For four decades, since Ronald Reagan re-invented the modern State of the Union address, television audiences have become accustomed — arguably to the point of tedium — to presidents putting the spotlight on ordinary Americans invited to the House chamber to be hailed for some extraordinary act.
At last, in 2023, came a new twist on the old ritual. This time, it was ordinary Republicans putting the spotlight on themselves — through extraordinary rudeness. With boos, taunts, groans, and sarcastic chortles, the opposition party effectively turned themselves into prime-time props for President Joseph Biden.
The performance definitely broke through the tedium. Let’s remember to check Biden’s next campaign disclosure forms — the Republican honking amounted to an in-kind contribution, one he sorely needed.
The gift paid dividends at both the stylistic and substantive levels.
In terms of pure theater, the jeers helped Biden come alive.
At the beginning of the address, Biden ambled through the House gallery, an 80-year-old president who didn’t look a day over 80, nor a day under. A politician who overcame a boyhood stutter, yet who has never been particularly strong with formal speeches, had his usual mix of garbled phrases and you-know-what-he-means sentence fragments. Would this be a painful evening?
Soon enough, it became an entertaining one. At least, Biden was having fun, looking at booing Republicans with a smile. He accused “some of my Republican friends” of wanting to “sunset Social Security and Medicare,” even as he acknowledged that, “I am not saying this a majority” who backs a proposal last year from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Amid shouts of “liar!” Biden responded, “Anybody who doubts it contact my office and I will give you a copy of the proposal.” As audible protests continued, Biden returned the volley, in seemingly spontaneous fashion. “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare off the books now, right? All right. We got unanimity.”
Beyond enlivening the evening, the boisterousness in the gallery was a reminder of something more consequential. Even in a polarized era, the modern presidency gives its occupants unmatched ability to define and hold the political center. This might be easy to forget, after years in which Donald Trump — practicing a politics of contempt aimed mostly at mobilizing supporters — seemed indifferent to this reality.
Biden, formed by a different era, and advised by veterans of Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies, was plainly using the speech to achieve more traditional aims. He sought to present himself as a common-sense realist, in touch with the everyday concerns of voters — inviting the opposition to choose between joining him to solve problems or risk being portrayed as obstructionists and extremists. It may not be the most novel of strategies, but for the past couple generations it has been the one that most two-term presidents have followed — typically using State of the Union addresses as major events in making the case.
Biden also showed that it is not such a difficult feat — at least not with the presidential platform — to unify different wings of his party, despite some commentary asserting they are irreconcilable.
No reason they need to be. On policing reform, for instance, Biden introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols — killed in a beating by police in Memphis last month — and trumpeted his proposals to reduce police violence. But he steered far clear of the anti-police rhetoric embraced by some on the left, and exploited by Republicans, after the George Floyd murder in 2020: “I know most cops are good, decent people — the vast majority.”
Biden congratulated new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, joking that, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.” At the same time, he well knew Republicans would have little interest in working with him on proposals to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and to expand government rules on business from everything from drug prices to airline fees.
It's little wonder that Republicans in the crowd were irritated. The whole evening was evidence that even a president with low approval ratings has a much louder voice and more potent ability to frame the debate than they do.
For the historical-minded, it was also evidence of how standards of decorum are highly fluid. Recall the big fuss in 2009 when Republican Joe Wilson of South Carolina interrupted President Obama’s speech to Congress by shouting, “You lie.” Even many Republicans were embarrassed, and Wilson apologized.
This time, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted out at least nine times, by the count of a POLITICO reporter in the gallery, that Biden was a liar. No one was surprised — certainly not Biden, who recognized an opportunity when it is delivered gift-wrapped before a nationwide audience.