Biden makes case for re-election at State of the Union as Trump presidential rematch comes into focus



WASHINGTON — The message that Joe Biden most needed to deliver Thursday night wasn’t so much that the American union is strong but that the American president is fit.

It’s not the highest bar, but it’s one that he cleared.

Amid polls showing that most of the country believes he is too old to serve another four-year term, Biden stood for 68 minutes in the House chamber and gave a speech that was both energetic and crisp. He then set a modern presidential record for the time spent shaking hands and giving hugs in the chamber afterward.

Biden spoke with fluency about the stakes in the presidential race, never mentioning former President Donald Trump by name but making more than a dozen references to his “predecessor.” The first came just three minutes into the speech, when Biden skewered Trump for inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to attack NATO allies who don’t contribute enough money to the alliance.

Drawing a distinction, Biden said: “My message to President Putin is simple. We will not walk away. We will not bow down. I will not bow down.”

Biden flubbed a few prepared lines and stumbled a bit during ad-libs — notably when he said drug prices in Moscow are lower than in the U.S. — but he belied the GOP caricature of him as an enfeebled old man who needs to retire.

“No one’s going to talk about cognitive memory now,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., told the president after he finished the speech and made his way out of the House chamber.

That was, of course, the idea when Biden’s speechwriters worked on the draft. The prepared text included 80 exclamation points — cuing Biden to when he needed to raise his voice and project strength. By contrast, there were no exclamation points in last year’s text.

It’s too soon to tell whether Biden’s address will make an enduring impression on voters who may have been watching. The Biden campaign is likely to repurpose snippets of the speech in which he was his most eloquent, while Republicans may showcase instances when he tripped over a word.

What didn’t happen Thursday night, though, may be the biggest takeaway. Biden, 81, didn’t stumble as he walked through the chamber — as some of his allies feared might happen. Nor did he freeze as he read the teleprompter or get rattled when Republicans jeered him. Indeed, at times he seemed to goad Republicans into unscripted back-and-forth.

Urging Congress to revive a border security bill that House Republicans scuttled, Biden gazed out at Republican members and said: “You’re saying no. Look at the facts. I know you know how to read.”

Heckling can test a president’s wits and alacrity in its own way. Aides were thrilled last year as Biden turned Republican derision to his advantage. When Republicans hooted that they didn’t intend to cut Social Security and Medicare, as Biden had claimed, he ad-libbed that the boos must mean they, too, wanted to protect the entitlement programs.

Biden’s challenge Thursday night was to “convince people that he’s got the strength, energy, vigor and focus to be an effective president,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in an interview in the hours before the speech.

Gone is the era when a State of the Union speech served as a unifying national event. Over the years it has devolved into a televised drama in which the president and the opposing party, arrayed before him on the House floor, grasp for ways to gain ground at each other’s expense.

Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter in Bill Clinton’s White House, said in an interview, “Part of the game really is to make sure that you’re writing some lines and sections that are forcing the other party, against its better instincts, to stand and applaud — or to force them to remain seated while the rest of you applaud apple pie and the American flag.”

The night had a partisan feel from the first. Biden looked taken aback when he entered the chamber and made eye contact with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wearing a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat. (House rules prohibit wearing caps in the chamber.)

At the lectern, he suggested he was on the side of democratic freedoms while Trump was among those who wanted to “bury the truth” about the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters nearly prevented the peaceful transfer of power.

After he said his core values include “honesty, decency, dignity and equality,” Biden added: “Now, some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge and retribution. That’s not me.” In one breath, he sought to neutralize questions about his age while painting Trump as a menace to a functioning democracy.

The speech came later in the year than usual, and it came close to being pushed back even more.

House Republican leaders were prepared to move the date of the speech in case Congress failed to reach a budget deal, forcing a partial government shutdown, a House GOP leadership aide said.

GOP leaders didn’t want to give Biden a chance to berate them about a shutdown as millions of Americans watched from home, the aide said. It turned out that Congress reached a budget deal averting a shutdown, so the date wasn’t changed.

“We were thinking about moving the speech because you don’t want to give him [Biden] something to beat up on us for an hour,” the House aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

With the campaign now fully engaged, the White House sought to wring maximum advantage from the speech. Aides stocked the gallery with people symbolizing the key components of the Democratic coalition. Guests invited to sit with first lady Jill Biden included Kate Cox of Texas, who needed to leave the state to get a doctor-recommended abortion after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade; Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers labor union; and Bettie Mae Fikes, a civil rights advocate who was part of the Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

Biden made sure to name-check them during the address.

Whether those sorts of gestures are remembered in the fall is by no means certain. Terry Szuplat, a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama, pointed to the irony of State of the Union addresses. For all the work that goes into them, they’re often quickly forgotten.

“It’s the greatest platform a president has, and it often becomes the least memorable speeches of his presidency,” he said.



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