CNN Opinion contributors assess the high and lows of President Biden’s 2023 State of Union speech. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
Paul Begala: Biden plays ‘truth or dare’ with GOP
Joe Biden’s polling may be weak, but his strategic position is strong. Coming off the most productive first two years of any president since Lyndon B. Johnson, Biden’s political priorities have shifted from legislation to implementation. He has already achieved more in two years than most presidents in eight: the biggest investment in the middle class since Franklin Roosevelt, in infrastructure since Dwight Eisenhower, in health care since Barack Obama and in climate change and chip technology in history. Then there’s the biggest expansion of veterans’ benefits since World War II, the first gun safety law since Bill Clinton — and with this week’s jobs report, the lowest US unemployment rate since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were walking on the moon.
With Republicans now in control of the House, Biden is freed from the messy business of actually passing bills. Instead, as in tonight’s State of the Union Address, he can propose wildly popular programs and challenge Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his band of not-so-merry men and women to pass them — or not. Capping insulin for all Americans at $35 a month, providing free community college, restoring the Child Tax Credit — which lifted almost one in three poor children out of poverty — and raising taxes on corporate stock buybacks: all these Biden initiatives will have enormous appeal across the US and across party lines.
McCarthy will be faced with an impossible choice: either give Biden a popular accomplishment to run on or give him an appealing issue to run on. For Biden, it’s a win-win proposition.
Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House.
Kristen Soltis Anderson: The most memorable moment of Biden’s speech
Here’s the reality about the State of the Union these days: Most Americans are not watching. Most big political speeches say things people have heard over and over again. More taxes on the richest Americans, the importance of infrastructure, raising teacher pay, lowing health care costs — all stances that poll relatively well.
But voters are used to politicians making these promises. What will stand out most, then, are the things that voters may not have heard in a State of the Union before, the things that make clips the next day.
President Joe Biden goading Republicans into battle by accusing them of wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare is the moment that will lead the headlines. Republicans, of course, denied the accusation vociferously and stood up for seniors. Prior to that moment, the speech was lower in energy and unlikely to reassure to Democrats skittish about 2024. After that moment, his demeanor was more combative and energetic, closer to what Democrats presumably are hoping for on the 2024 campaign trail.
Kristen Soltis Anderson, a CNN political commentator, is a Republican strategist and pollster and author of “The Selfie Vote: Where Millennials Are Leading America (and How Republicans Can Keep Up).”
Nayyera Haq: Biden paints a picture Americans can recognize
President Joe Biden delivered a speech combining elements from across the political spectrum to paint a picture of an America the majority of voters can actually recognize. It wasn’t “carnage” and it wasn’t unbridled hope, but it was real talk about what it means to be resilient, work hard and expect more from your government. However, the contrast with a message that resonates with the majority of the American public and the political reality in the chamber is stark.
Biden grabbed the MAGA message of losing pride in America, but rather than going backward to a pre-civil rights era, he reflected it back onto feeling unmoored in recent years. He adopted the language calling the attack on the Capitol an insurrection, referring to January 6 as the day “our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War.” But many members in the audience still support the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and are part of that threat to democracy.
A statement as basic as everyone should “pay your fair share of taxes,” and it’s wrong for corporations “making record profits while paying zero in taxes” was met with stone-faced looks from half the chamber, even when Biden pointed out that an oil and gas company paying 15% tax is less than what a nurse pays.
Biden talked about police brutality as a matter of helping parents protect their children, acknowledging the reality that the majority of people in the room never have to have “the talk” or worry about their sons on the road the way Black and rown families do. Biden said making sure Tyre Nichols’ mother’s wish “for something good to come out of this” is everyone’s responsibility, placing the onus on Congress and White people to join the fight for police reform.
He got down the most relatable aspects of policy — that when families who feel pinched in the pocketbook can finally afford a vacation, we get hit with resort fees at places that “aren’t even a resort” and airlines force parents to pay to be seated with their children.
It’s all part of Biden’s narrative about government as a force for good. Biden took the idea of democracy, the possibility of what good it can do in our lives and made it concrete again. Too bad this current Congress is operating in an alternate reality.
Nayyera Haq is a radio host at SiriusXM. She was host of “The World Tonight” on The Black News Channel and is a former White House senior director.
Geoff Duncan: Where Biden’s speech fell short
President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech served as the launch of his 2024 reelection. He shared many familiar themes with Americans, albeit without much in the way of specifics or price tags. Delivered in a folksy manner, Biden’s speech called for higher taxes on the wealthy, as he took his usual shots at private sector companies for not paying their “fair share” — music to the ears of his progressive base.
