In State of the Union speech, Biden challenges Republicans on debt and economy
WASHINGTON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - President Joe Biden challenged Republicans to lift the U.S. debt ceiling and support tax policies that were friendlier to middle class Americans on Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that served as a blueprint for his 2024 re-election campaign.
Assailing oil companies for making high profits and corporate America for taking advantage of consumers, Biden used his prime time speech to outline key progressive priorities that are important to Democrats and anathema to many Republicans in Congress.
Making his first address to a joint session of Congress since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, Biden urged bitterly divided lawmakers to overcome their differences.
Some Republicans heckled him at times during a speech that lasted 73 minutes.
"We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over the past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong," said Biden, a Democrat. "To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well."
Biden tested that ability with a challenge to raise the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, which must be lifted in the coming months to avoid a default. The White House has said Biden will not negotiate over that necessity; Republicans want spending cuts in exchange for their support.
"Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage - I get it - unless I agree to their economic plans. All of you at home should know what those plans are. Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans ... want Medicare and Social Security to sunset," he said, drawing boos.
He then urged lawmakers to stand up for senior citizens, which they did, prompting Biden to claim victory.
"I enjoy conversion," he quipped, suggesting the cuts to popular social safety net programs were now off the table.
Biden said the economy was benefiting from 12 million new jobs, COVID-19 no longer controls American lives, and U.S. democracy remains intact despite the facing its biggest threat since the Civil War.
"Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken," he said.
Since his inauguration in 2021, shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden has said he wants to unify the country. And he stuck to that theme, highlighting a massive infrastructure bill and gently ribbing Republican lawmakers who opposed it.
"I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law," he said. "My Republican friends who voted against it ... I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well, but don’t worry, I promised I'd be a president for all Americans."
Despite his efforts, Biden remains unpopular.
His public approval rating edged one percentage point higher to 41% in a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll that closed on Sunday. That is close to the lowest level of his presidency, with 65% of Americans saying they believe the country is on the wrong track, compared to 58% a year earlier.
Similarly, in the autumn of 2020, when Donald Trump was president, 65% of registered voters believed the country was on the wrong track, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who once served as press secretary for Trump, rejected Biden's upbeat vision of the country in her Republican response.
“In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire. But you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race,” Sanders said in excerpts released ahead of her televised remarks.
Biden aides see the speech, which will draw millions of viewers and perhaps the president's largest television audience of the year, as a milestone ahead of the second presidential campaign he is expected to launch in coming weeks.
Biden turned 80 in November and, if re-elected, would be 82 at the start of a second term, a fact that concerns many Democratic voters, recent polls show.
Biden faced a splintered gathering of Republican lawmakers, eager to put their conservative mark on U.S. policy following four years of Democratic control of the House.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, sat behind Biden for the address for the first time. “Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you," Biden said, drawing laughs.
Before Biden's arrival, McCarthy and Vice President Kamala Harris smiled and chatted from the dais.
McCarthy said earlier on Tuesday that he would not rip up Biden's speech, referencing the actions of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi after Trump's 2020 State of the Union address.
"I respect the other side," McCarthy said in a video. "I can disagree on policy. But I want to make sure this country is stronger, economically sound, energy independent, secure and accountable."
Some House Republican lawmakers have questioned Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential race against Trump, vowing to investigate his Cabinet and family.
Biden hailed the resilience and strength of the U.S. economy, with unemployment having dropped to a nearly 54-year low in January.
In a foreshadowing of themes he may use in a presidential campaign, Biden hammered corporations for profiteering from the pandemic, and run through a wish list of economic proposals, although many are unlikely to be passed by Congress. They include a minimum tax for billionaires, and a quadrupling of the tax on corporate stock buybacks.
Biden was especially critical of oil companies' profits. "I think it's outrageous," he said. He said the United States would need oil for at least another decade, drawing laughter from some in the chamber.
Reporting by Jeff Mason, Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Andrea Shalal, Costas Pitas and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Heather Timmons and Howard Goller