US president Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday effectively paves the way for an expected announcement that he will run again for the White House.
Biden is now mid-way through his first term, and the theme of his speech was that he wanted to “finish the job” on a host of issues from taxation to gun rights to policing reforms.
Some have questioned whether Biden at age 82 would be too old to run again. But in his primetime address on Tuesday he was feisty and seemed to draw energy from the criticism and heckling from some Republicans at various points.
There were a number of key issues from Biden’s State of the Union address.
Seeking common ground
Biden shook hands three times with new Republican speaker of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy and stressed he wanted to work with the new Congress.
He urged both parties to unite on Covid funding, healthcare prices, police reform and abolishing additional fees levied, for example, by airlines, concert organisers and hotels.
“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”, he said.
However, Biden set out red lines on a number of areas, such as cuts to social security, rolling back reductions in drug costs and any move to introduce a national ban on abortion.
He said he would veto any such legislation passed by the new Republican majority in the House.
In advance of the president’s speech McCarthy had urged his Republican members essentially to behave themselves in front of the national TV audience.
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However, when Biden maintained that some of his political opponents wanted to have Medicare and social security programmes fall unless reauthorised every five years, some Republicans cut loose at the president.
Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene called Biden “a liar”, others booed.
When Biden spoke of the drug Fentanyl killing more than 70,000 Americans a year, someone shouted: “your fault”.
McCarthy on occasions appeared to be trying to get some of his Republican members to quieten down.
But rather than being rattled, Biden seemed to enjoy the back and forth.
When some Republicans accused him of misrepresenting them about potential cuts to Medicare and social security, the president turned the heckling against them, saying quickly that he was glad to see their “conversion” on the issue.
“The jobs are coming back”, the president promised the American heartlands, which have been hit for decades by outsourcing of employment.
Biden took great credit that under his administration a record 12 million jobs had been created.
“Let’s look at the results. Unemployment rate at 3.4 per cent, a 50-year low. Near record low unemployment for black and hispanic workers.
”We’ve already created 800,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs, the fastest growth in 40 years.”
He maintained thousands of new jobs were on the way under initiatives to bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure programme passed by the previous Congress.
He also announced new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in United States. “American-made lumber, glass, drywall, fibre-optic cables”, he said.
In the wake of death of Tyre Nichols who was killed last month by police officers in Memphis, Biden urged all members of Congress to rise to the occasion and “do something” – there were few specifics – on police reform.
However, in a section that may come as a surprise to an international audience, he spoke of “the talk” that many “black and brown families have had with their children” in the event of them being pulled over by police.
“If a police officer pulls you over, turn on your interior lights. Don’t reach for your licence. Keep your hands on the steering wheel.
“Imagine having to worry like that every day in United States.”
He said “most cops are good. decent people”. He said they risked their lives every time they went out on duty. “But what happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often.”
The president also again called for a new ban to be introduced on assault weapons – although this is virtually certain not to happen given the Republican control of the House of Representatives for the next two years.
The future of relations between Washington and Beijing is being keenly assessed in the aftermath of the Chinese balloon discovered over the United States last week.
It was an hour into the speech before Biden mentioned China.
The president said he had made clear to the Chinese leadership that the US wanted competition not conflict.
He said he was committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world.
However, he said there should be no mistake: “If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
The president highlighted the case of the daughter of an Irishman and his wife – who were in the audience – as part of his goal to cut death rates from the condition by 50 per cent over the coming 25 years.
He said that Maurice Barron, who is originally from Co Waterford, and his wife Kandice had written to him about their daughter Ava who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at the age of one.
Mr Biden said Ava had 26 blood transfusions,11 rounds of radiation, eight rounds of chemotherapy as well as having one kidney removed. He said she had a 5 per cent survival rate. Mr Biden said Maurice wrote how in the darkest moments he had thought: “If she goes, I can’t stay.”
”They read how Jill described our family’s cancer journey and how we tried to steal moments of joy where you can.
“For them, that glimmer of joy was a half-smile from their baby girl. It meant everything.
“They never gave up hope. Ava never gave up hope. She turns four next month.
“They just found out that Ava beat the odds and is on her way to being cancer free, and she’s watching from the White House tonight.”