Wednesday briefing: Five key takeaways from Biden’s rowdy State of the Union
By Archie Bland,2023-02-08
Good morning. “Finish the job,” Joe Biden said nearly a dozen times in a speech to a joint session of Congress in Washington DC a few hours ago. His combative State of the Union address was designed around both halves of that equation: persuading Americans that he has achieved a lot so far, and asking them to agree that he should keep going – with a nudge towards the idea that the Republicans are getting in the way.
Biden is a pretty confusing political figure at the moment: on a downward trajectory in the polls, with even most members of his own party not wanting him to stand for re-election – but with better-than-expected midterm results in his favour, and a chaotic and extreme opposition who many voters like even less.
Last night, Biden made a case to blue-collar voters that sounded awfully like a pitch for a second term. And he repeatedly drew contrasts with his Republican opponents, who heckled throughout even as their leader shushed them. Today’s newsletter, with Guardian US political reporters David Smith and Lauren Gambino, takes you through all of it. Here are the headlines.
Five big stories
- Turkey-Syria earthquake | Anger has mounted in Turkey over what was described as a slow and inadequate response by authorities to the earthquake that also hit neighbouring Syria, as the death toll passed 8,000 and chances of finding survivors narrowed.
- Crime | The death of Epsom College headteacher Emma Pattison, her daughter and her husband is being treated as a homicide, Surrey police have confirmed. Detectives, who have recovered a firearm, are examining the possibility George Pattison killed his wife and daughter before killing himself.
- UK politics | Rishi Sunak appointed trade minister Greg Hands to replace Nadhim Zahawi as Conservative party chair in a mini-reshuffle to stamp his authority on his fractured party. As part of a sweeping Whitehall restructure that created four new government departments, Grant Shapps takes over the new department for energy security and net zero.
- Police | Former Metropolitan police officer and serial rapist David Carrick has been sentenced to life in prison and must serve a minimum term of 32 years, before he can be considered for release. At Southwark crown court, Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb said Carrick had taken “monstrous advantage” of his position as a police officer to coerce and control women.
- Climate | David Nixon, a 36-year-old care worker and Insulate Britain activist, has been jailed for eight weeks for contempt of court after disregarding a judge’s order to not to mention the climate crisis as his motivation during his trial for taking part in a road-blocking protest.
In depth: ‘A soft launch for Biden’s 2024 campaign’
At last year’s State of the Union, shortly after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, Joe Biden had Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic then-speaker of the House of Representatives, standing behind him leading bipartisan applause.
This time around, things looked different. Instead of Pelosi, there was Kevin McCarthy, a Republican. Biden was repeatedly booed. And the midterm defeat in the House, although narrower than expected, significantly constrains his power.
He still talked about unity: “If we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.” In reality, “most of Biden’s policy initiatives are not going to pass,” Lauren Gambino said. “Republicans are more focused on investigations into him, his family, the administration.” Paradoxically, though, that may help him make unity a dividing line.
“This was a good night for Joe Biden,” said David Smith. “It was a soft launch for his 2024 campaign, and a speech that some are describing as the best of his presidency.”
Here are five key takeaways.
1. Biden led with an argument that his policies are helping blue-collar voters
“As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs,” Biden said, “more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years.” That was one of many appeals to voters who are worried about the economy, like boasts about taking on inflation, a call to “reward work, not wealth” with a new tax on billionaires’ investments, and a protectionist call to “buy American”.
NBC News said that he spent 17 minutes speaking on the economy, infrastructure, and taxes – and those were the dominant threads in the speech. He called it a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America”.
“He spent a lot of time talking about initiatives he’s already passed,” Lauren said. “Poll after poll shows that people don’t feel he’s achieved very much, despite having done a lot legislatively. He’s going to spend the next two years trying to convince Americans that those policies will make a difference in their lives.”
2. He talked less about foreign policy, abortion, and the climate crisis
Biden’s preferred emphasis was evidenced as much in what he left out as what he put in. “These speeches are often checklists,” Lauren noted. “But there wasn’t a ton of time on Ukraine, and there was no mention of the Chinese spy balloon except to talk tough and say if China ever threatens us we’ll respond as we did.”
The Ukraine section came at the back end of his speech, and was relatively brief; abortion rights and the overturning of Roe v Wade were the subject of just four sentences, the climate crisis about the same. That reinforced the sense that this was a speech intensely focused on pocketbook issues on which many swing voters will make up their minds.
3. He made an emotional appeal for change in policing
In another long section of the speech, Biden quoted RowVaughn Wells (above), the mother of Tyre Nichols, a Black man killed last month in Memphis by police officers who now face murder charges: “Something good must come of this.”
He invited Wells and Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, who were in the gallery, to stand as he told the audience: “What happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better.” In a rare section heard in something like silence, he noted that like the other white people in the room, he had never had to have “the talk” with his children about what to do if stopped by the police.
It was not a radical appeal: while he demanded that police departments do more to hold officers accountable, he was also careful to note that “police officers put their lives on the line every day, and we ask them to do too much”. But it felt like a sharper message than he gave in 2022, when he said that “the answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police”.
4. He was repeatedly heckled by Republicans – but leaned in
There was a time when a single Republican congressman shouting “You lie!” at Barack Obama was deemed, as the Guardian put it in 2009, “an extraordinary breach of political protocol”. That looked pretty quaint last night, when an unruly Republican caucus became so caught up in jeering and shouting that McCarthy had to try – in vain – to shush them.
