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5 takeaways from Biden's State of the Union address

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of Calif., listen as President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.
Alex Brandon
Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy of Calif., listen as President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.

President Biden delivered a State of the Union address Tuesday night that Democrats will likely be thrilled with.

He struck notes of his traditional unity message, pledging to work with the new Republican House leadership and touting his legislative accomplishments in the past year, but Biden also laid out an Average Joe America vision for 2024 full of poll-tested, middle-of-the-road issues, as well as a healthy dose of left-wing populism.

And he showed a clear contrast between himself and right-wing House Republicans, who couldn't help themselves, hectoring Biden repeatedly despite newly minted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy explicitly instructing them beforehand not to do so.

It's hard to be both confrontational and paint yourself as reasonable, but for many in the middle and center-left, Biden likely walked that line well.

The president didn't call for a whole lot of new policy initiatives from the new Congress — beyond, for example, ending what he called "junk fees" in travel, entertainment and credit cards. It showed he's gearing up for campaign mode — to "finish the job," as he said some 12 times in the speech — and that he's likely going to campaign on what he's already done by drawing a big-picture distinction between his vision for America and Republicans'.

Here are five takeaways from Biden's speech:

1. The speech had to make Democrats more comfortable with the idea of Biden as the standard-bearer again in 2024

Lots of surveys show Democrats would prefer someone else to run in 2024 instead of Biden, mostly because of his age — though no one can definitively point to who the alternative should be.

Biden is 80 years old and would be the oldest president to run for reelection. And he has suffered from a lack of intensity with rank-and-file Democrats, but he showed in this speech he can ably make and prosecute the case — not just for reelection, but also for Democratic values.

2. Biden tried to bait the right, and it worked

Some of what is likely to make Democrats comfortable is the pluck he showed — the willingness and ability to spar with Republicans and depict them not as normal, but extreme.

The best example of this was on Medicare and Social Security. He deftly riled up House Republicans, accusing some of wanting to cut the popular entitlements. He was careful in that section to note that "some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years."

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks after President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.
Patrick Semansky / AP
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy speaks.

That was something Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the former National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, opened the door to with his "Rescue America Plan." Democrats have run with it, even though McCarthy has said cuts to Medicare and Social Security are "off the table." Biden's accusation enraged House Republicans, who saw the charge as false and too far.

"I'm glad to see it," Biden said of the apparent agreement not to cut the programs. "I enjoy conversion."

The exchange took the lid off any comity that existed earlier in the evening. From then on, Republicans shouted and heckled — with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene accusing Biden of being a "liar" and others yelling out, "It's your fault!" when Biden decried fentanyl deaths.

McCarthy, who took 15 rounds to win his speakership because of far-right rejection and his small majority, could clearly be seen shushing his conference at least three times. It's precisely the look Biden and Democrats wanted to put on display for what will likely be the largest TV audience the president will speak to this year ahead of his expected 2024 reelection announcement.

3. Populism and nationalism are in

David vs. Goliath. The Miracle On Ice. Hoosiers. The New York Mets in general.

Americans love an underdog story, especially when mixed with a dose of nationalism. That's especially true today with right- and left-wing populism clearly the hot ticket in politics. Both Biden and former President Donald Trump have populism at their core — the little guy vs. the people in power. They're modern-day Howard Beales, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

"My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten," Biden said with a line that easily could have been said by Trump.

But, of course, Biden and Trump come at their populism from very different perspectives and with very different ends.

Biden went after corporate stock buybacks, oil and gas company profits, Big Pharma, "wealthy tax cheats" and billionaires (hello, Sen. Bernie Sanders).

"No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter," the president said.

It was a heavy dose of left-wing populism with policies that are actually quite popular. He even made news, saying that he is going to "require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America."

4. There wasn't much about China — or Ukraine, for that matter

The "Made in America" slogan is aimed squarely at one particular balloon-floating country — China.

"I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong," Biden said. "Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China's government is intent on dominating."

But there wasn't much beyond about 200 words of the more than 7,000-word speech devoted to what's become inarguably one of America's top geopolitical threats.

On Ukraine, Biden noted the presence of Ukraine's ambassador and touted what the U.S. has done for the country over the past year of its war with Russia.

"We will stand with you as long as it takes," he vowed.

But beyond that, there wasn't much on either country. That clearly shows Biden's reelection campaign is going to be focused on domestic, bread-and-butter issues.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, R-Ark., speaks while delivering the Republican response to President Biden's State of the Union address, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark.
Al Drago / AP
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivers the Republican response to the State of the Union address.

5. Biden got both parties to stand on police reform — and continued to walk a tightrope on police and criminal justice

It's a tough line to walk, but it's one Biden has continuously tried to. Republicans — like Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who delivered the GOP response — accuse Biden of being taken over by a "woke mob."

"After years of Democrat attacks on law enforcement and calls to 'Defund the Police,' violent criminals roam free, while law-abiding families live in fear," she said.

But Biden frames things very differently.

"It's up to us," Biden said while talking about the case of Tyre Nichols, who was beaten during a traffic stop by Memphis police and later died. Nichols' parents were guests of Biden's. Nichols' mother could at times be seen admonishing GOP members to stand at times.

"It's up to all of us," Biden continued. "We all want the same thing — neighborhoods free of violence, law enforcement who earn the community's trust, our children to come home safely, equal protection under the law. That's the covenant we have with each other in America. And we know police officers put their lives on the line every day, and we ask them to do too much."

Biden actually received bipartisan standing applause, and the way he talked about it was a stark distinction from Republicans' caricature of Biden as beholden to the extreme left.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.