But for middle-of-the-road voters, neither the southern border nor inflation received much attention from the President — despite both issues being of importance to voters. Neither did the Chinese spy balloon, whose coast-to-coast journey undermines Biden’s tough talk toward Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Biden recounted his past legislative accomplishments without offering much in the way of concrete areas of bipartisan agreement going forward, which is a requirement for anything to pass a divided Congress.
Never known as the world’s best orator, Biden seemed to be enjoying himself. After some of his early jokes landed awkwardly, he came out of the gates at a rapid clip, doing his best to allay concerns about his age and fitness for another national campaign.
Geoff Duncan, a CNN political contributor, served as Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor from 2019-2023. He is a former professional baseball player and the author of “GOP 2.0: How the 2020 Election Can Lead to a Better Way Forward for America’s Conservative Party.”
Karen Finney: Biden proves just how fearless he is
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden again defied expectations and delivered his State of the Union address with a combination of charm, humor and gusto. While he previewed a central theme for his expected reelection campaign —”Let’s finish the job” — he most notably sent a clear message that he is more than ready for the upcoming fights.
Biden extended an olive branch to Republicans and called for bipartisan cooperation. Yet he gave as good as he got from a rowdy GOP caucus, maintaining greater control of the room in the face of heckling than Kevin McCarthy has since the 15 rounds it took for him to become House speaker.
In one exchange, Biden even called out Republican members who celebrated funding for their constituents in the very infrastructure bill they voted against. Biden was fearless as he masterfully boxed Republicans into publicly opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare, nor did he shrink from naming the horror of January 6 and the vicious consequences of the 2020 election lie and divisive political rhetoric.
Biden was also fearless as he adeptly wove together the painful reality of “the talk” Black parents have with their kids about how to interact with the police and humanized all sides of a renewed call for criminal justice and policing reforms rooted in core American values of trust, public safety, accountability, mutual respect and equal protection under law.
Karen Finney has worked at the intersection of politics, media and cultural change for over 25 years. Her career includes roles as top Democratic communications strategist and spokesperson, political commentator, television and radio show host, White House staffer, business and communications adviser, leader and advocate for social justice and civil rights.
David Gergen: Can a fiery speech fire up Biden’s numbers?
It’s hard to think how Joe Biden could have delivered a better performance than he did tonight. He was feisty, full of energy, marshaled his arguments effectively and even batted back Republican catcalls with good humor. By the end of the evening, he looked like a boxer who can’t wait to get into the ring again.
But he now faces an even sterner test: Did he actually move the needle? Among presidents of the recent past, a public appearance as powerful as this one could shake up politics. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan each had the capacity to change minds when they held a microphone.
When Biden’s presidency wasn’t going well, it was easy to understand why he was mired deep in the polls. But he has had a string of successes in recent months, and yet his approval rating is still stuck in the low 40s. One can only imagine the frustration he has felt.
Perhaps Biden, on Tuesday, began getting through to prospective or wavering voters, persuading some — maybe even many — of them to join up for his reelection campaign. If so, Democratic strategists will become much more confident about his prospects for reelection. But if he doesn’t pick up steam after a night like this, they may wander off the reservation.
David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership.
Mondaire Jones: Biden’s moment of political malpractice
President Joe Biden’s discussion of “the talk” that Black parents give to their children about how to safely interact with police officers was the most moving part of his speech.
Still, it was political malpractice for him not to explicitly call for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The family of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was fatally beaten by Memphis police officers last month, deserved to hear it.
Meanwhile, the interracial, intergenerational coalition of voters that got Biden elected needed to hear it. For Black and brown communities who bear the brunt of police brutality, it can seem like forever ago that America experienced what may have been the largest protest movement in its nearly 247-year history following the murder of Floyd in 2020.
Fast forward to 2023, and even after two years of controlling the executive and legislative branches of government, Democrats were unable to pass a comprehensive police reform bill. Such is the nature of the filibuster and GOP opposition to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Even if Congress doesn’t pass meaningful policing reform this term, it’s important for Biden to remind key constituencies he’s still fighting for it. 2024 is around the corner, and the voters who backed him last time will want to know this issue is still a priority for the president.
Mondaire Jones is a CNN political commentator and former Representative for New York’s 17th Congressional District. He also serves as a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights.
Jill Filipovic: His speech was not for me, but I’ll still hold Biden to it
President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech was the most Joe Biden that voters have seen from Joe Biden since the election — good for most Americans, but somewhat disappointing for abortion rights activists and other progressives.
