President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy applaud. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/UPI | License Photo
Feb. 7 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden delivered his second State of the Union address Tuesday night at the U.S. Capitol, where he called for political unity to "finish the job," as he challenged a divided Congress to ban assault weapons, pass immigration reform, protect abortion rights and help rebuild the middle class.
After entering the House chamber to a standing ovation and applause from both Republicans and Democrats, Biden opened his 80-minute address by recognizing lawmakers and guests, including new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.
"I start tonight by congratulating the members of the 118th Congress and the new Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy," Biden said. "Mr. Speaker, I look forward to working together."
Biden then went on to tout his economic accomplishments over the past two years, despite acknowledging record inflation.
"Here at home, gas prices are down $1.50 a gallon since their peak. Food inflation is coming down. Inflation has fallen every month for the last six months while take-home pay has gone up," Biden said.
"As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years," Biden said as he also reminded his audience about his administration's recovery efforts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Two years ago, COVID had shut down our businesses, closed our schools and robbed us of so much. Today, COVID no longer controls our lives," the president said. "Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken."
Despite the past successes of his administration, Biden said a "unity" is now required between the nation's two major political parties to "finish the job" -- a phrase he repeated throughout his speech -- to make life easier for working Americans when it comes to the economy, healthcare, education and public safety.
"To restore the soul of the nation. To rebuild the backbone of America, the middle class. To unite the country. We've been sent here to finish the job," Biden said.
"To build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down. Because when the middle class does well, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy still do very well," Biden said. "We all do well."
"You know, we're often told that Democrats and Republicans can't work together," Biden said. "To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can't work together in this new Congress."
Biden also highlighted cooperation around the world as NATO and global allies stand against Putin's aggression and support the Ukrainian people.
"Our nation is working for more freedom, more dignity, and more peace, not just in Europe, but everywhere," Biden said as he also vowed to stand up to Beijing following the recent controversy with the discovery of a Chinese surveillance balloon floating over the United States.
The incident has complicated diplomacy between the world's two biggest superpowers, whose relations have been strained by accusations about the origins of the pandemic and by Beijing's growing incursions over Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea.
The incident led U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to call off a planned visit to Beijing on Friday, while many Republicans in Washington criticized Biden for not taking more decisive action against the reconnaissance craft that defied the limits of U.S. air space and international law.
"I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world," Biden said. "But make no mistake, as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did," the president said to loud cheers from the chamber.
That unity in applause disappeared, though, once Biden accused the GOP of wanting to "sunset" Social Security and Medicare.
"Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans -- some Republicans -- want Social Security and Medicare to sunset. I'm not saying it's the majority," Biden said.
The president's remarks were met with loud boos from Republicans in the chamber, as McCarthy shook his head and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, R-Ga., stood up and yelled, "liar!"
Biden called on Republicans to fix "our present tax system" which he called "simply unfair."
"Under my plan, nobody earning less than $400,000 a year will pay an additional penny in taxes," Biden vowed. "Let's finish the job. Reward work, not just wealth. Pass my proposal for a billionaire minimum tax.
"Because no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter," Biden said as he called on Congress to give public school teachers raises.
In addition to the economy and political unity, Biden talked about healthcare and advancing his four-part Unity Agenda for families, which was unveiled during last year's State of the Union address. The agenda's policies focus on research to end cancer, support for veterans, resources for mental health, and a crackdown on the opioid epidemic.
"Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year," Biden said. "Let's launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale and trafficking with more drug-detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border."
The border also was brought up by Biden in discussing America's immigration challenges.
"But America's border problems won't be fixed until Congress acts," Biden said.
"We now have a record number of personnel working to secure the border, arresting 8,000 human smugglers and seizing over 23,000 pounds of fentanyl," he said. "Since we launched our new border plan last month, unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela has come down 97%."
First lady Jill Biden invited multiple guests to Tuesday's speech, most notably the Ambassador of Ukraine Oksana Markarova, whose appearance was intended to signify the United States' continued support for Ukraine after nearly a year of war. The speech comes nearly two weeks after the president ordered 31 U.S. Abrams tanks sent to Ukraine, along with parts, for its defense against Russia.
Also at the speech were RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, parents of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, the Black man who died last month after he was beaten by a group of Memphis police officers during a traffic stop.
"Joining us tonight are the parents of Tyre Nichols, who had to bury him just last week. There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child," Biden said.
"But imagine what it's like to lose a child at the hands of the law," Biden added as he called for police reform, specifically the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has languished in the Senate since 2021 because of Republican opposition.
Additional guests included Paul Pelosi, husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was the victim of a politically motivated attack in October, and Brandon Tsay who disarmed a shooting suspect in the Monterey Park, Calif., mass shooting this past month.
"He saved lives. It's time we do the same as well," the president said as he called for a ban on assault weapons "once and for all."
"I led the fight to ban them in 1994. In the 10 years the ban was law, mass shootings went down," Biden said. "After Republicans let it expire, mass shootings tripled. Let's finish the job and ban assault weapons again."
At several points during his speech, Biden touted several bipartisan accomplishments, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, calling it the "largest investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System."
"Already, we've funded over 20,000 projects, including at major airports from Boston to Atlanta to Portland," Biden said. "These projects will put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, ports and airports, clean water and high-speed internet across America," he added. "And we're just getting started."
And Biden applauded the Inflation Reduction Act for reining-in healthcare costs.
"With the Inflation Reduction Act that I signed into law, we're taking on powerful interests to bring your healthcare costs down so you can sleep better at night," he said.
"We capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for seniors on Medicare," Biden added. "Let's cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month for every American who needs it."
As the president closed his State of the Union, he turned to climate change, calling it "an existential threat."
"The climate crisis doesn't care if your state is red or blue," Biden warned. "We have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it. I'm proud of how America is at last stepping up to the challenge. But there's so much more to do."
"Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the State of the Union is strong," Biden concluded.
Following the State of the Union, an eight-foot metal fence, which has been erected for a third year around the U.S. Capitol, is expected to be taken down by Wednesday.
Biden will travel to Madison, Wis., on Wednesday to champion his economic strategy and promote the latest positive report on jobs. From there, he'll travel to Tampa, Fla., on Thursday to showcase his plan to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, while underscoring his continued commitment to lowering healthcare costs.
The trips through several key swing states stirred some speculation that Biden may soon announce plans to run for a second term.
President Joe Biden (C) delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on February 7, 2023 as Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., applaud behind him. Pool Photo by Jacquelyn Martin/UPI | License Photo