Five key takeaways from Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union

Biden addressed his legislative agenda for the coming year, including economic goals, China relations and police reform.

'Republican friends, we could work together,' Biden says [Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via AP Photo]

United States President Joe Biden has delivered the annual State of the Union address, the second of his presidency, outlining his policy goals and talking up achievements as he mulls running for a second term in office.

But the speech on Tuesday was his first delivered to a divided Congress, which heckled the president during the sometimes feisty speech.

Facing a Democrat-led Senate and a House of Representatives now under Republican control, the 80-year-old president touted his economic track record and victories in infrastructure spending, clean energy and prescription drug pricing.

With State of the Union speeches attracting tens of millions of viewers each year, this year’s address is likely the biggest platform Biden has before potentially hitting the campaign trail ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Here are the five biggest takeaways from this year’s speech.

Warning China against threatening US sovereignty

An alleged Chinese spy balloon flying over the US had dominated headlines in the week before Biden’s speech, as relations between the two countries remain tense.

Biden on Tuesday warned China against threatening the US while reiterating the position that Washington is not seeking confrontation with Beijing.

“As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country — and we did,” he said, referring to the shooting down of the balloon.

Biden has pressed on with his predecessor Donald Trump’s strategy of prioritising competition with China in US foreign policy.

“Let’s be clear: winning the competition should unite all of us,” Biden said.

A call for cooperation with Republican ‘friends’

The US president called on Republicans to work with him, decrying “fighting for the sake of fighting”.

“Republican friends, we could work together,” he said.

“We’re often told that Democrats or Republicans can’t work together. But over the past two years, we proved the cynics and naysayers wrong,” he said, pointing to laws passed with bipartisan support, including the Respect for Marriage Act.

But Biden also took the opportunity to press Republicans, calling for cooperation as negotiations over increasing the debt ceiling continue to stall.

“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage. I get it. Unless I agree to their economic plans,” Biden said to boos in the chamber. He later added: “I’m not saying it’s a majority of you. But it’s being proposed by individuals. I’m politely not naming them.”

Under Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the House majority appears unlikely to advance many of the priorities put forward in Biden’s speech, including police reform and a “billionaire minimum tax”.

President Biden hands a copy of his speech to House Speaker McCarthy on February 7 [Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters]

Centring economic record and infrastructure gains

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the US economy — hampered by inflation — was largely seen as an Achilles heel for Democrats.

But Biden’s Democratic Party succeeded in muting a widely anticipated Republican “red wave“.

On Tuesday, the US president made his economic record one of the focal points — if not the central message — of his speech, hailing low unemployment rates, infrastructure investments and what he described as a comeback of American manufacturing.

Biden said, after years of bleeding factory jobs overseas, the US is on track to reverse trends in manufacturing.

“Where’s it written that America can’t lead the world in manufacturing? I don’t know where that’s written. For too many decades, we imported products and exported jobs,” he told legislators.

“Now, thanks to what you’ve all done, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs.”

He also hailed a 2021 bipartisan law that secured $1.2 trillion to revitalise the country’s infrastructure.

“We’ve sunk to 13th in the world — the United States of America, 13th in the world — for infrastructure, modern infrastructure,” Biden said.

“But now we’re coming back because we came together and passed a bipartisan infrastructure law, the largest investment infrastructure since President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system.”

Pressing corporations to pay their ‘fair share’

Presenting an ambitious policy goal of revamping the US economy and combating the climate crisis, Biden said his agenda would be funded by “finally making the wealthiest and the biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share” in taxes.

“I’m a capitalist, but pay your fair share,” Biden said. “I think a lot of you at home agree with me … the tax system is not fair.”

He went on to highlight efforts by his administration to crack down on hidden costs charged to consumers by major companies, known as junk fees.

“Big corporations aren’t just taking advantage of the tax code. They’re taking advantage of you, the American consumer,” Biden said, adding: “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It is exploitation.”

Biden also called for capping the price of insulin at $35 for all Americans, after a law came into effect that limited the cost for seniors on Medicare, a healthcare programme mostly for elderly Americans.

“Let’s finish the job this time. Let’s cap the cost … for everybody at $35. Big Pharma is still going to do very well, I promise you,” he said.

Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, the stepfather and mother of Tyre Nichols,
Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, the stepfather and mother of Tyre Nichols, attended the State of the Union on Tuesday [Leah Millis/Reuters]

Urging police accountability and an assault weapons ban

Saluting the parents of Tyre Nichols — a Black man who died after being beaten by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee — Biden called for reforms in policing.

“We have to do better,” Biden said. “Give law enforcement the real training they need, hold them to higher standards, help them succeed in keeping us safe.”

The president said what happened to Nichols “happens too often”.

“When police officers or police departments violate the public trust, they must be held accountable,” Biden said.

“We all want the same thing: neighbourhoods free of violence. Law enforcement who earns the community’s trust.”

His comments came amid Republican criticism that Democrats are “soft on crime” as they pursue criminal justice reform.

But on Tuesday, Biden struck a balance between acknowledging the difficulties faced by law enforcement officers and the need to reduce police violence. He also called for greater community resources to be provided.

“We also need more first responders and professionals to address the growing mental health and substance abuse challenges; more resources to reduce violent crime and gun crime; for community intervention programmes; more investments for housing, education and job training,” he said.

He also came down forcefully against the use of semiautomatic “assault weapons”, calling for a 1994 ban to be revived to address the ongoing spate of mass shootings in the US.

“Ban assault weapons now,” Biden said emphatically. “Ban them now, once and for all.”

Source: Al Jazeera