President Biden’s State of the Union touts bipartisan wins in combative chamber

While the speech served to rally the base, one commentator says “specific marching orders” weren’t as clearly defined.

By Rhonda Fanning and Sarah AschFebruary 8, 2023 11:48 am,

The heckling may have captured much of the morning-after chatter regarding President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address, but there were several key moments to pull from Tuesday night’s speech.

From the outset, the president struck a different tone, one that is far from common in today’s political discourse, with the president congratulating Republicans for their midterm gains in the House. He also openly and repeatedly called for bipartisan compromise and touched on several issues that hit home for many Texans.

Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas-El Paso, joined Texas Standard to go over some of the biggest takeaways. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: First off, what was your overall takeaway from last night’s speech? The mood in the House chamber seemed to be a rather lively at the State of the Union. 

Richard Pineda: It was certainly the best of what President Biden has done. And I think in relationship to State of the Unions of the last several cycles, I think that this was going to stand out not only for the tone, but as you pointed out, the way that he engaged with Republicans in the chamber. I mean, things have changed in terms of how much the opposition is willing to heckle the president. We’re starting to sound a little bit more like British parliament. But in that sense, I think that’s exactly the kind of environment that President Biden likes the best. And you could see it on his face and you could see it in his energy as the speech went on. 

» LISTEN: NPR State of the Union en español – Un programa bilingüe

It was interesting how the president seemed to repeatedly tout bipartisan wins and then say, “let’s finish the job.” It was something that he kept coming back to. Biden brought up the CHIPS and Science Act, something that Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Michael McCaul worked on. Do you think that kind of appeal resonates with those who were tuning in last night? 

I think it does. And I think the trick and the reason that last night’s speech was so strategic is he’s laying the groundwork to approach issues like that, to reach across the aisle with members of the Republican Party that he sees willing to engage. And I think Cornyn is a great example. You know, some of the work that he did on the gun law last year I think is sort of proof of this.

So I think that there’s two things. One is it’s strategic to engage people that I think are serious about politics. And I think it’s also a way to draw a line between the folks that heckled him, the folks that are on the extreme right that don’t seem to be willing to make any headway on policy. So I think in that sense, I think it’s a good invitation. Now, will this make it past what we see in the committees? Hard to say the morning after.

You mentioned gun violence – President Biden said “do something.” “Do something” was what he heard from parents who lost children involved in the mass shooting last year. And he mentioned last year’s bipartisan gun law, which Sen. John Cornyn of Texas was very much part of. But he added, “we’re not done yet.” What else do you figure Biden wants Congress to do at this juncture? Was he clear on that? 

Well, I think I think there’s a couple of places. You know, the economy is certainly looming large. I thought that the back-and-forth that really started the open heckling on Social Security and whether or not that would get sunsetted – I think that’s a place he wants to make strides. But I think to your point, talking about the gun laws or talking about immigration, which I think is another important Texas issue, didn’t get a lot of attention in terms of detail. And I think this is a little bit of where the president is kind of working a high-wire act in the sense that he is dealing with some things that are out of the control of the White House at the moment, seemingly. But he’s suggesting that Congress needs to get on the same page.

Immigration is a good example. So I think in that sense, I mean, there’s agenda items, but I think a lot of those things are going to really have to play out in the House. And I think that’s where the problem is going to be for this White House.

So I think it was a good speech in terms of rallying the troops. I think it spoke to middle-class voters in the country as a whole. But I think ultimately it’s going to be hard to pull specific marching orders from what he talked about last night. 

And I do think that there are different visions of what some of these problems are. I mean, you look at the issue of gun violence, you look at the issue of immigration and how the parties define those issues for themselves. How do you bridge that? 

That’s going to be tough. I mean, one of the points I make a lot is when we use the phrase “comprehensive immigration reform,” at this point, that’s a catch-all that really depends on who’s talking about it. And I think this is one of the first challenges from a rhetorical communication perspective. The president has to line up with policy, which there’s got to be some agreement as to what that means.

I will say, though, the one thing that was a big takeaway, if you watched the Republican response, it was a very sort of broad return to kind of these, you know, big issues that rally the Republican base – the “woke” nature of education, for example. Those things weren’t in the president’s speech. And I don’t necessarily think that that’s where this president is headed. I think he made some headway on things like police violence. But he was very careful in the sense of avoiding kind of this rhetorical trap of talking about some of these issues that the Republicans have sort of cast as the kind of boogeyman for contemporary politics.

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