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Biden touts economic progress and spars with Republicans in contentious State of the Union address

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden touted his economic accomplishments and offered a scolding for Republicans — previewing the case he’ll make for re-election — in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday.

Confronting a divided Congress for the first time since taking office, Biden talked back as Republicans heckled him from the floor of the House of Representatives they now control.

A series of tense exchanges during the traditionally decorous event highlights the partisan rancor Biden will need to overcome to accomplish anything with the new Congress — including just raising the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default on U.S. debt.

He pointed to the economic progress made during his presidency and said he would not let Republicans “take the economy hostage” over the debt ceiling,

“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back. Because of the choices we made in the last two years,” he said.

Still, the president faced choruses of “boos” and scattered shouts of insults like “liar” — and worse — on a range of issues.

The outbursts appeared to come mainly from the handful of usual suspect Republicans, who are known for pulling stunts and provoking leaders of both parties.

But the president, too, was unusually combative at times, and especially folksy at others, laying the groundwork for his all-but-announced 2024 re-election campaign.

One particularly tense exchange occurred when Biden accused Republicans of wanting to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare as part of ongoing negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.

GOP lawmakers appeared aghast at the accusation, expressing theatrical levels of shock and outrage while others jeered and booed.

“Anybody who doubts it, contact my office, I’ll give you a copy of the proposal,” Biden said, clearly taken aback.

The president regained control of the situation by saying, somewhat facetiously, that the outcry showed both parties want to keep the entitlement programs out of debt ceiling talks.

“As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” Biden said. “Alright, we’ve got unanimity.”

But some threshold had been crossed and the taunts continued throughout Biden’s speech when he addressed issues like immigration and the opioid crisis, with one Republican appearing to yell that it was Biden’s fault.

It was a radically different tone than how Biden began his speech — by congratulating the Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy on his election with some friendly ribbing.

“Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden joked to McCarthy. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere.”

That comity quickly crumbled as Biden waded deeper into his speech.

With his re-election campaign just over the horizon, the president called out Republicans, slammed “the big lie” that former President Donald Trump perpetuated about his failed 2020 presidential campaign, and ad-libbed saucy comebacks to their jeers.

“Now, some members here are threatening…to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act. That’s OK. That’s fair,” Biden said before straying beyond his prepared remarks. “As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year!”

Facing widespread concerns about his age and health, the 80-year-old president spoke energetically and at a rapid clip before slowing down and adopting a more intimate tone.

He leaned into the microphone as he alternated between making eye contact with lawmakers in the room and speaking directly to the camera — and viewers at home — while occasionally making some of his now-familiar verbal flubs.

With Republicans now in control of the House, Biden has little hope of advancing any major legislation.

But the president — who predicted during his campaign that Republicans would have an “epiphany” after former President Donald Trump left office — said the two parties can still find places to work together to get things done.

That includes in areas like counting China — though many Republicans are unhappy with how he handled the Chinese spy balloon — promoting U.S. manufacturing, and regulating powerful technology companies.

“America used to make nearly 40% of the world’s chips. But in the last few decades, we lost our edge,” Biden said of computer chips. “We came together to pass the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America.”

Biden promoted federal money that Washington is pumping into congressional districts across the country to support new infrastructure projects.

He called particular attention to how the major spending packages he signed into law is helping communities in rural and economically struggling communities, arguing Democrats are the ones doing the most to help blue-collar workers. 

“Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away,” Biden said. “This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”

The State of the Union is one of the highest-profile events any president will do all year.

It’s a key opportunity for Biden to speak directly to American voters before formally announcing his re-election campaign, which is expected to come this spring. 

Drawing on themes that helped Biden win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and then the general election, the White House said the president said America emerging stronger than ever from the twin crises that marked his inauguration two years ago — the pandemic and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That is what we are doing again,” Biden said. “Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools, and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”

Americans ranked “dealing with the coronavirus” last out of more than 20 issues asked about in a recent Pew survey, which found that economic concerns were far more prevalent. 

And while you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day. Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.

The speech is likely to draw smaller audiences than Biden’s earlier addresses to Congress or those of his predecessors, but the president and his team have spent days preparing, including over the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.

Republicans, too, Republicans were prepared too, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders giving the GOP’s official response from Little Rock, Ark., where the former Trump spokesperson recently won the governorship.

While Biden spent little time on so-called culture war issues during his speech, Huckabee Sanders focused on them.

“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said. “Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols … all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech.”

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