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Essential Politics: Biden’s State of the Union unity appeal falls on deaf Republican ears

Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applaud President Biden.
President Biden begins his State of the Union address Tuesday as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look on.
(Jabin Botsford / Associated Press)
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Didn’t stay up for President Biden’s first State of the Union?

Here’s the Cliffs Notes version: The state of the union is “strong,” even if his polling numbers are not.

The president’s approval rating was 43% ahead of his address, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released March 1. But the speech offered a path forward on that too: a hard-to-disagree-with unity agenda aimed at boosting resources for veterans and mental health, fighting the opioid epidemic and curing cancer, as well as a path toward a new post-pandemic normal.

“It is important for us to show the nation that we can come together and do big things,” Biden told Congress.

The president spoke for just over an hour before a predominantly unmasked crowd of lawmakers, Cabinet officials, Supreme Court justices and guests (including Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States). While the first portion of the speech focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden spoke extensively about the domestic policy bills he’s been able to pass and the laundry list of stalled bills he’d like Congress to pass.

A scant three lines went to his campaign priority of promoting green energy to fight climate change.

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Biden also laid out his thoughts on immigration and crime, areas where he and other Democrats are vulnerable in a midterm election year, taking a tougher stance on border security and calling for more police department funding.

On the pandemic, he offered a plan, not for “living with COVID-19,” but a way to “move forward safely,” including more access to antiviral medicines to treat the virus, reopening schools and businesses, and more vaccines abroad.

“Let’s use this moment to reset,” he said. “We can’t change how divided we’ve been. But we can change how we move forward — on COVID-19 and other issues we must face together.”

Hello and welcome to Essential Politics, with national politics reporter Arit John and White House reporter Erin B. Logan. Today we’ll be talking about President Biden’s State of the Union address and responses to last night’s speech from Republicans and Democrats.

The Republican reaction

On the whole, Biden’s speech was well received by members of his party and viewers. Sixty-two percent of those who watched said his economic proposals would move the country in the right direction, and 73% said the same of his COVID-19 policies, according to a CNN survey conducted Tuesday night.

Biden drew bipartisan applause during the early part of his speech, focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his administration’s response to Russian President Vladimir Putin, including announcing that America would join its allies in closing its airspace to Russian flights.

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In terms of unity, that was the high point. Biden also got GOP applause for his demand to “fund the police” and his lines on securing the border. But following his remarks, Republicans quickly panned Democrats’ handling of crime, border security and the response to the COVID pandemic, the same wedge issues they hope will help flip control of Congress later this year.

“This was the most out of touch State of the Union speech that I had ever heard,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said during an interview with Sean Hannity on Tuesday night. “Biden went through a litany of acknowledging some of the problems we face in this country, but utterly denying any culpability, any responsibility for it.”

For the official Republican rebuttal, the party picked Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds — a symbol of the more hands-off approach Republican-led states took to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Speaking in front of the state Capitol in Des Moines, Reynolds presented her approach to the pandemic as a contrast to the more aggressive stance the administration and Democratic governors adopted and are now abandoning. Reynolds was the first governor to mandate students return to the classroom for full-time, in-person learning, sued to block a federal vaccine rule and backed a law that barred Iowa schools from implementing mask mandates, which is now being challenged in court.

Republicans’ decision to reopen schools was the “start of the pro-parent, pro-family revolution,” that’s galvanized much of the nation, Reynolds said.

Reynolds said Democrats have created an America reminiscent of the late 1970s and 1980s, when inflation was high, violent crime was rampant and the Soviet Union’s aggression was tenacious. She criticized the U.S. military’s “disastrous” withdrawal from Afghanistan last year under Biden’s watch, claiming it “emboldened” American enemies, including Putin.

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“Weakness on the world stage has a cost, and the president’s approach to foreign policy has consistently been too little, too late,” Reynolds said. “We can’t project strength abroad if we are weak at home.”

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Progressives direct fire at moderates

Reynolds wasn’t the only one with something pre-written to say. Additional responses were delivered by Michigan Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib on behalf of the liberal Working Families Party and Texas Democratic Rep. Colin Allred for the Congressional Black Caucus.

Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of moderates from both parties that seek bipartisan solutions to various issues, also hosted an event.

Tlaib’s response was the most anticipated over whether it would be overly critical of the president, but those fears proved unwarranted. Instead, she called for a stronger progressive contingent in Congress to help advance Biden’s stalled social spending legislation and other liberal priorities. She reserved her harshest criticisms for Republicans and the moderate Democrats who have sided with them at times.

“No one fought harder for President Biden’s agenda than progressives,” said Tlaib. “But two forces stood in the way: a Republican Party that serves only the rich and powerful, and just enough corporate-backed Democratic obstructionists to help them succeed.”

While Biden’s speech was about seeking unity and common ground in the center, Tlaib sought to rally progressive voters over a platform that includes the Green New Deal and canceling student loan debt.

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“If you voted or knocked on doors or donated in 2020 to defeat Trump, I implore you: pay attention,” she said. “Blocking the far right is just not enough. We also need to elect the next generation of working-families’ champions.”

Meanwhile on Twitter, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) gave a more pointed critique of the president’s speech.

“All our country has done is given more funding to police. The result? 2021 set a record for fatal police shootings,” Bush tweeted late Tuesday.

“With all due respect, Mr. President. You didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech,” she added. “Defund the police. Invest in our communities.”

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More State of the Union coverage

— Facing crises at home and in Ukraine, Biden came off as a “quasi-wartime president” during his State of the Union address, reports Noah Bierman. The speech came at a time when a majority of Americans have started to doubt the strength of his leadership. In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 59% of those surveyed said Biden is not a strong leader.

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— For a more in-depth look at the State of the Union, read the full transcript of Biden’s prepared remarks and see photos from last night.

The latest on Ukraine

— The United States and its allies have unleashed an aggressive slate of sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. But they’ve held back on issuing an embargo on Russian oil and gas. As Don Lee explains, sanctions on Russian energy exports could have unintended consequences both in Russia and here in the U.S.

— Putin ordered Russia’s military to place its nuclear forces on “high combat alert” last week, stoking fears of a nuclear threat. Molly Hennessy-Fiske broke down what it all means.

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