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Speaker Johnson’s face told the story as Biden drew election battle lines

‘Angry, elderly gentleman with a poor memory,’ one GOP lawmaker says of president

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., right, seated next to Vice President Kamala Harris, reacts as President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address on March 7.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., right, seated next to Vice President Kamala Harris, reacts as President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address on March 7. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden came to the Capitol to deliver his State of the Union address with an election-year objective: pick a fight with Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers doing his bidding. Mission accomplished.

Coaches burn the midnight oil devising game plans intended to dictate the pace of the game to their opponent. Biden did the same with extensive preparation at Camp David before the big prime-time speech, aiming to set the terms of his coming general election rematch with Trump, whom he repeatedly referred to as “my predecessor.”

The speech was a fiery reelection sales pitch masquerading as an assessment of the country.

So was the scene inside the House chamber: Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., wore a bright red “Make America Great Again” ballcap and made sure Biden saw it. Democrats chanted, “Four more years, four more years” repeatedly. It was a speech tailored for the current era of bitterly partisan, win-at-all-costs politics — complete with back-and-forth exchanges between Biden and Republicans inside the raucous House chamber — set inside a testy environment.

Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., noted that while Biden opted against using the election-year address to propose a laundry list of new federal programs, he did talk about “little things that he would do to help improve the quality of life for Americans at all levels of life.”

“But the constant thread was how we’re going to grow the middle class, how do we help the middle class? How are we going to grow that middle class, because we grow fast as the country does,” the former Centennial State governor added.

At several points, the president declared that “the days of trickle-down economics” espoused by former GOP President Ronald Reagan “are over, and the wealthy and the biggest corporations no longer get all the tax breaks.” GOP members booed and grumbled.

From aid to Ukraine to hiking taxes on big corporations and wealthy Americans to crime to immigration to abortion rights, Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., grimaced, rolled his eyes and shook his head throughout the address.

Johnson’s gestures and GOP members’ jeers made clear that the president they view as too old, too frail and too mentally dull somehow managed to get under their skin. Republican lawmakers spilled into the Capitol’s Statuary Hall after the speech to complain that Biden was “angry” and “political,” ignoring that those adjectives often are apt descriptions of Trump’s third White House bid.

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said Biden’s address “did not show strength for America. It wasn’t a good look for our country.”

“I started to clap a couple of times. I tried really hard to find those areas of common ground. … I support early childhood education. I think we need to stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin from continuing to advance on sovereign democracies,” Graves said Thursday night. “I want to bring prescription drug costs down as well. … But I felt that it was more of a campaign speech than it was a real sincere sort of message to the American people.”

Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., said Biden was “like an angry, elderly gentleman with a poor memory yelling at people to get off his lawn.”

Johnson, seated behind Biden alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, lagged other members in applauding some of the president’s lines. When it took him a few seconds to stand after Biden mentioned the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Harris shot him an icy glance as he slowly rose to join other members in a standing ovation.

And when Biden noted that the country has “never fully lived up to that idea” of “we’re all created equal,” Johnson opted to remain seated. When Biden, without naming him, criticized Trump for recently saying undocumented migrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” the speaker who regularly visits Mar-a-Lago shook his head and remained seated as Democratic lawmakers rose and roared.

Hickenlooper called the spectacle “a little unruly at times” but gave Biden high marks.

“I thought the whole speech would assuage [voters]. It’s not like he was going to kickbox Putin or wrestle with Trump. What he had to demonstrate was that he had the force of energy and had wisdom,” Hickenlooper said, adding: “I was pleasantly surprised.”

Thursday night marked the second consecutive State of the Union during which Biden and Republican members have openly bickered. Johnson reportedly had asked his conference to tone things down this year, but even one moderate member blamed Biden for essentially creating the GOP responses.

“I don’t agree with the heckling. I think there’s got to be some implicit respect for the president you should have,” Graves said. “But … I get it. I’ll admit there were times when I was sitting there like, ‘This is awful,’ and wanting to say things.”

The bickering and barb-trading continued into the weekend, as both presidential candidates hit the road and the general election unofficially began.

Lawmakers weighed in, knowing their own reelection races inevitably will be influenced by the themes, tone, insults and accusations bandied about like haymaker punches in a contest that could be billed on a Las Vegas marquee simply as Trump-Biden II.

The combatants spent Saturday at dueling rallies in Georgia, a state Biden won by just under 12,000 votes in 2020 — and one where Trump and surrogates pressured state election officials to try to manipulate the count in his favor, prompting state charges against the former president and others. Their Peach State remarks offered a preview of general election themes.

“What Joe Biden has done on our border is a crime against humanity and the people of this nation for which he will never be forgiven,” Trump said while again vowing, if elected, to implement the most sweeping deportation program in U.S. history. He added of Biden’s border record: “What a tremendous shame.”

Trump also poked fun at Biden’s stutter, which affected him seriously as a child but which he has mostly conquered, and hurled insults and unproven allegations at other foes and critics.

Biden used his Georgia appearance to again tout his record, and to warn about what he calls Trump’s threat to the American democratic system.

“When he says he wants to be a dictator, I believe him,” Biden said of Trump, who has several times vowed to be a “dictator on day one” of a possible second term so he could enact strict immigration measures and open up more energy extraction on U.S. soil.

“Our freedoms,” Biden said Saturday, “are literally on the ballot this November.”

Justin Papp, Nina Heller and Victor Feldman contributed to this report.

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