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Biden makes a pitch to 'finish the job' in his State of the Union address

President Biden delivers the 2023 State of the Union address.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden delivers the 2023 State of the Union address.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Biden touted the economic progress and legislative achievements made under his watch, repeatedly saying "Let's finish the job" — a refrain likely to be heard as his unofficial pitch for reelection.

It was his first address to Congress since Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in the November midterms. With newly elected GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy sitting over his shoulder, Biden urged Congress to pass a lengthy list of his unfinished priorities.

"There's so much more to do," he said, calling on lawmakers to pass policing reform and immigration legislation, codify abortion rights, and cap the price of insulin for all at $35 a month.

Biden, the oldest president in U.S. history at 80 years old, has said it his intention to run again in the 2024 presidential election. He's expected to make an official announcement in the near future.

President Biden shakes hands with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before delivering the State of the Union address
Pool / Getty Images
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Getty Images
President Biden shakes hands with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy before delivering the State of the Union address

Biden used the speech to draw a contrast with Republicans

The State of the Union address is likely to be Biden's largest television audience of the year, and he used it in part to draw a contrast with Republicans on a number of issues — including raising the debt ceiling.

The Treasury Department warned last month that the United States has hit the debt limit and could default on its bill if Congress doesn't act.

"Let's commit here tonight that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never ever be questioned," the president said, repeating his call for Congress to raise the debt ceiling with no preconditions.

In one of the most testy moments of the evening, he warned that some Republicans wanted to cut Medicare and Social Security in exchange for raising the debt limit. Republican jeers could be heard through the chamber, as they protested the president's characterization of their position. McCarthy has said those entitlement benefits aren't on the chopping block, but he has insisted on cuts to future spending in exchange for raising the debt limit.

"So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now," Biden said, after a feisty exchange with some Republicans in the audience. "We got unanimity" he said with glee.

There was a poignant call for policing reforms

Rodney Wells (L) and RowVaughn Wells (2nd L), parents of Tyre Nichols, were in the first lady's box as special guests.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Rodney Wells (left) and RowVaughn Wells, parents of Tyre Nichols, were in the first lady's box as special guests.

Biden also stressed the urgency for Congress to pass the George Floyd Policing Act after 29-year-old Tyre Nichols was beaten to death last month by Memphis police.

"What happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often, we have to do better," Biden said, nodding to Tyre's mother and stepfather, who were in the chamber as special guests.

Biden's polls have stayed low. He appealed to his track record

Biden's approval ratings have remained stubbornly underwater since August 2021 and surveys show even some Democrats would prefer an alternative presidential nominee. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found a majority of Americans — 62% — think Biden has not accomplished much during his first two years in office.

Tuesday night's speech was an attempt to fix that messaging.

Biden highlighted economic gains and spoke of the low unemployment rate and slowing inflation.

And he pointed out that he's helped usher in a historic amount of legislation — including 300 bipartisan laws around issues such as improving infrastructure, boosting domestic semiconductor manufacturing, and improving veterans benefits.

These laws have so far not helped his poll numbers. Biden tried to emphasize the tangible benefits.

"Already, we've funded over 20,000 projects, including major airports from Boston to Atlanta to Portland," he said. "And folks, we're just getting started."

He also reiterated his optimism in finding issues where members of both parties could find common ground, such as supporting veterans, ending cancer, and beating the opioid epidemic.

"To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can't work together and find consensus in this Congress as well," Biden said.

"Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.