After cries of “liar” and worse, Biden faces his detractors in real time

RowVaughn and Rodney Wells of Memphis, Tennessee, the mother and stepfather of Tire Nichols, stand as President Joe Biden acknowledges them as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the United States Capitol in Washington , Tuesday

RowVaughn and Rodney Wells of Memphis, Tennessee, the mother and stepfather of Tire Nichols, stand as President Joe Biden acknowledges them as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the United States Capitol in Washington , Tuesday

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden was midway through a speech of about 7,218 words on Tuesday when a Republican lawmaker tried to close it with just one: “Liar!”

It was Georgian Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom the president had lured by accusing Republicans of wanting to threaten social security programs.

Later in the speech, when Biden called for an end to the U.S. fentanyl crisis, another lawmaker shouted, “It’s your fault!” – a reference to the amount of drugs smuggled across the US-Mexico border. Another legislator bellowed a curse.

His second State of the Union address was punctuated by outbursts, jeers and bursts of mocking laughter, but Biden turned the tables on his Republican opponents and held live talks with the insurgents. It appeared to be the start of his re-election campaign.

When Republicans yelled no, they weren’t threatening Social Security, Biden smiled, appearing to enjoy the fray, and stated he was glad everyone agreed.

“I’m glad to see — no, I’m telling you, I like the conversion,” Biden said. He’s unlikely to win large numbers of Republicans to support the legislation, but his response to the Greene-led contingent was meant as an unsubtle reminder that he spent 36 years as a senator working to win Republican votes for his legislative efforts.

Biden entered his speech addressing low approval ratings and red-flashing poll numbers that suggest Americans don’t feel his economic policies have helped them. He also walked into a courtroom full of people who silently (and not so silently) wondered how an 80-year-old president could run for re-election.

Yet Biden appeared to be in control as he took his “How are you, man” time down the House chamber aisle before making his way to the dais, where Vice President Kamala Harris and R-Calif President Kevin McCarthy were waiting. Breaking from the combative atmosphere of the chamber, Harris and McCarthy engaged in small talk, and the speaker greeted Biden warmly.

The president got off to a shaky start on the teleprompter as he raced through his comments and mutilated some lines, though he had plenty of energy. He had an even bigger blast once the Republican wails and boos began, and it was very animated when he veered off the teleprompter and addressed them directly in front of a live television audience of millions. At times, the chamber felt like the British Parliament, where boos and shouted insults from the opposing side are a tradition.

In 2009, it was considered a travesty when Rep. Joe Wilson, RS.C., yelled “you lie” to President Barack Obama during a joint address to Congress. Then, Wilson was formally reprimanded by the entire House.

Times have changed. Republican lawmakers shouted both “liar” and “bullshit” in parts of Biden’s speech, and no one appeared shocked. After the speech, Rep. Andy Ogles of Tennessee defended himself by shouting “it’s your fault” as Biden described the fentanyl crisis, telling reporters it was “a visceral response.”

Though McCarthy seemed willing to play the peacemaker at times when tensions threatened to erupt — the speaker shushed Republicans who yelled at Biden for demanding he codify citizenship for Americans brought to the United States as children — his role in the coming months will be to oppose virtually all of Biden’s agenda.

On Tuesday, Republicans spent much of their time signaling that they would help in that mission. Some lawmakers even prepared to tease Biden in advance: Greene carried a white helium balloon around the Capitol, mocking Biden’s response to a giant Chinese spy balloon that swept across the US last week before it an American F-22 detonated it off the coast of South Carolina.

At times, Biden has turned down the volume, calling for police reform by spotlighting the grieving parents of Tire Nichols, who died after a brutal beating on Jan. 7 at the hands of Memphis police officers. The president has emphatically called for more research to end cancer. And he spoke directly to “forgotten” Americans who are struggling financially.

“The jobs are coming back,” Biden said. “Pride is coming back, because of the choices we’ve made over the past few years.”

When asked if Biden was prepared for taunts from Republicans, a senior administration official said the media had underplayed him, a common refrain from Biden’s advisers.

Jeff Nussbaum, a former Biden speechwriter, praised Biden for “doing a great job of looking for common ground and defining sacred ground.”

Much of the president’s speech was vintage Biden, full of well-worn phrases he’s used since the start of his first campaigns half a century ago. The familiar seemed to help him feel comfortable facing Republicans.

“There are some upsides to doing something for 50 years,” said Greg Schultz, Biden’s first 2020 campaign manager. “She has riffs that will never change.”

When the president returned to the White House late Tuesday evening, the staff stood and applauded him.

© 2023 The New York Times Society

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