Biden emphasized both his administration’s pocketbook accomplishments and his agenda for shoring up the middle class. From gas prices to keeping working class jobs in America, Biden sang the song of his (perhaps imagined) base: the White working class man.
The trick, though, comes in standing up for what’s right even while speaking to the masses. This was the first State of the Union since the Supreme Court stripped a fundamental right from American women in overturning Roe v. Wade. But abortion didn’t merit a mention until well into the speech — despite the fact that, for women, the right to decide when and whether to have children is as fundamental a concern as outsourced jobs or federal contracts.
Still, as frustrating as I found Biden’s scant coverage of the issues I care about, it’s hard to deny he did extraordinarily well connecting with his audience, and particularly with emphasizing exactly what the Trump GOP doesn’t: that democracy matters; that we all share the same hope for a great nation; that we can work on this project together instead of demonizing each other.
And some members of the Republican caucus seemed keen to highlight the distinctions between the thoughtful, unity-emphasizing Biden and their own party’s shameful descent. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, among others, repeatedly booed and yelled throughout the speech; when he introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols, who was last month fatally beaten by Memphis police officers, and the Ukrainian ambassador, she stayed seated. That perhaps says more than Biden ever could.
This was Biden’s night. I wish he was a different president. But he’s the president most Americans chose — and, on Tuesday, he talked to Americans as a collective force, whether they supported him or not. Even someone who isn’t a huge fan can see why Americans love to hear that.
Let’s hope that the Joe Biden who goes to work in the West Wing tomorrow does what he promised — and all he should have said.
Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter @JillFilipovic.
Raul A. Reyes: Biden is ready to hit the campaign trail
“Folks, we’re just getting started,” President Joe Biden declared in his lively and optimistic State of the Union address. Tonight, Biden’s job was twofold: to highlight his administration’s achievements, and to make the case for his presumed second run at the presidency. His speech was a success on both counts.
Biden smartly aligned himself with populist issues, like making wealthy corporations pay their fair share of taxes and proposing that all federal infrastructure projects use American-made materials. Just as important as putting forth these substantive ideas, the president seemed vigorous and, at times, fiery. This is the Joe Biden who is ready to hit the campaign trail. He clearly enjoyed giving this speech – especially when he, in effect, publicly dared Republicans to oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
As a native of Monterey Park, California, it is still surreal to me that my hometown experienced a mass shooting last month that claimed the lives of 11 people. So it was incredibly moving when the president thanked Brandon Tsay for his heroism disarming the suspected gunman in the attack. It was a poignant reminder of our continuing need for gun reform – as well as deserved recognition of a brave American.
On immigration, the president urged his fellow lawmakers to “come together… and make it a bipartisan issue like it was before.” He cited his administration’s new efforts at the border yet noted that immigration problems won’t be fixed until Congress acts. He’s absolutely right; at best, the president alone can make only temporary fixes to our immigration system. How telling that this common-sense section of his speech seemed to generate heckling in the House, with some members chanting, “Secure the border.” This illustrates the president’s dilemma: Like many Americans, he supports reasonable immigration reform. Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are fixated on generating chaos and division around the issue.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
SE Cupp: What McCarthy’s shushing means for his future
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden took a conciliatory tone with the new Republican House Majority, urging on several occasions for both parties to work together. But some Republicans did not return the favor. The unrulier members of the GOP yelled out multiple times during his State of the Union address, and true to form, Biden tried reasoning with them as they booed him or interjected.
But the most notable moment of the night was when the new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy visibly shushed his own conference as members yelled, “Secure the border!” It was a surprisingly gallant act of leadership from someone who has aligned himself with former President Donald Trump, voted to overturn the 2020 election results and packed the House Oversight Committee with election deniers.
But the shushing — a motion McCarthy repeated several times over the course of the speech — was also symbolic of his troubled road ahead as speaker. Will he continue to “shush” the extremist, conspiratorial and “Never Biden” wing of his party — whom he has empowered and elevated — as they act out and get in the way of his agenda, which might even include working with Biden from time to time?
SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator.
Ashley Allison: In calling for bipartisanship, Biden still called out the GOP
President Joe Biden brought receipts to the State of the Union — and I was here for every moment. Presidents almost always list noteworthy accomplishments in their speeches, but rarely do they engage with opponents in the room to double down on their points. On Tuesday, Biden did just that.
