Takeaways from Biden's State of the Union address: Combative attacks on a foe with no name

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Thursday March 7, 2024, in Washington.
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Thursday March 7, 2024, in Washington.AP Photo

WASHINGTON — The State of the Union address is one of the durable set pieces of the presidency, a forum that almost always favors the speaker in a one-way conversation with millions of Americans.

Most of the speeches are instantly dissected, and almost as quickly forgotten. But this is a most unusual year, with President Joe Biden needing to make the case not simply that his policies warrant a a second term, but that he has the personal capacity at age 81 to do the job.

He laid out the clear contours of the campaign ahead, criticizing former President Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection and going after the Supreme Court, with justices present, over its ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Also, the shrinking size of a Snickers bar.

Here are some key takeaways from the speech.


Biden opened the speech with fiery denunciations of the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, then singled out Republicans in the chamber and GOP foe Trump. But he refused to utter Trump's name, saying that “my predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6.”

He wrapped that into a larger theme that democracy is threatened like no time since the Civil War, signaling a clear line of attack he will use against the man he would not name.

He also criticized “my predecessor” for Trump's assertion that Russian President Vladimir Putin can “do whatever the hell he wants” with respect to NATO allies, and he implored Congress to pass additional aid for Ukraine.

Speaking with a vigor that his supporters have said has been lacking, he set up a contrast between his internationalist view of the world and the more isolationist leaning of his “predecessor.”

Biden used almost the entirety of the speech to find ways to try to persuade Americans of the contrast.


When asked about his age and how it affects is ability to be president, Biden’s stock answer is: Watch me.

On Thursday night, he delivered what a lot of his own supporters had found wanting. It was a high energy, forceful speech, and at times he taunted Republicans with ad-libs. When they heckled his support for bipartisan border security legislation, Biden said, “Look at the facts, I know you know how to read.”

Biden stumbled over a few words, and in the Republican response, Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama called him “dithering and diminished” but it was a more vigorous performance than other speeches where his remarks can be meandering or hard to hear. It was also a rejoinder to criticisms that Biden is too old to keep serving as president. He would be 86 at the end of a second term, and Republicans — though Trump is only four years younger — have relished slicing and dicing videos of the president to make him look as feeble as possible on social media.

Biden leaned into his age, mentioning he was born during World War II, but defended his vision for the country as fresh. “You can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back.”


The president said efforts to restrict abortion were an “assault on freedom,” and he derided the Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, with members of the Supreme Court who were in the majority in that decision, seated just feet away.

He also welcomed Kate Cox, a Dallas mother whose fetus had a fatal condition that put her own health at risk. She had to leave the state in order to get an abortion. “My God,” Biden said, “what freedoms will you take away next?”

Through much of his career, Biden has not emphasized abortion rights. In his speech, he showed how much he believes that issue could be a key to a second term.


Back to “my predecessor.” Biden playfully said that the Obama-era health care law is still a “big deal,” paying homage to the moment as vice president he used more colorful language to describe the landmark policy win for President Barack Obama. And he vowed to work to make a tax credit tied to the law permanent.

“Over 100 million of you can no longer be denied health insurance because of a pre-existing condition,” Biden said. “Well, my predecessor, many in this chamber, want to take the prescription drug benefit away by repealing the Affordable Care Act. I’m not going let that happen.”

Biden appeared to slip in a riff about pharmaceutical companies selling their drugs at a cheaper prices around the globe, telling the audience that he’d like to take them on Air Force One to several major global cities including Moscow to see how much they would save on the same drugs.

Biden quickly caught himself, saying it was “probably” the case even in Russia, and pressed ahead. “Bring your prescription with you. And I promise you I’ll get it for you for 40%. The cost you pay now.”


The bloody conflict between Israel and Hamas was an unavoidable backdrop to Biden’s speech. His motorcade took a different route to the U.S. Capitol after protesters blocked part of Pennsylvania Avenue. Inside the House chamber, some lawmakers wore keffiyehs, the black and white checkered scarves that have symbolized solidarity with Palestinians.

Biden announced plans for the U.S. military to help establish a temporary pier on the coast of Gaza, an effort that the administration says should significantly boost the flow of aid into the besieged territory.

The unveiling of the plan was perhaps the most substantive element of his address that touched on the war. It allowed Biden to demonstrate that he’s taking action in the face of anger and defiance from some Democrats over his strong support for Israel even as the Palestinian death toll mounts. It also comes after Biden last week approved the U.S. military airdropping aid into Gaza.

The temporary pier, Biden said,” will enable a massive increase in humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza.”

But at the same time he called on the Israelis to do more to alleviate the suffering even as they try to eliminate Hamas. “To Israel, I say this humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” Biden said.


Biden outlined an economic vision that went big and small. He touted a post-pandemic economic recovery that didn’t sacrifice job creation in order to tame inflation. With housing prices still high, he proposed a tax credit that would reduce mortgage costs.

He also hammered Republicans for tax policies that favor the wealthy. “Check the numbers. Folks at home, does anybody really think the tax code is fair?”

Biden said there should be a minimum tax rate of 25% on billionaires, saying “no billionaire should pay a lower federal tax rate than a teacher, a sanitation worker or a nurse.”

The president talked about cracking down on junk fees that can chip away at Americans’ budgets and he criticized snack companies for “shrinkflation,” which means getting less product for the same price.

“You get charged the same amount and you got about 10% fewer Snickers in it.”


When Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, the State of the Union address was appointment television for tens of millions of Americans who watched on three major networks.

Now it is so much more than a television event. The traditional ways of measuring viewers has shown a steady decline. Biden’s address last year drew the second smallest audience for the annual event in at least 30 years, according to the Nielsen company.

The audience is so fragmented that Biden's campaign was prepared with targeted segments to pump out to specific audiences on social media. Guests whose stories were highlighted in the speech will make the rounds on local television markets to talk about the real-life impact of Biden’s policies. And look for Biden and his surrogates to find creative ways to get bits of his message to Americans that didn’t tune in on Thursday evening.

Hours before delivering the address, Biden posted on his X account a video of him getting advice on delivering the big speech from actors, including Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Geena Davis, who have played president in the movies and TV. (AP)


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