Biden touts successes during State of Union, critics point to inflation, deceptions

President Biden brought his Walter Mitty fantasies to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. The State of the Union address was given by the same mythical hero who attended law school on a full academic scholarship and went to jail to protest apartheid. His fabled accomplishments this time included ending the Covid pandemic, reducing inflation and the deficit, and bringing the country together. He pledged heroically to block cuts to Medicare and Social Security and a national ban on abortion — none of which have a remote prospect of reaching his desk, as he tacitly conceded in the case of the entitlement programs.

Some of the posturing was, however, politically shrewd. He did a balancing act on the police, praising most of them while also calling for reform. The social causes the administration has spent much of its energy pursuing were relegated to a few sentences tucked more than an hour into the speech. Instead, he concentrated on a doubtless poll-tested economic agenda.

Critics noted he largely ignored the border crisis in his speech, including the record amounts of deadly fentanyl being smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, leading to tens of thousands of overdose and poisoning deaths, as well as the threat China faces to U.S. security after a Chinese espionage balloon was shot down after days of gathering surveillance over U.S. air space. They also pointed to what they said were his many deceptions.

Biden discussed inflation, one of the biggest struggles of his administration, by pointing to the recent slowdown in rising costs, again blaming Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the impact on global supply chains.

“Here at home, inflation is coming down,” Biden said. “Here at home, gas prices are down $1.50 from their peak. Food inflation is coming down, not fast enough but coming down.”

After Biden's speech, critics said Biden wasn't telling the truth.

“Joe Biden may be able to deceive himself, but the American people know better," said Daniel Turner, executive director of energy worker advocacy group Power The Future. "The simple facts are gas costs more, groceries cost more and our energy independence is surrendered. The State of the Union is weaker and the President’s failed agenda is the reason why.”

Gas prices soared to an average of more than $5 a gallon in the U.S. last summer, an all-time high.

Biden also called for the “wealthiest and biggest corporations to begin to pay their fair share,” and proposed quadrupling the tax on corporate stock buybacks from 1% to 4%, a proposal critics say would cost an untold number of jobs and hurt the economy.

“Look, I’m a capitalist, but pay your fair share,” Biden said. “The idea that in 2020, 55 of the largest corporations in America, the Fortune 500, made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal taxes … folks, it’s simply not fair.”

Biden pointed to the 15% minimum tax on book income passed in the Inflation Reduction Act and called for the passage of a billionaire tax.

Biden also touted the growth in jobs since taking office. Critics noted the U.S was returning to normalcy after massive layoffs caused by pandemic-era shutdowns and state-at-home orders.

“Two years ago, COVID had shut down … our businesses were closed, our schools were robbed of so much,” Biden said. “Today, COVID no longer controls our lives.”

Behind Biden sat Vice President Kamala Harris and newly elected Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the new face of Republican leadership in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Biden took a moment to welcome and congratulate McCarthy.

“Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden said to laughs from lawmakers in attendance.

Biden also gave a nod to U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., the new Democratic Minority Leader.

Biden’s speech was punctuated with bouts of applause, usually from Democrats but sometimes from both parties.

“Time and again, Republicans came together,” Biden said, pointing to bipartisan support for funding in Ukraine, COVID relief and legislation helping victims exposed to toxic burn pits.

“I signed over 300 pieces of bipartisan legislation since becoming president…,” he said.

Biden emphasized American manufacturing during the address. He said that going forward, federal infrastructure projects will only use materials bought and made in the U.S., pointing to things like “lumber, glass, drywall, fiber optic cable.”

Biden’s speech ranged across a wide array of topics, including the Inflation Reduction Act, energy, climate change, prescription drug costs, health care, deficit reduction, policing, gun control, big tech, and more. While he briefly mentioned surging illegal immigration, the fentanyl crisis and the threat of China, critics noted that he spent very little time on the topics.

"One hour into this speech, and President Biden hasn't mentioned China or our border once," McCarthy's office tweeted. "But he's proposed raising taxes three times. Tells you where his priorities lie."

Biden took a shot at former President Donald Trump’s deficit increases and called on Congress to increase the debt limit, something Congress has to do in the coming weeks or face defaulting on the debt. His Republican critics blame Biden's massive new spending programs for driving 40-year-high inflation, and also noted that the deficit had soared because of his spending initiatives.

Republican lawmakers erupted in boos and vocal accusations that he was lying when Biden said some Republicans wanted Medicare and Social Security benefits to sunset. After the pushback, Biden conceded that the Republican Party did not want to end the entitlement programs.

GOP lawmakers also were quick to push back on Biden’s claims of economic success. 

“Americans are paying the price due to President Biden and the Democrats radical and out-of-control spending. Soaring energy and food prices, as well as broken supply chains are making it difficult for the hardworking people of this country to get by,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Cathy Rodgers, R-Wash., said. “From the gas pump to the grocery store, American families are seeing an increasing costs for routine expenses. Families on average have been forced to pay $10,000 more over the last two years for everyday goods and services, and more than a third of U.S. households say they’ve forgone things like food and medicine in order to pay their energy bills. These rising costs are hitting low- and middle-income families the hardest.” 

The State of the Union should, in my view, not be just another stump speech. Just as members need to show greater restraint, so should a president.

Of course, we were spared the disgraceful act of “liberated” former Speaker Nancy Pelosi ripping up the speech of former President Donald Trump. It is doubtful that Democrats would be as thrilled and supportive of a “liberated” McCarthy shredding the Biden speech due to his own deep disagreements with it. He did not do so and it helped restored dignity to the chair and decades of traditions.

I admit that I am a bit of a purest on the decorum question. McCarthy could be seen mouthing words and shaking his head. It was reminiscent of the controversy over Justice Sam Alito mouthing objections in response to President Barack Obama. While it paled in comparison to the offensive conduct of his predecessor (who also would shake her head and roll her eyes behind Trump), it was still inappropriate in my view. The Speaker represents the entire body of the House of Representatives — Democratic and Republican — in the State of the Union. As difficult as it may be at times, it is better to remain stoic.

The worst part was the yelling and heckling from Republican members. They were clearly baited by the President and it worked. It was wrong when the Democrats did it and it is wrong now when Republicans do it. At one point, Biden was called a “liar” for again claiming that Republicans want to cut social security (a position rejected repeatedly by the vast majority of Republicans). Biden responded that he was not saying “I’m not saying it’s a majority.” It was still a low blow. However, I continue to follow the old school view that members should remain respectful and silent. To his credit, McCarthy was seen glaring at some colleagues and on at least on occasion telling them to “Shush.”

The State of the Union captured the state of our politics and it is not good. While calling for unity, Biden took cheap shots at his opponents on issues like social security while Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, Ga.) screamed “Liar.” We have lost the civility and, with it, the dignity of such historic moments. Joe Biden is our President. He is granted entry to the House once a year for this constitutional function. He is entitled to a respectful audience. He is also expected to be respectful and accurate in his own words. He also failed that test.

Things will not change in our country until we demand more from both parties and all of our leaders. This spectacle of sparing between the President and members last night goes against everything that we have sought to instill in them about mutual respect and civility.

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