Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

America, According to Joe

The president defends his record and makes his case for re-election.
February 8, 2023
America, According to Joe
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on February 7, 2023 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. The speech marks Biden's first address to the new Republican-controlled House. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin-Pool/Getty Images)

Going into this year’s State of the Union address, everyone had a reason to hate on Joe Biden. Primarily, because he’s old.

The Associated Press greeted him before his speech with a poll informing him that most Democrats thought one Biden term was enough. The New York Times let him know his approval ratings were among the worst for a second-year president.

Biden said phooey to all that and delivered a strong defense of his first term and argument for a second term. And, it boiled down to this: economy, economy, economy. Oh, it was a little raucous, too.

Back in 2009, when South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” in the middle of an address by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress, sensibilities were shocked. Wilson’s outburst became a days-long story, and he was formally reprimanded by the House.

Nowadays, though, the House Republican Conference has a whole contingent of Joe Wilsons: boorish loudmouths whose lack of impulse control is only matched by their desire for attention. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to face a reprimand for their shouts and jeers last night. Biden encountered several “You lie!”-like objections without batting an eye or missing a line in his scripted remarks.

That’s not to say Biden didn’t stumble a little in his delivery. He did, as he typically fumbles somewhat over his remarks (a fact often attributed to his longtime stutter). But, Biden—who, at 80, is older than any previous president—parried with the hecklers in the chamber during his hour-plus speech in what at times felt like an impromptu, interactive performance. He almost seemed to enjoy it, too.

One example: Biden pointed out that some Republicans wished to cut Social Security, which prompted boos from other Republicans. “I’m glad to see—no, I tell you, I enjoy conversion,” Biden needled before asking everyone to “stand up for seniors.”

Theatrics aside, Biden accomplished his biggest task: showing everyone he’s still got it. He did it mainly by touting his record—“Unemployment rate at 3.4 percent, a fifty-year low”—and exhorting Congress to help him “finish the job.”

Biden advocated for the expected liberal big-ticket items, such as raising taxes on business, comprehensive immigration reform, banning assault weapons, abortion rights, and more surprising, populist consumer-focused items such as taking on “junk” fees—“These fees can cost you up to $90 a night at hotels that aren’t even resorts!”

He gave shoutouts to union members and teachers and talked about how “public safety depends on public trust.” Among his invited guests were Brandon Tsay, Paul Pelosi, and the parents of Tyre Nichols, whom he applauded for their grace and bravery before asking that law enforcement both be held to “higher standards” and given the “training they need.”

Near the end of his speech, Biden talked about how Russian President Vladimir Putin began his war against Ukraine a year ago. Biden framed it as “a test for America” and a “test for the world,” but it was also a major test of his presidency, which he has handled masterfully thus far.

It remains to be seen whether the Republican House will undercut Biden and Ukraine’s aims going forward, which makes this passage of his speech noteworthy:

Would we stand for the most basic of principles?

Would we stand for sovereignty?

Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny?

Would we stand for the defense of democracy?

For such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity. One year later, we know the answer.

Yes, we would.

And yes, we did. Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led. We united NATO and built a global coalition. We stood against Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people.

All past tense. Biden hopes that the consensus in Washington about Ukraine will last.

Former Trump aide and current Governor of Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered the GOP response to Biden’s address. In partisan form, she began her remarks by saying, “Forgive me for not believing much of anything I heard tonight from President Biden.” A bold statement considering that Sanders scripted her remarks without hearing any of the president’s speech.

She forged ahead anyway and declared Biden “unfit” for office. Sanders made a big deal about the generational difference between her and Biden. “At 40, I’m the youngest governor in the country, and at 80, he’s the oldest president in American history,” Sanders said. “I’m the first woman to lead my state, and he’s the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is,” she said.

She depicted Democrats as telling Republicans to “partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols.” After hearing Biden talk for more than an hour about the economy and concrete issues that directly affect the work and welfare of millions of Americans, the deep plunge into dystopian culture wars was abrupt.

These annual canned rebuttals usually come off as tone-deaf, but with Sanders there was an additional, unexpected contrast with Biden.

She spoke for a dreary 15 minutes—all scripted according to teleprompter, with no audience. Biden spoke for more than an hour, with a teleprompter in front of plenty of hostile Republicans. Biden, 80 years young, rolled with it, tackling every tough subject on his agenda, inviting Republicans to join him at every turn. Sanders, 40 years old, droned on, her entire speech devoted to demonizing Biden.

Biden has a fine line to walk for the remainder of his term, regardless of his decision on whether to run for re-election. Deprived of his Democratic House, he must, at least optically, appeal to Republicans, while at the same time, most Republicans are reflexively opposed to anything he does. Awkward, to say the least.

He managed to make that look effortless, from his opening quip to Kevin McCarthy (“Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.”) to his conclusion, echoing Lincoln:

We must see each other not as enemies, but as fellow Americans.

We are a good people, the only nation in the world built on an idea. . . .

Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong.

That’s always been America, according to Joe.

Turns out he’s not so bad at this after all.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.