Biden highlights immigration, reproductive justice in State of the Union speech

A number of guests from Texas were in the Capitol during the address.

By Sarah AschMarch 8, 2024 12:57 pm,

President Joe Biden addressed immigration, reproductive healthcare and the economy at his State of the Union address to Congress on Thursday night — his final one before the November elections.

Matthew Choi, a D.C. correspondent for The Texas Tribune, was in the chamber and said the energy in the room was palpable.

“There’s a lot of energy not just coming from the dais, but also from the members seated on the floor. And Biden really kind of played a lot with that. He responded to a lot of the heckling. Heckling has become much more of a norm than in past generations. And he really responded to that,” Choi said. “That did lead to one of his, you know, one moment that a lot of Democrats actually kind of recoiled from, though, where he was heckled by Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, insisting that he evoked the name of Laken Riley and saying that she was ‘killed by an illegal.’”

Choi said several Democrats expressed frustration that Biden engaged in that exchange, but the overall reviews from the speech were positive.

“He was very much alive and well,” Choi said. “He really wants to push back on this narrative that he’s too old to run again for president.”

Sherri Greenberg, the assistant dean for state and local government engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin, said Biden was in his element during the address.

“He loves Congress. He loves interacting with members of Congress. He loves that stage. And that really came across,” she said. “People were waiting for him to stumble, for him to not be up to the task. And certainly that was not the case. He was engaged. It was a long speech. He had some moments where you could see that he was really just happy to be there and to engage and to take on some of the Republicans with some of the comments.”

Biden did not mention former President Donald Trump by name, but he did make a number of veiled references to his “predecessor” or “the other guy.”

“He was very explicit in making a contrast between what would be a second Trump term versus a second Biden term in terms of his accomplishments on things like infrastructure, climate change, health care, stuff like that,” Choi said. “Right now, the current Congress, with it being split between Republicans in the House and Democrats in control of the Senate and a Democratic White House, not a lot of legislation is happening.

“There’s not a lot that President Biden can really kind of push policy-wise for the immediate term. So he really had to focus on past accomplishments when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House or what he would want to do in a second term, after winning another election.”

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Biden also hammered home on the importance of abortion access in his speech — an area that has sometimes caused Republicans to be weak at the polls.

“Democrats have made and continue to make reproductive rights, abortion, women’s health front and center in campaigns. And it’s been very successful,” Greenberg said. “Kate Cox, who has sued and was denied an abortion in Texas, and left the state to get an abortion because of her health, was there with Jill Biden. And this, I think, is an issue that you will see Democrats and, of course, Biden come back to again and again.”

There were several other high-profile Texans in the room, including Jazmin Cazares, whose younger sister died in the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde.

“It was really interesting that (Biden) brought up (gun control) as a policy goal for if he and Democrats win control of the House next year because that was actually a really interesting kind of division point within Republicans as well,” Choi said. “Texas Senator John Cornyn was one of the leads in the bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major gun safety legislation in a generation after the Uvalde shooting. And that was a really big, divisive line between the more hardline Republicans and more centrist ones.

“So him being able to kind of show that he is someone who’s able to work with Republicans and Democrats alike, it’s something that he really wants to highlight going into this election.”

Katie Britt of Alabama, one of the youngest senators, offered the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union with a speech that highlighted youth compared with Biden’s age, Greenberg said.

“She was sitting at a kitchen table and she very much tried to, of course, highlight kitchen table issues and stated that, frankly, her assessment was that Biden had failed in that respect,” she said.

Greenberg said she felt the speech was a success for Biden.

“There had been a very low bar set. Given that, though, Biden not only exceeded the bar, but I think in ways that people did not expect – whether it was his stamina, whether it was his willingness and desire to engage in going back and forth and some barbs,” she said. “Republicans, of course, said that it was very political. And we have seen that more and more over the past decade.”

Choi agreed with this assessment.

“Biden’s critics were most looking for signs of physical weakness, cognitive weakness. And he just did not give them an inch on that front,” Choi said. “He was very present. He was quite theatrical, actually. He was sharp-witted, with very quick comebacks to a lot of the heckling. And he really proved that, you know, he’s still the classic Biden.”

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