Update: 9:25 p.m. with the speech ended.
Update: 9:25 p.m. with the speech ended.
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to tout a robust economic comeback from the pandemic, and to affirm that democracy “remains unbowed and unbroken” two years after a mob stormed the Capitol trying to overturn his election.
“Soon we’ll end the public health emergency,” he declared, bringing most everyone in the House chamber to their feet. But the ovation was entirely one-sided at the reference to the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, with silence on the Republican side.
At one point during a 70-minute speech laced with appeals to bipartisanship, GOP lawmakers shouted “Liar!” as Biden accused some among them of threatening to cut Social Security benefits and of holding Medicare and other programs hostage in a looming fight over the federal debt.
Irving Rep. Beth Van Duyne was among the Republicans loudly venting their disagreement.
When Biden turned to immigration, they showered him with shouts of “Secure the border!”
Unemployment hasn’t been this low since America landed the first man on the moon. Yet most Americans disapprove of Biden’s job performance and two-thirds say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back,” he said, trying to reset the narrative. “The story of America is a story of progress and resilience.”
Partisan mistrust, a border crisis, a fresh spate of gun violence, simmering inflation and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine hung over the prime-time address, and the president had his work cut out for him in turning public opinion.
Biden entered the House chamber shortly after 8 p.m. Dallas time. Freshman Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas Democrat, scored a selfie with him as he made his way to the rostrum.
The affection from that side was a sharp contrast to the stone faces and catcalls across the aisle that would erupt over the course of the evening.
“No it’s not! No it’s not!” shouted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., when Biden boasted that the United States is “in the strongest position in decades to compete with China.”
When he lamented deaths from fentanyl, several Republicans called out “Close the border!”
One shouted “It’s your fault!”
Late in the speech, Biden challenged Republicans to shun election deniers and, implicitly, to distance themselves from Donald Trump. That did not go over well, either.
“For the last few years our democracy has been threatened, attacked, and put at risk. Put to the test here, in this very room, on January 6th,” he said.
He drew attention to a front-row guest in the first lady’s box: Paul Pelosi, husband of the former speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who months earlier had been brutally attacked by a man “unhinged by the Big Lie.”
In America, Biden said, “There is no place for political violence. ... We honor the results of our elections, not subvert the will of the people. ... Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It must be an American issue. ... We are not bystanders to history. We are not powerless before the forces that confront us.”
Much has changed since Biden’s last address to Congress, including control of the House.
In June, the Supreme Court ended a half-century of protection for abortion rights, though by then state laws had already severely curtailed access in Texas.
Backlash to the Dobbs ruling helped Democrats limit their losses in the midterms. Republicans emerged with a meager 5-seat House majority — far below the 20- to 30-seat edge they expected.
Abortion rights advocates have demanded more forceful leadership from Biden on the issue. He did not come through Tuesday night with a full-throated defense of abortion rights.
“Congress must restore the right the Supreme Court took away last year and codify Roe v. Wade,” he said. Noting the momentum on the other side, he added, “Make no mistake: If Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it.”
To highlight Biden’s views, the White House invited an Austin woman who nearly died when doctors refused to perform an abortion to watch the address from the first lady’s box.
Amanda Zurawski’s water broke when she was just 18 weeks pregnant, dooming the pregnancy. Doctors sent her home, fearing they would run afoul of Texas’ abortion ban. The story drew attention last fall from People magazine, the Today Show and international media.
Chief Justice John Roberts attended the address with two of the court’s liberals, Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson, and two other conservatives, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Retired justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer also attended, also in black robes.
Hoots and cheers greeted their arrival, from both sides of the aisle — Republicans likely for the Dobbs ruling, Democrats likely for Jackson, the first Black woman on the court.
Biden pleaded with Republicans to work with him on immigration.
“We now have a record number of personnel working to secure the border, arresting 8,000 human smugglers and seizing over 23,000 pounds of fentanyl in just the last several months,” he said.
“But America’s border problems won’t be fixed until Congress acts. If you won’t pass my comprehensive immigration reform, at least pass my plan to provide the equipment and officers to secure the border. And a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, those on temporary status, farm workers and essential workers.”
