WASHINGTON (AP) - President Joe Biden exhorted Congress Tuesday night to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation as he delivered a State of the Union address aimed at reassuring a country beset by pessimism and fraught political divisions.
In his 73-minute speech, Biden sought to portray a nation dramatically improved from the one he took charge of two years ago: from a reeling economy to one prosperous with new jobs; from a crippled, pandemic-weary nation to one that has now reopened, and a democracy that has survived its biggest test since the Civil War.
“The story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never giving up. A story that is unique among all nations,” Biden said. “We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That is what we are doing again.”
“We're not finished yet by any stretch of the imagination,” he declared.
The backdrop for the annual address was markedly different from the previous two years, with a Republican speaker now sitting expressionless behind Biden and newly empowered GOP lawmakers in the chamber sometimes shouting criticism of him and his administration.
Biden sought to reassure the nation that his stewardship has delivered results both at home and abroad, as he also set out to prove his fitness for a likely reelection bid.
But the challenges for Biden are many: economic uncertainty, a wearying war in Ukraine, growing tensions with China and more. Signs of past trauma at the Capitol, most notably the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection, were unavoidable: A large fence encircled the complex, and lawmakers and those in attendance faced tighter-than-usual security.
From the start, the partisan divisions were clear. Democrats - including Vice President Kamala Harris - jumped to applause as Biden began his speech. New Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, though he had greeted the president warmly when he entered the chamber, stayed in his seat.
Rather than rolling out flashy policy proposals, the president set out to offer a reassuring assessment of the nation's condition, declaring that two years after the Capitol attack, America's democracy was “unbowed and unbroken.”
He highlighted record job creation during his tenure as the country has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden also pointed to areas of bipartisan progress in his first two years in office, including on states' vital infrastructure and high tech manufacturing. And he said, “There is no reason we can't work together in this new Congress.”
“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,” Biden said. “And that's always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America - the middle class - to unite the country.”
“We've been sent here to finish the job!”
The president took to the House rostrum at a time when just a quarter of U.S. adults say things in the country are headed in the right direction, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About three-quarters say things are on the wrong track. And a majority of Democrats don't want Biden to seek another term.
He sought to confront those sentiments head-on.
“You wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away, I get it,” Biden said. “That's why we're building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years.”
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as former President Donald Trump's press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Biden's speech.
She focused much of her remarks on social issues, including race in business and education and alleged big-tech censorship of conservatives.
“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. “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 choice is between normal and crazy,” she added.
With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and legislators from both parties invited guests designed to drive home political messages with their presence in the House chamber. The mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, were among those seated with first lady Jill Biden. Other Biden guests included the rock star/humanitarian Bono and 26-year-old Brandon Tsay, who disarmed a gunman in last month's Monterey Park, California, shooting.
“There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child,” Biden said after introducing RowVaughn and Rodney Wells to a standing ovation. Their grief was palpable as they stood and were recognized by the president and the audience. Biden called on Congress to “rise to the moment” after Nichols' death to make meaningful change.
Biden drew bipartisan applause when he praised most law enforcement officers as “good, decent people” but added that “when police officers or police departments violate the public's trust, we must hold them accountable.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus invited family members of those involved in police incidents, as they sought to press for action on police reform in the wake of Nichols' death.
Biden was shifting his sights after spending his first two years pushing through major bills such as the bipartisan infrastructure package, legislation to promote high-tech manufacturing and climate measures. With Republicans now in control of the House, he is turning his focus to implementing those massive laws and making sure voters credit him for the improvements.
Biden, not known for his oratory, appeared relaxed and confident as he delivered his address. He casually adlibbed remarks, fed off the responses from Democratic lawmakers who frequently stood up with thunderous ovations and playfully engaged with his Republican critics.
Addressing Republicans who voted against the big bipartisan infrastructure law, Biden said he'd still ensure their pet projects received federal support. “I promised to be the president for all Americans,” he said. “We'll fund these projects. And I'll see you at the ground-breaking.”
The switch was largely by necessity. The newly empowered GOP is itching to undo many of his achievements and vowing to pursue a multitude of investigations - including looking into the recent discoveries of classified documents from his time as vice president at his home and former office.
Though he pledged bipartisanship where possible, Biden also underscored the sharp tensions that exist between him and House Republicans: He discussed GOP efforts to repeal Democrats' 2022 climate change and healthcare law and their reluctance to increase the federal debt limit, the nation's legal borrowing authority that must be raised later this year or risk default.
“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years,” Biden said. “Other Republicans say if we don't cut Social Security and Medicare, they'll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history.
“I won't let that happen.”
Biden's comments on entitlement programs prompted an outcry from Republicans, as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and others jumped to their feet, some yelling “Liar!”
The president answered back, “Stand up and show them: We will not cut Social Security! We will not cut Medicare!”
As Republicans continued to protest his accusations, he said, “We've got unanimity.”
While hopes for large-scale bipartisanship are slim, Biden reissued his 2022 appeal for Congress to get behind his “unity agenda” of actions to address the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans' health and cancer. He announced new executive action and call for lawmakers to act to support new measures to support cancer research, address housing needs and suicide among veterans, boost access to mental health care, and move to further crack down on deadly trafficking in fentanyl.
In fiery refrains, Biden said the phrase “finish the job” 13 times, challenging lawmakers to complete the work of his administration on capping insulin costs for all Americans, confronting climate change, raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations and banning assault-style weapons. But on all of those fronts, the divided government is even less likely to yield than the Congress under sole Democratic control.
The speech came days after Biden ordered the military to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew brazenly across the country, captivating the nation and serving as a reminder of tense relations between the two global powers.
“Make no mistake: As we made clear last week, if China's threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country,” Biden said. “And we did.”
Last year's address occurred just days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and as many in the West doubted Kyiv's ability to withstand the onslaught. Over the past year, the U.S. and other allies have sent tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to bolster Ukraine's defenses. Now, Biden must make the case - both at home and abroad - for sustaining that coalition as the war drags on.
“Together, we did what America always does at our best,” Biden said. “We led. We united NATO and built a global coalition. We stood against Putin's aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people.”
AP writer Fatima Hussein to this report.