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Top House Dems found their 2024 candidate at SOTU: ‘Scranton Joe’

'You can't just be a punching bag,' Rep. Lofgren says of feisty president

President Biden delivers his second State of the Union address in the House chamber Tuesday evening.
President Biden delivers his second State of the Union address in the House chamber Tuesday evening. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Democrats are celebrating a sly-as-a-fox president. Republicans are fuming at a “disingenuous” dirty-trickster. 

That sums up how both parties see Joe Biden after his second State of the Union address — complete with some surreal on-air negotiating. The president and House Republicans appeared to formalize a pact solidifying that potential changes to Social Security and Medicare will not be on the table in just-started debt ceiling negotiations.

The president accurately said at one point during the 92-minute speech that some Republicans have proposed to “sunset” the two popular entitlement programs used by older Americans, a key voting bloc. He was directly referring to a conservative fiscal package offered last year by Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott, then the head of Senate Republican’s campaign arm. GOP members countered that he falsely insinuated they want to permanently end both programs, countering — vaguely — they want to “strengthen” them.

“What is being proposed by individuals — I’m not politely not naming them,” Biden said over GOP jeers. “But it’s being proposed by some of you. Look, folks, the idea is that … we’re (Democrats) not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt.”

More boos. More jeering. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and other Republicans shattered the night’s decorum, shouting:  “Liar!” Biden, smiling widely, quipped over the noise to his GOP foes: “I enjoy conversion.”

In a remarkable moment, the 80-year-old president that Republicans each day describe as mentally in decline appeared to set a political and legislative trap for the GOP just as the debt ceiling talks are getting serious: “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare [are] off the books now.”

“All right, right,” he added with a big thumbs up beside his lectern on the House rostrum as members of both parties stood and loudly applauded. The unscripted moment lacked only Biden’s signature Aviator sunglasses. “We got unanimity.”

Come Wednesday morning, House Democrats were beaming. Some told this columnist they believe Biden decisively won the night — and maybe the debt ceiling and spending standoff in its early stages.

“I certainly think he called their bluff. They’ve been talking for over a year about using this as leverage,  entitlement programs Social Security and Medicare,” said House Minority Whip Katherine Clark, D-Mass. “Now they’re singing a different tune. Good for him for call them out on it.”

What’s more, Clark and other veteran Democrats saw a feisty and crafty president — despite his age and low poll numbers — who is gearing up to seek a second term.

Democrats were excited, in part, because they saw that combative-but-relatable Biden persona return: “Scranton Joe.”

“That’s what he is. That’s who he is. He is authentically Scranton,” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Wednesday morning, referring to Biden. 

The nickname is a homage to his blue-collar Pennsylvania hometown — and some Democrats want to see much more of “Scranton Joe” on the 2024 campaign trail, if Biden announces another White House run in the coming weeks, as is widely expected.  

‘Punching bag’

Asked about Biden’s feistiness, House Judiciary ranking member Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., replied: “I thought it was great,” adding it sounded to him like Biden will run again.

And when it comes to more “Scranton Joe” on the 2024 campaign trail than during the COVID-stunted 2020 race, Nadler said: “I think that’s what you’re gonna see.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said it should be viewed by Democrats as a good sign about 2024 that Biden “was willing to give it back to them” because “you can’t just be a punching bag.” 

Does “Scranton Joe,” need to lead the way during the 2024 campaign, and leave “Unity Agenda Joe” in Washington? “Yes, exactly,” Lofgren replied when asked that very question.

On the flip side, Republicans want voters to see Biden like they do. GOP members argued this week that Biden committed double foul: One, negotiating with them after saying he would not do so; and two, deliberately misrepresenting their party’s stance on whether Social Security and Medicare changes should even be on the table.

“I think he was extremely disingenuous when he said that Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, knowing full well that the speaker of the House, sitting right behind him, also said that that’s off the table,” said Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., referring to McCarthy, who has held an initial round of debt ceiling talks with the president.

“Members like me who are in ‘Biden districts’ have said that’s off the table,” Lawler said, referring to the two entitlement programs. “And, yet, he still made the claim, knowing full well that it’s wrong.”

Lawler and other Republicans have a point. Here was McCarthy on Monday night, delivering a State of the Union prebuttal address outside his Capitol office: “Cuts to Medicare and Social Security, they’re off the table.”

Perhaps Biden kept the line in the address to ward off the same conservative faction that initially blocked McCarthy’s path to the speaker’s gavel, in case they insist on gutting the entitlement programs.

‘Bargaining chip’

Republicans have another point, as House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told reporters after the address: “Three weeks ago, he said we will not negotiate with House Republicans. And, then, tonight he said, lay your plan on the table so we can begin to figure it out.” Here was Biden at a Jan. 26 event in Virginia: “I will not let anyone use the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip.”

Only the bargaining is very much underway. So, too, is the 2024 presidential campaign.

One senior House Republican offered a potential preview of a GOP attack line, should Biden seek a second term and run on a platform similar to his second State of the Union message.

“I’ve never heard of so many villains in my lifetime,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas said of the big speech. “Pharmaceutical companies are evil, successful businessmen and women, energy companies are evil, even down to, like McDonald’s, or whatever burger shop.”

Another said Biden missed a chance to rise above this era’s sharply partisan politics. “I felt like he missed a real opportunity to forge a bipartisan path forward,” Lawler said.

But some Democrats think they saw their best 2024 candidate Tuesday night. “Scranton Joe” was back at it Thursday during remarks on Social Security and Medicare in Tampa — strategically in Scott’s home state — saying of GOP plans that would “sunset” both programs: “If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”

Asked if Biden sounded like a president seeking reelection, Clark replied: “He sure did to me, and he’s got a great record to run on. … I think ‘Scranton Joe’ is always best with the president.”

The message to Biden’s White House staff and probable 2024 campaign team from the south side of the Capitol was clear: Let Joe be Joe.

— Sophie Will contributed reporting and Ben Hulac contributed transcription.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett reports and writes the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter. Parts of this report first appeared there.

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