U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday called his country’s democracy “unbreakable” and vowed to work with the opposition in a State of the Union address that served as an olive branch for skeptical Republicans and a blueprint for his 2024 re-election bid.
In his first speech to a joint session of Congress since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, Biden cited progress in a post-pandemic economy and stressed that a bitterly divided legislature could overcome their differences.
“We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over the last two years we’ve proven the cynics and naysayers wrong,” Biden said. “To my Republican friends, if we were able to work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well.”
Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy first sat behind Biden during the speech.
“I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I’m looking forward to working with you,” Biden said with a laugh.
One of the tests of that challenge will be the White House’s efforts to raise the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, which must be raised in the coming months to avoid default. The White House has said Biden will not negotiate on that need; Republicans want spending cuts in exchange for their support.
Trying to project optimism ahead of the 2024 presidential campaign, Biden said the economy has created 12 million new jobs, that COVID-19 no longer controls the lives of Americans, and that America’s democracy remains intact despite facing its biggest threat since the Civil War.
“Today, although bruised, our democracy remains unscathed and intact,” he said.
Since his inauguration in 2021, shortly after the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, Biden has said he wants to unify the country. And he stuck to that issue, highlighting a huge infrastructure bill that many Republican lawmakers had opposed.
“I sincerely thank my Republican friends who voted for the bill,” Biden said.
“And to my Republican friends who voted against but keep asking to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president of all Americans. We will finance your projects. And I’ll see them at the inauguration,” he added, drawing laughter and applause.
Despite his efforts, Biden remains unpopular.
His public approval rating rose one percentage point to 41 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll closed on Sunday. 65% of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, up from 58% a year earlier.
Similarly, in the fall of 2020, when Donald Trump was president, 65% of registered voters believed the country was on the wrong track, according to the Reuters/Ipsos poll.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was once Trump’s press secretary, rejected Biden’s optimistic view of the country in the Republican response.
“In radical left-wing America, Washington taxes you and sets fire to your hard-earned money. But you get crushed with high gas prices, empty supermarket shelves, and our kids are taught to hate each other because of their race,” Sanders said in excerpts released ahead of his televised remarks.
Biden’s aides see the speech, which will draw millions of viewers and perhaps the biggest television audience of the year for the president, as a milestone ahead of the second presidential campaign he is expected to launch in the coming weeks.
Biden turned 80 in November and, if re-elected, would be 82 at the start of a second term, a fact that worries many Democratic voters, recent polls show.