Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

‘We’re Just Getting Started,’ Biden Says in State of the Union

President Joe Biden urged lawmakers to “finish the job” on a range of economic and social issues in his second State of the Union address.

President Joe Biden talks to members of Congress as he departs the House Chambers after delivering his State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
In his second State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night, President Joe Biden touted the achievements his administration has made over the last two years and exhorted lawmakers to “finish the job” on issues ranging from infrastructure investment to prescription drug prices and police reform.

In the speech, which ran nearly one-and-a-quarter hours and included sporadic heckles from congressional Republicans, Biden framed the economic agenda he’s pursued in the first two years of his tenure as a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America.”

“I ran for president to fundamentally change things, to make sure the economy works for everyone so we can all feel pride in what we do — to build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down,” Biden said.

The speech was delivered three months after a midterm election in which Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives, but Democrats firmly outperformed expectations, turning back a much-anticipated “red wave” of GOP victories. It also came as doubts about whether Biden would run for a second term — already the oldest president in history, if he wins he’d be sworn in for a second time at age 82 — have begun to give way to a broad expectation that he will.

While defending Democrats’ choice to pass certain bills along party lines, Biden emphasized bipartisan action on infrastructure, gun safety and the opioid crisis. In the first moments of his speech, he congratulated Republicans Kevin McCarthy, the newly elected Speaker of the House, and “longest serving Senate leader in history” Sen. Mitch McConnell, along with Democratic congressional leaders.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,” he said. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”

A New Phase for the Biden Administration

Polls put Biden in a relatively unpopular position compared to other second-year presidents, according to reports, with job approval ratings around 42 percent. But Biden said American cities and towns would begin seeing more concrete benefits of his administration’s work over the next few years. He highlighted projects like the Brent Spence Bridge between Ohio and Kentucky, an important freight corridor that recently received a $1.6 billion federal grant, with guests including Saria Gwin-Maye, a Cincinnati-based member of Ironworkers Local 44. Thanks to new infrastructure spending, he said, half a million new electric vehicle charging stations would be installed around the country by “tens of thousands of IBEW workers.” He encouraged Congress to pass the PRO Act, expanding collective-bargaining rights for workers, and called for higher taxes on wealthy individuals and big corporations.

“I’m a capitalist,” he said. “But just pay your fair share.”

Still, with Republicans newly in control of the House of Representatives and a looming presidential campaign, the Biden administration isn’t likely to have many opportunities for big legislative achievements with bipartisan support for the next few years. And his speech seemed to acknowledge the administration’s new defensive footing, with Biden promising to veto any attempts to cut Social Security or Medicare, raise the cost of prescription drugs or impose a national ban on abortions. Republicans have been gearing up for a fight in the last few months, signaling that they intend to force cuts to government programs in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.

Police Reform, Social Issues and Place-Based Investments 

Guests of the president on Tuesday night included RowVaughan and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old skateboarder and father who was killed after being beaten by five police officers in Memphis last month. In his speech, Biden acknowledged that Black and brown parents in America are forced to worry about their children’s interactions with police officers more than white parents. While touting executive orders he’d signed limiting chokeholds and no-knock warrants — aspects of a George Floyd Act that Congress has not passed — Biden implored lawmakers to “do something” about police violence in the U.S.

“What happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often,” he said. “We have to do better. Give law enforcement the training they need, hold them to higher standards and help them succeed in keeping everyone safe.”

Biden described American democracy as “bruised” but “unbroken” after many election deniers lost their campaigns during the midterm elections. He reasserted his support for abortion rights, asked lawmakers to pass new protections for transgender youth, and called for bipartisan support for immigration reform efforts, including providing more resources for border security.

He described an agenda of “investing in places and people that have been forgotten.” The bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 hold big promises for cities and states, but their impact will largely come down to how state and local leaders act in the coming months, as a team of researchers at Brookings recently wrote. In response to Biden’s speech, National League of Cities CEO Clarence E. Anthony said, “Local leaders have celebrated the historic investments made through the American Rescue Plan Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act. These bills include direct investments to communities and new programs to help cities, towns and villages rebuild and recover. President Biden’s speech made clear he understands the importance of this partnership and the need for continued work to strengthen local economies, rebuild our infrastructure, combat the climate crisis, build up our workforce, address growing mental health and substance abuse challenges and more.

Republican Response: Biden “Crazy” 

Republican members of Congress occasionally yelled impromptu responses at Biden during his speech. When he suggested that Republicans wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) shouted back, “Liar!”

Delivering the official GOP response, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders painted a picture of the Democratic Party as being obsessed with political correctness and wanting to exert too much control over American life. She said that Americans are “under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.” The primary division in the U.S. is no longer between left and right but between “normal and crazy,” she said. She touted her administration’s efforts to ban “critical race theory” and remove the gender-neutral term “Latinx” from state documents.

Biden ended his speech by focusing on what he calls a “unity agenda,” including efforts to reduce cancer deaths, protect veterans and end a crisis of veteran suicide, tackle widespread mental health challenges and address the opioid crisis. The U.S. is at an “inflection point,” he said, where the decisions leaders make now will have long-lasting consequences.

“We must be the nation we have always been at our best: Optimistic. Hopeful. Forward-looking,” he said “A nation that embraces, light over darkness, hope over fear, unity over division, stability over chaos.”

Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
From Our Partners