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Biden sells ‘America’s comeback’ in State of the Union amid rough polls

‘The American people don’t need empty words,’ Speaker Johnson says

President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address Thursday night amid challenging polls in his reelection bid.
President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address Thursday night amid challenging polls in his reelection bid. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address Thursday evening to try again to convince voters his policies on economic issues have made their lives better.

The 81-year-old Biden stepped to the lectern in the House chamber amid questions and concerns from Republican lawmakers about his age and mental capacity. The president delivered the prime-time address while also battling dismal poll numbers on his job performance, favorability, handling of key kitchen table issues and ability to serve another four-year term.

As expected, Biden defended his record on the economy and described it as fundamentally strong — and better than he inherited from former President Donald Trump, his likely general election foe. “I inherited an economy that was on the brink. Now our economy is the envy of the world. Fifteen million new jobs in just three years – that’s a record,” Biden said as Speaker Mike Johnson shook his head behind him. “Unemployment at 50-year lows. A record 16 million Americans are starting small businesses and each one is an act of hope.”

That defense came as voters’ perceptions are the opposite, with many telling pollsters they disapprove of how Biden has managed the economy, and especially inflation.

“I came to office determined to get us through one of the toughest periods in our nation’s history. And we have,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It doesn’t make the news, but in thousands of cities and towns the American people are writing the greatest comeback story never told,” Biden told the joint session of Congress. “America’s comeback is building a future of American possibilities, building an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down, investing in all of America — in all Americans — to make sure everyone has a fair shot and we leave no one behind.”

White House officials and congressional Democrats spent the week previewing the speech as, in part, an explanation of how Biden was attempting to improve Americans’ personal finances. “Democrats are focused on lowering costs, creating jobs, putting money in people’s pockets,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the chamber floor Thursday morning.

Biden continued that theme from the well of the House chamber, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and Johnson, the Louisiana Republican who is closely aligned with Trump. Their handshake as Biden arrived amounted to a rare meeting of Team Biden and Team Trump.

Johnson released a video earlier Thursday pre-butting many of the messages Biden was expected to deliver, hitting the president on the economy, crime rates, global conflicts and the China-Russia alliance.

“In just three years, President Biden’s policies have rapidly accelerated American decline on every issue from the economy to national security and foreign policy,” Speaker Johnson said. “The American people don’t need empty words on a page for a ‘reset’; we need better policies and a real leader.”

Johnson’s face grimaced in disagreement as Biden slammed the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol rioters, saying “they came to stop the peaceful transfer of power.” Johnson shook his head before clapping when the president said, “You cannot love your country only when you win.”

Trump released his own pre-buttal video, hitting Biden for high immigration rates — Trump’s term featured the same — and blaming him for “migrant crime.” Trump again promised, if elected again, to carry out the largest deportation program in U.S. history.

The president did not utter Trump’s name, but he did allude to the 45th chief executive in the latest version of his preserving-democracy push.

“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy,” he said. “A future based on the core values that have defined America: honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor. Now some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution. That’s not me.”

He also addressed federal abortion rights, a big issue for some Democratic and swing voters. He urged Americans to hand Democrats control of the House and Senate — and reelect him — as part of a vow to restore federal abortion rights protections. “If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose I promise you: I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again,” he said.

While much of the speech focused on domestic issues, Biden spent ample time focused on global affairs, including the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

On the Russia-Ukraine war, Biden made it his first topic. Without using Trump’s name, Biden quoted his recent comment that he would tell Russia “they can do whatever the hell they want,” calling the remark “outrageous, it’s dangerous and it’s unacceptable.” Many Republicans remained seated while most Democrats rose and roared.

But top congressional Republicans have slammed the commander in chief for his handling of foreign policy, blaming him for the Israel-Hamas war and the Russia-Ukraine conflict — even as House Republicans continue blocking an emergency supplemental spending measure that would send billions to Israel, Ukraine and help with the humanitarian crisis inside Gaza.

“It’s difficult to think of a pledge the president abandoned more completely than his campaign promise to restore respect for America on the world stage today,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the chamber floor Thursday.

Still, Biden told the American people about halfway through his speech that “it’s because of you that tonight we can proudly say the State of our Union is strong and getting stronger.”

Bleak polls

A new poll by Voters of Tomorrow, a nonpartisan group that seeks to harness the political power of Gen Z voters, and Generation Lab found that young voters strongly prefer Biden over Trump, 42 percent to Trump’s 29 percent. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they agree or strongly agree that a cease-fire is needed in Gaza but the war was listed as a top-three concern by just 16 percent.

Biden has sometimes criticized the Israeli government’s response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack inside the Jewish state, but has not called for its military operation to be permanently halted, frustrating Arab American groups and many progressives.

Hundreds of pro-cease-fire protesters were sitting on Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol as late as 8:30 p.m. Eastern time.

The 46th president had an uphill climb with voters, according to multiple polls — despite the 45th president facing 91 criminal charges, which polls show does not seem to be dissuading voters.

Biden delivered the prime-time speech underwater in most major polls on questions of his job performance and favorability. The latter was at 42 percent in a YouGov-Economist survey of U.S. adults conducted March 3-5 and released Wednesday, versus a 54 percent unfavorable rate. (Trump’s unfavorable rating was identical, with a 43 percent favorability rating.)

The speech came with Biden also underwater on his approval rating in those same polls, with the YouGov-Economist survey putting it at 40 percent against a 56 percent disapproval rating. Sixty percent of independent adults polled in the same survey disapproved of Biden, versus 31 percent who approved of his handling of his job.

The president appeared to reach out to independents at several points in his address as that key voting bloc again will be key come Election Day, especially in about six swing states that again could decide who is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2025. Some polls have showed Biden trailing Trump, sometimes outside the margins of error, in those very states.

The president, looking to pick up some momentum from Washington’s annual nighttime spectacle, will embark Friday on a bit of a roadshow to sell his policies and record. He is scheduled to travel to swing-state Pennsylvania for a campaign event in the Philadelphia area and to another, Georgia, on Saturday. Biden won the Keystone State by 81,660 votes over Trump in 2020 and the Peach State by 11,779.

Biden appeared in good spirits as he departed the South Lawn of the White House, telling reporters he felt good. “Don’t jump, I need you,” he quipped to aides standing on the Truman Balcony before he boarded his armored Cadillac limousine, known as “the Beast.” As he entered the Capitol, he told other reporters he felt “great.”

Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.

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