undo the provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that reduce drug prices, any legislation imposing a national ban on abortion, and any efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare. He touted his commitment to a wide array of priorities, including expanded preschool and an assault-weapons ban, that he knows have no chance of passing a Republican-controlled House.

All of that notably departed from the tone that his two Democratic predecessors struck in their first State of the Union immediately after losing unified control of Congress, as Biden also did this past fall. Both Bill Clinton, in his 1995 State of the Union speech, and Obama, in his 2011 address, were elaborately conciliatory, even contrite, as they addressed the new GOP majorities. Both men drew some lines of contrast, but mostly focused on issues they believed would appeal to Republicans, such as reducing the federal deficit and streamlining government. Although Biden similarly nodded toward more cooperation at the outset of his speech, overall he was much more confrontational.

That was partly because Biden had less to be contrite about: Democrats performed much better in last year’s midterm than they did when Obama and Clinton suffered their first-term reversals. Democrats lost more than 50 House seats in Clinton’s first midterm, and more than 60 in Obama’s, but they surrendered only 10 in Biden’s—and actually gained a Senate seat, in contrast to the substantial Senate losses under his two predecessors. After those losses, both Clinton and Obama felt enormous pressure to signal to voters that they were making a course correction toward the center; Biden last night betrayed no hint that he felt any need to change direction. As Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s White House communications director, recently told me, last November’s results were “quite different” from the “shellacking” that both Obama and Clinton had suffered. “This election cannot be read as a repudiation of Biden and his agenda,” Pfeiffer said.

Equally important, though, the gulf between the parties is even greater than it was under Clinton or Obama, which leaves very few realistic opportunities for Biden to pursue bipartisan agreements with the GOP-controlled House. That distance was vividly demonstrated by the repeated catcalls from Republicans—a display that obliterated any traditional notions of decorum during the State of the Union and underscored the zealotry of the conservative vanguard in the House GOP that McCarthy empowered in order to win the speakership.

Last night, Biden gave voters a spirited preview of his 2024 message and strategy. Sanders and the militant House Republicans simultaneously provided voters with a preview of the alternative they may hear next year. The most revealing measure of the night came not so much in the messages sent by either side, but in the distance between them.