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Biden’s State of the Union turns into a rowdy back-and-forth

President and Republicans negotiate in real time as the nation watches

Republicans react to President Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday night.
Republicans react to President Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out “You lie,” during President Barack Obama’s first joint address to Congress, the breach of decorum was all anyone seemed to remember. 

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden got into a few boisterous back-and-forths with a majority of the GOP. 

Tuesday was the 99th time a president personally delivered the State of the Union address to Congress, but it was hardly a boring rerun. 

Biden drew Republican remonstrations when he warned that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years.” The right side of the aisle erupted in protests and boos. “Liar!” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene yelled.

The president and the opposition party, newly in control of the House, continued to jaw back and forth throughout the speech, which White House aides had advertised in advance as an appeal to support his “unity agenda.” 

At times, it felt as though the president was negotiating with the GOP as the nation watched. After Biden called on Congress to pass his proposed immigration reforms, Republicans led by freshman Rep. Eli Crane of Arizona shouted, “Secure the border!”

Later outbursts from the GOP back benches seemed to draw annoyed shushes from Republican leadership. 

But then Republicans grumbled about the border again shortly after Biden shared the story of Doug Griffin, whose daughter died of a fentanyl overdose. At that point, Democrats had grown tired of the interruptions, with some shouting “Shame” at the other side. 

The State of the Union has become a uniquely partisan exercise, literally. The president’s party stands and sits enough to strain their quads, as the other tries their best to only begrudgingly applaud the president, while speechwriters, like overzealous gym trainers, design applause lines to force them onto their feet. 

Biden poked fun at the stony-faced Republicans early on in his address. 

“You can smile, it’s okay,” Biden said, looking at the GOP side of the chamber.

Later, he succeeded in getting a bipartisan standing ovation when he announced that all the construction materials in federally funded infrastructure projects would need to be made in America. And a unifying “USA” chant broke out after Biden said, “It’s never a good bet to bet against America.”

The State of the Union gives members the chance to do what most of them do best, mingle. Before the speech, Sen. Cory Booker seemed intent on getting a selfie with every other Democrat. Across the aisle, Rep. George Santos, unconcerned with the hundreds of guests and dozens of cameras staring down at the floor, took a minute to deal with a wedgie as he chit-chatted with other members of the GOP’s rogues’ gallery, Thomas Massie, Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert

Most members were more deliberate in their clothing-related decisions at the State of the Union, keenly aware of the attention they’ll receive. A few Democrats sported sky blue and gold pins to show support for Ukraine, while others wore pins for various pet causes. 

Seating choices can inspire similar levels of strategic planning. A handful of Democrats made a point of sitting on the right side of the aisle, among their GOP colleagues: Rep. Josh Gottheimer sat next to his Problem Solvers Caucus co-president, Brian Fitzpatrick; Reps. Jerrold Nadler, Hillary Scholten, Mark Takano, Salud Carbajal and Al Green found spots on the right as well. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and newly independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — in a canary yellow dress that you couldn’t miss — similarly crossed the aisle. 

Ahead of the speech, the White House did its best to influence the media’s coverage. Aides told Politico they hoped to contrast Biden’s orderly management style to an increasingly rude and rudderless Republican Party, saying they’d welcome outbursts from certain members of the GOP’s growing chaos Muppet caucus. Saying that, of course, placed the GOP’s attention vampires in a bind — if they burst out as they’re wont to do, the savvy insider press would applaud Biden’s team for getting their desired outcome; if they stayed uncharacteristically silent and respectful, however, the president’s unexpectedly warm reception could become the story.

One of Biden’s tasks heading into the speech was to crow about his accomplishments ahead of an expected reelection announcement in the coming weeks without accidentally implying that Americans are ignorant or ingrates.

Democrats have a lot to brag about. With the party in control of both chambers of Congress and the presidency, the last two years have been objectively extremely productive, passing 362 public laws totaling 8,742 pages — by page count, that’s the most going back to 1947–48, the farthest back statistics compiled by the Brookings Institution go. And a lot of those pages filled landmark bills: a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, the Inflation Reduction Act, a $52 billion boost to domestic computer chip manufacturing, a law codifying gay marriage rights, a suite of workplace sexual harassment reforms, an overhaul of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, billions in emergency aid to Ukraine, eased restrictions on conducting marijuana research, an emergency response to the baby formula shortage, and making Juneteenth the first new federal holiday since MLK Day in 1983.  

But voters don’t seem to have noticed. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found that 62 percent of Americans thought that, so far, Biden has done “not very much” or “little or nothing,” while 36 percent said he’s done “a good amount” or “a great deal.” An Associated Press poll found that just 41 percent of Americans approve of how Biden is handling his job, and a Monmouth University poll found that only 39 percent of Americans believe the state of the union is strong.

“Even in situations where Congress does legislate, the effects are not always seen right away,” said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

That’s why Biden started his speech ticking off legislative accomplishments — it was less bragging, and more like an employee presenting an annual self-evaluation to his bosses. 

“You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together,” he said. “But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong.”

Media coverage also plays a role, Reynolds said, noting that dramatic stories about intractable battles get more attention than reports of bipartisan bonhomie and cooperation. That problem is amplified by negativity bias — the tendency for people to remember and respond more intensely to bad news over good news.

But this State of the Union shouldn’t run into those problems. There was more than enough negativity and conflict to make it one of the most memorable addresses in recent history. 

Ben Hulac, Avery Roe, Justin Papp, Mark Satter, and Olivia Bridges contributed to this report.