He also called on Congress a year ago to provide a path to citizenship for “Dreamers,” the immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. Prospects are even dimmer now that Democrats lost the House. And that’s the low-hanging fruit on the wish lists of immigrant advocates — including business groups that want a more orderly guest-worker program.
“It’s going to be a massive challenge. It’s a much more contentious Congress, one that is less willing to engage on bipartisan issues,” said Danilo Zak, assistant vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum.
A month ago, Biden visited El Paso and ordered asylum-seekers turned away unless they apply before leaving home. Since then, he told Congress, “unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has come down 97%.”
Republicans remain unpersuaded. They say Biden’s “open border” policies have led to huge spikes in drug smuggling and unlawful migration.
They mock Vice President Kamala Harris, seated over Biden’s shoulder, as a “border czar” who has largely ignored the border, though her actual assignment was to work with Central American nations on root causes of mass migration.
“We’re at a stage where if a certain group of people believe that millions of illegal immigrants are pouring over the borders, taking our jobs and increasing crime rates in our communities, there is no amount of objective evidence to the contrary that will change their opinion,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Fifty-six House Republicans have signed onto at least one of two impeachment resolutions seeking to remove Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who sat in the front row with other cabinet members. That includes 15 of 28 Texas Republicans, including Dallas-area Reps. Keith Self of McKinney, Van Duyne, Lance Gooden of Terrell and Jake Ellzey of Midlothian.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who last week appointed a state “border czar,” has sent busloads of migrants to the gates of Harris’ official residence since last spring to pressure the administration.
Ahead of the speech, a coalition of 117 gun safety groups demanded a “higher level of leadership” from Biden on gun violence.
They pressed him to declare gun violence a national emergency, name a federal gun violence prevention czar, pry $5 billion from Congress for local intervention programs, and deliver executive orders cracking down on marketing to minors and on foreign-made assault-style firearms.
Democrats highlighted the issue by bringing guests who’d lost a loved one to gun violence.
The father of 10-year-old Uziya Garcia, one of the 19 children murdered at an Uvalde elementary school last May, was invited by freshman Rep. Greg Casar of Austin, though he ended up unable to attend.
“Do something. That was the … plea of parents who lost their children in Uvalde: Do something on gun violence. Thank God we did, passing the most sweeping gun safety law in three decades,” Biden said.
He emphasized the common ground on enhanced background checks for gun buyers aged 18 to 21, and red flag laws to keep guns away from people deemed dangerous or suicidal.
He prompted an ovation for Brandon Tsay, a 26-year-old who managed to stop a gunman who killed 11 people at a nightclub near Los Angeles — one of three mass shootings to afflict California during an especially bloody two-day span last month.
“He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well. Ban assault weapons once and for all,” Biden told lawmakers and viewers. “Let’s finish the job.”
Biden arrived on Capitol Hill with much to celebrate — though the White House hasn’t managed to sell that message effectively.
The economy has added 12 million new jobs since he took office, more in two years than any president has seen in a full term, though of course the baseline was at the depths of the COVID-19 slump.
Employers added 517,000 jobs in January alone, pushing unemployment to a 53-year low.
“Two years ago our economy was reeling. ... COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools and robbed us of so much,” Biden said. “COVID no longer controls our lives.”
But uncertainty hovers over the economy.
High interest rates squeeze home buyers. Inflation has eased but perceptions haven’t caught up, thanks to in-your-face indicators like $5 cartons of eggs.
Just 9% of Americans surveyed in the past week by CBS News rated the national economy “very good.” Nearly two-thirds rated it fairly bad or very bad.
Just as many disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy and inflation.
In some ways, the GOP feistiness reinforced his themes.
“Democrats can look like the adults in the room,” said Jennifer Lawless, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center, at a pre-speech panel. “He’s … touting the importance of bipartisanship and basically letting the American people know that if additional accomplishments are not seen, it’s because the Republicans served as obstructionists, not because he wasn’t willing to extend an olive branch.”