At one point, far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (who actually brought a balloon with her?) called Biden a liar as many of her colleagues booed his assertion that some Republicans have proposed cutting social security and medicare programmes (which is, in fact, true, but exaggerated as a real threat).
If anything, though, Biden appeared to relish the confrontation – getting into a spontaneous back-and-forth which he then presented as consensus.
“So folks, as we all apparently agree, social security and Medicare is off the books now,” he said. “They’re not to be touched? All right. We’ve got unanimity!” You can watch the exchange here.
“That was very unusual,” David said. “It felt like Biden had won the bout, and done so in a very down-to-earth, human way, not crowing or getting into poisonous arguments as Trump would.”
Again, using unity as a dividing line felt like a precursor to what we might see over the rest of Biden’s term. As he said to McCarthy, with obvious enjoyment: “Mr Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.”
5. He seems intent on running again
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Only 22% of voters, and 37% of Democrats, say they want the 80-year-old president to seek a second term – well down on where those figures stood before the midterms. But it appears increasingly clear that despite his age, he fully intends to run again, and believes he is the best placed candidate to beat Donald Trump, should he win the Republican nomination.
There were plenty of features of last night’s speech that seemed to point in that direction. And while there’s often a sense in Biden’s speeches that you’re waiting to hear him falter, last night’s 72-minute address was energetic, combative and largely howler-free.
“It will quell the discontent within the Democratic party,” David said. “After this, it’s looking more unlikely than ever that we will see a serious challenger.”
What else we’ve been reading
- The natural next step for our collectively dwindling attention spans was, of course, the hyper-short date. Elle Hunt surveys a new study that suggests the average person can only manage 51 minutes of a date that is not going well. Hunt writes that on some occasions you might want to give the date a bit longer, to remind yourself to be “open to possibility, to being surprised and potentially swept off your feet”. Nimo
- Don’t ask why Rich Pelley spent the day as Mr Blobby (above) – although it’s actually pretty interesting that there appears to be a spate of costumes on sale online that claim to be Noel’s House Party originals. Just enjoy his account of life as a “giant novelty condom”, and the Blobby experts he met along the way. Archie
- Recycling is one of those things that we all wish we were better at (or maybe I’m projecting). Emma Beddington’s piece on how to get wise when it comes to taking out your rubbish is informative and extremely helpful. Nimo
- There’s an amazing piece on the Afghan Analysts Network made up of five interviews with members of the Taliban about how they’ve found life in Kabul. From traffic troubles to complaints about colleagues corrupted by visits to hookah bars, it’s full of remarkable, granular insights. Archie
- I absolutely loved this list of the best and worst TV endings of all time by Guardian staff – I’m still confused and upset by Sex and the City, and it ended in 2004. Nimo
Football | Non-league Wrexham’s FA Cup run was ended in a fourth-round replay by Sheffield United, who scored twice in injury time to win 3-1. There was controversy after the game when United’s Billy Sharp (above) accused Wrexham of being “disrespectful”. Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson said: “My message to Billy is: you’re better than that.”
Cricket | Yorkshire has reached an agreement with the ECB after admitting to four charges of bringing the game into disrepute. As a result, it will no longer have to take part in the Cricket Discipline Commission hearings into allegations of racism and discrimination at the club. The news comes as former bowling coach Richard Pyrah joined the list of charged individuals who have pulled out of the proceedings.
Football | As Manchester City reel from 101 charges of breaking Premier League financial rules, Jamie Jackson writes that the question for Pep Guardiola - who has said he would leave the club if he was lied to about its affairs - may now be: “Is this your last chance to win the Champions League with City?”
The front pages
The Guardian front-page splash is “‘Monstrous’: rapist ex-Met officer jailed for life after years of attacks”. The Telegraph says “Met rapist’s ‘lenient’ sentence to be reviewed”. The Metro calls David Carrick and his crimes “A scar on our police” and says “Met rapist gets 30 years”. The Financial Times has “Sunak breaks up business department to sharpen focus on energy and science”.
“Race to find survivors” – that’s the i leading on the Turkey and Syrian earthquake. “Life and death under the ruins” – the Times shows a baby born in the earthquake rubble, the rest of whose family died. “Born in earthquake hell,” says the Daily Mirror, above a picture of the baby’s rescue – its lead story though is about “BP’s spoils of war” as the oil company stands accused of profiting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The top story in the Daily Express is “Distressed call ... then school head and daughter shot dead”, about the Epsom College killings. “Now even God could be going gender neutral” – the Daily Mail on how the Church of England might stop “referring to the almighty as ‘He’”. “Fawlty Towers returns” – Basil is coming back, 44 years on, says the Sun.
Today in Focus
Why are more people in the UK turning to private healthcare?
The NHS turns 75 this year, but as waiting lists for appointments grow, increasing numbers of patients are looking elsewhere for healthcare. Denis Campbell reports
Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
The early days of motherhood proved tricky for Freya Bennett. A long labour and an emergency C-section left her in shock and she found herself grieving her baby-free life. A growing sense of disconnection from the outside world spurred Bennett on to sign up for a parenting group that changed her first year of motherhood.
It was in this group that she met Kristen. In the following weeks and months, the two saw each other everyday, babies in tow, sharing their life stories and commiserating over sleepless nights and the other challenges of new parenthood. Their daughters have become like sisters to one another, and even after Kristen’s maternity leave ended and their daily dates were replaced by organised catch-ups, Bennett found a version of sisterhood for herself that proved to be extremely important to her as a new mum.
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