His banter called for Republicans to make it clear where they stood on important issues like the debt ceiling or support for Medicaid and Social Security. Specifically, Biden claimed some Republicans were prepared to let the US default on its debt were cuts to the popular programs not included in budget negotiations — an assertion which triggered a vocal pushback from some members of the GOP caucus present. And he swiftly framed that raucous response as a consensus that wouldn’t be the case; in other words, any backtracking they do on the issue is now easily labeled as bad faith flip-flopping.
Some will complain his words didn’t work to unify the country; I’d argue we cannot be unified without speaking the truth, and Biden called that out. He spoke to his base and let them know he did not forget why he is able to stand at that podium.
Whether you like it or not, this speech made it clear that Biden is running for a second term. And he seems like he is ready to fight for the American people and for every American’s vote.
Ashley Allison is the CEO of Turner Conoly Group and a consultant for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. She is a former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and senior aide to the Biden-Harris campaign.
Justin Gest: The ‘way of unity’ is a one-way street
After making little mention of the “Unity Agenda” since he first announced it in his 2022 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden devoted the end of this year’s speech to his plans to end cancer, support veterans, address mental health and combat the opioid epidemic.
These goals, the White House is calculating, are ideal for a period when it expects Congress to pass few bills and for House Republicans to focus on investigations of Biden’s family and his administration. The “Unity Agenda” does not represent outreach to his opponents; it is a package of uncontroversial proposals that he is daring Republicans to resist.
This is consistent with the way the President has understood “the way of unity” the last two years. A creature of the Senate, Biden’s approach has focused on passing popular legislation most Americans will understand and appreciate, while drawing attention — and political energy — away from the divisive identity politics and culture wars that fueled the rise of Donald Trump.
Just as he did Tuesday evening when he emphasized the American middle class, support for blue collar workers and “building bridges” without mentioning sensationalized issues like critical race theory or transgender bathrooms, Biden’s strategy has been to capture the center of American politics and isolate the antics of far-right leaders controlling the Republican Party. Indeed, striking this contrast has worked out politically for Democrats, who swayed independents and moderates in the 2020 and 2022 elections.
But it has done little to actually unify the country. Recent polls suggest Americans are just as divided as they were before the midterms, and a solid majority expect little more than partisan gridlock from Washington the next two years.
Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He is the author of six books on the politics of immigration and demographic change including, most recently, “Majority Minority.”
Frida Ghitis: Biden just proved he’s ready for a second term
It’s impossible not to view this State of the Union speech as a preview of President Joe Biden’s soon-to-be-announced campaign for reelection. If this look at the past two years has a message for the next two, it is that Biden is in a strong position to succeed in that quest.
The speech, from a man who is not known for his eloquence, was surprisingly effective. Biden was not just confident and humorous; he also made a powerful case for how successful his presidency has been on many fronts.
Reducing unemployment to historic lows, restoring America’s alliances, defending democracy against autocratic assaults around the world.
Amazingly, Biden managed to tout his accomplishments and promote his agenda without being overly partisan. He made repeated appeals to bipartisanship, underscored the achievements made with Republican support, and when GOP members heckled him on Social Security, he managed to spar with them from the podium and, with a bit of jujitsu, appeared to secure a bipartisan agreement to leave Social Security benefits untouched.
Just like he exceeded expectations during the 2020 primaries, Biden did it again with this 2023 State of the Union. We will see after a few days if the speech changed opinions across the country. But the strong speech was a good omen for his 2024 campaign.
Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review.
Alice Stewart: Sarah Huckabee Sanders calls for new generation of leadership
In a scathing rebuke of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership.
At 40, Sanders is the youngest governor in the country. She spoke of Biden as the oldest president in American history, and at 80-years-old, she said, he is simply “unfit to serve as commander in chief.”
The GOP response came on the heels of Republicans in the House chamber shouting their frustration with Biden’s comments on the border crisis, Social Security and Medicare cuts and the threat from China.
Sanders reiterated their irritation, saying “Biden and the Democrats have failed you. They know it and you know it.”
Biden focused his speech on his administration’s accomplishments on unemployment numbers, record new jobs and lower prescription drug prices. But the reality is that just because he says things are better, doesn’t make it so. American people are still suffering.
According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, four in 10 Americans say they are worse off financially since Joe Biden took office.
As expected, Sanders took the opportunity to go after Biden and the left’s radical agenda that doesn’t meet the hard realities Americans face every day. She stated Biden is “surrender[ing] his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.”
Like it or not, Sanders spoke for many Republicans who believe that despite Biden’s claim that the State of the Union is great, his failure to “defend our border, defend our skies and defend our people,” puts the State of our Union in peril.
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator and board member at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University.