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5 takeaways from President Biden's State of the Union address

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2024.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 7, 2024.

Updated March 8, 2024 at 12:07 PM ET

President Biden didn't waste any time in his prime-time State of the Union address drawing a sharp contrast with his likely 2024 presidential rival, former President Donald Trump.

Instead of a policy-heavy laundry list speech, the president leaned into politics, and at times, shouted and amped up Democrats with some fiery rhetoric.

Early in his speech he derided Trump, without mentioning his name, chastising those who failed to heed the threat from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Ukraine, and denouncing those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The atmosphere in the House chamber often seemed more like a political convention than the annual required speech assessing the state of the nation.

Here are five takeaways.

1. He took on Trump extensively on a wide range of policies

The president referred to policies or comments from "my predecessor" more than a dozen times, making it clear the high-stakes televised speech was his campaign roadmap for his rematch with Trump in November.

The president leaned into the issues that energize his base, like abortion and gun control and tax hikes on the wealthy. But he also attempted to challenge Republicans in the chamber, and Trump outside of it, on issues like the border and crime, areas where he faces skepticism from many independent and suburban voters.

The president, who is 81, had a bar to clear to alleviate concerns from some in his own party about his age and capacity to hold the demanding job as commander in chief for four more years.

He stuck mostly to his script, was energetic and appeared to fire up Democrats in the chamber, who occasionally chanted "Four more years!" and jumped to their feet cheering the president.

Biden also worked to flip the age issue against his opponent, who at one point he referred to as "some other people my age." Trump is 77.

2. Reproductive rights are front and center in 2024 campaign

With six justices of the U.S. Supreme Court sitting in the front rows, the president criticized the majority conservative court for overturning the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade in 2022. As he warned that "history is watching" how the U.S. handles alliances abroad, and supports Ukraine, he warned about "another assault on freedom."

Referring to Trump, Biden maintained that the former president was responsible for overturning the law and said, "In fact, he brags about it." He warned that Republicans in the Congress were pushing for a national abortion ban.

He ticked through how a host of red states have restricted access to reproductive health services — warning about the latest law in Alabama that effectively banned in vitro fertilization. He mentioned Kate Cox,a guest sitting with the first lady. Cox suffered a fatal fetal condition during her pregnancy but was unable to obtain an abortion in Texas and sued the state.

Biden warned that the GOP underestimated the power of women to mobilize, referencing past wins when reproductive freedom was on the ballot and predicting a win again in 2024.

He also promised to restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land — something he will need a Democratic House and Senate to achieve, which is not likely after the 2024 election, when Republicans are favored to flip control of the Senate.

The political symbolism of the power of women for Biden's campaign was also visibly on display in the chamber. Dozens of Democratic lawmakers donned white and sported buttons emblazoned with a slogan "fighting for reproductive freedom."

3. Biden made the case for why his economic policies are working

Congressional Democrats, especially those in swing seats, needed Biden to alleviate voters' concerns about his ability to do the job in this kickoff campaign speech. But they chiefly named the economy as the issue they wanted him to highlight.

He argued that the state of the country was far worse when Trump was in office, citing the pandemic that triggered job losses, millions of deaths and a "mental health crisis of isolation and loneliness."

He acknowledged what many Democrats concede, that some of the major bills that Democrats passed since 2021 aren't fully felt around the country.

"It doesn't make the news but in thousands of cities and towns, the American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told," he said.

Many Republicans in the chamber groaned and booed at Biden's description of Trump's record.

When Biden wasn't calling out Trump's record in the White House, he outlined his own. He pulled out statistics about real world projects that are funded through his top legislative accomplishments — a heath care and climate bill, which was passed without a single GOP vote, and the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Biden took credit for lowering prescription drugs, and capping the cost of insulin for seniors on Medicare to $35 a month. He vowed in a second term to extend that cap for all who need insulin.

Biden used a familiar populist line from the stump about shifting more cost savings to those on the lower-income side, at the expense of the top 1%.

Biden cited Trump's 2017 tax cuts as the prime example of a president who was skewed toward helping the rich.

He looked into the cameras to those watching at home and asked the political question designed to relate to most Americans, "For folks at home, does anybody really think the tax code is fair?"

4. Border security provoked a GOP response, and blame game

Going into the State of the Union, the president and his advisers knew he needed to detail how he would address the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border and acknowledge the impact it is having, not just in red border states, but in blue cities across the country, where migrants are being bused and straining public resources.

Public opinion polls consistently show it's his weakest issue politically, and Trump and Republicans on Capitol Hill have made it their top priority. Before the president's speech on Thursday, the House approved a bill dubbed the "Laken Riley Act," a reference to the 22-year-old Georgia nursing student who was murdered recently by a migrant who entered the U.S. illegally in 2022. The move was a deliberate attempt to force Democrats to go on the record on a measure that requires the detention of any migrant with a record of theft, and 37 Democrats — chiefly from swing districts — backed it.

Republicans wore buttons that included Riley's name, and some chanted her name when President Biden called for Congress to pass the bipartisan Senate border security bill, which White House officials helped broker over several months. The Senate approved the legislation with a significant bipartisan vote, but House Speaker Mike Johnson said it was "dead on arrival" and declined to take it up.

Biden again didn't mention Trump by name, but blamed him for derailing it, "I'm told my predecessor called Republicans in Congress and demanded they block the bill. He feels it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him."

Biden repeated a challenge he issued in a recent trip to the southwest border for Trump to join him to help pass the bill. He mentioned he was looking at executive authority for policies to reduce the number of migrants — something that has split Democrats on Capitol Hill — but he also said he needed Congress to change the law to fund more enforcement personnel.

The blame game over which party is more serious about the situation at the border is expected to be a leading theme through the fall. Although Democrats are split on the president's embrace of some conservative policies, like altering who can be eligible to claim asylum, the strategy of trying to flip the script and put Republicans on defense for blocking a bipartisan plan is one candidates in competitive races are expected to replicate.

5. Biden addressed critics on his Mideast policy, stepped up criticism of Israeli leaders

President Biden made Israel's now five-month-long war against Hamas in Gaza a significant part of his speech, and he acknowledged families of those still being held hostage by Hamas in the chamber's visitors galleries.

His handling of the war has angered many progressives, and younger voters, who argue that the president isn't tough enough on the Israeli government. The fallout from his approach has cost him politically, and Democrats are concerned it could prompt some voters to stay home in the fall.

In Michigan, a significant bloc of Democrats upset about the president's handling of Israel's war in Gaza, sent a message in the primary last week, with more than 100,000 registering a vote for the "uncommitted" option on the ballot, instead of for Biden. A number of Super Tuesday states had similar efforts.

In Thursday's address, the president announced the U.S. military will build a temporary emergency pier to facilitate the delivery of aid to civilians desperate for food and medicine. But, he declared, "No U.S. boots will be on the ground."

The president stressed that his administration is working on a cease-fire so that hostages can be released and more humanitarian assistance can be delivered. He stressed his personal record over decades as a strong supporter of Israel and his visit during the early part of the war. But he also said, "As we look to the future, the only real solution is a two-state solution."

There is increasing pressure for an immediate cease-fire to materialize, and Biden, who recently predicted a temporary pause would be coming in a matter of days, faces calls from progressives in Congress to cut off military aid to Israel and concentrate on humanitarian assistance.

Biden may have largely united his own party on the need to continue supporting Ukraine. But the deep fissures when it comes to his approach to Israel, as the death toll of civilians mounts in Gaza, has been a regular flashpoint already in campaign stops and shows no sign of fading.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 7, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Republicans are favored to flip control of the House. The GOP currently controls the House and could flip the Senate.
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.