The U.S. president addresses Congress in an event marked by the Chinese spy balloon crisis
The President of the United States, Joe Biden, delivers this Tuesday the State of the Union address that marks the halfway point of his term. The Democrat was set to showcase his administration’s achievements before Congress, from economic management to his message on the defense of democracy, while the Republicans planned to warn about debt and inflation. However, a string of mass shootings in January and, more recently, the appearance of a Chinese spy balloon over US skies which has triggered diplomatic tensions, have both had an impact on this crucial annual event, which begins at 21.00 ET. According to advanced excerpts of the president’s speech handed out by the White House, Biden will make a call for bipartisan collaboration: “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. The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere”, he will say.
President Biden arrives
Joe Biden is in the House of Representatives. Democrats receive him with cheers that come and go. Let’s just say that an unfettered enthusiasm is not felt.
The speech begins
President Joe Biden began his speech by personally greeting the main authorities of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. Casting a light tone which even included some lighthearted joking, he extended his hand to the new Speaker of the House, Republican Kevin McCarthy (“I look forward to working together”), had special congratulations for the first African-American to lead the Democratic minority in the House, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, and addressed a special mention to his colleague Nancy Pelosi, who led the Democratic majority in the House for decades, among others. “The greatest House speaker in the history” of the U.S., he has said of Pelosi. Her nod to McCarthy has been widely applauded by the Republican caucus.
The first direct appeal for unity
“We’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together. But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong. Yes, we disagreed plenty. And yes, there were times when Democrats had to go it alone. But time and again, Democrats and Republicans came together”
Working together to overcome two years of hardship
“The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere. And that’s always been my vision for our country. 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 defends one of his major accomplishments, the infrastructure bill: “Now we’re coming back because we came together to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, 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”. Projects that will provide jobs for “hundreds of thousands of Americans” and that, he recalled, are made possible by bipartisan support for the initiative.
“Unemployment rate at 3.4%, a 50-year low. Near record low unemployment for Black and Hispanic workers. We’ve already created 800,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs, the fastest growth in 40 years. Where is it written that America can’t lead the world in manufacturing again?”
Republican boo for Medicaid
The Republican benches have come out of their slumber to eagerly boo a reference by Biden to his alleged hidden plan to cancel Social Security and Medicare, as Republican Sen. Rick Scott (Florida) said in his latest campaign.
The chapter on healthcare, of a system that works for all, is at the center of a large part of the speech; specially the access to insulin at reasonable prices: “Every day, millions need insulin to control their diabetes so they can stay alive. Insulin has been around for 100 years. It costs drug companies just $10 a vial to make. But, Big Pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars – and making record profits. Not anymore”, said Biden.
“If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country”
The White House has advanced the text of Biden’s speech. The president offers Ukraine his full support to defend itself against Russia and launches a message to China after the spy balloon incident: “Before I came to office, the story was about how the People’s Republic of China was increasing its power and America was falling in the world. Not anymore. I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict. I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating. Investing in our alliances and working with our allies to protect our advanced technologies so they’re not used against us. Modernizing our military to safeguard stability and deter aggression. Today, we’re in the strongest position in decades to compete with China or anyone else in the world. I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China’s threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did. And let’s be clear: winning the competition with China should unite all of us. We face serious challenges across the world. But in the past two years, democracies have become stronger, not weaker. Autocracies have grown weaker, not stronger”.
Biden calls for a defense of democracy with Paul Pelosi’s example
Biden concluded his message with a theme he has insisted on time and again: the defense of democracy. It was a key slogan in his campaign for last November’s legislative elections. To present it, he made use of the presence of Paul Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi’s husband, brutally attacked in his home last November. Democracy, he said, “is the most fundamental thing of all. With democracy, everything is possible. Without it, nothing is possible.
“For the last few years our democracy has been threatened, attacked, and put at risk. Put to the test here, in this very room, on January 6th”, he continued, in a thinly veiled attack on Donald Trump, his presidential adversary in 2020. “And then, just a few months ago, unhinged by the Big Lie, an assailant unleashed political violence in the home of the then-Speaker of this House of Representatives. Using the very same language that insurrectionists who stalked these halls chanted on January 6th. Here tonight in this chamber is the man who bears the scars of that brutal attack, but is as tough and strong and as resilient as they get. My friend, Paul Pelosi. But such a heinous act never should have happened. We must all speak out. There is no place for political violence in America. In America, we must protect the right to vote, not suppress that fundamental right. We honor the results of our elections, not subvert the will of the people. We must uphold the rule of the law and restore trust in our institutions of democracy. And we must give hate and extremism in any form no safe harbor”.
Biden insisted that the United States is “at a turning point,” one of those “moments that only a few generations ever face, where the decisions we make now will decide the course of this nation and of the world for decades to come. We are not bystanders to history. We are not powerless before the forces that confront us. It is within our power, of We the People. We are facing the test of our time and the time for choosing is at hand. We must be the nation we have always been at our best. Optimistic. Hopeful. Forward-looking”.
The opiod epidemic and the mental health crisis
The opioid crisis figured prominently in the president’s speech. Fentanyl, he recalled, “is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year,” he said, urging a major offensive to stop “the production, sale and trafficking of fentanyl, with more drug detection machines to inspect shipments and stop pills and powder at the border.”
The call has been accompanied by strong support for mental health, especially for children. “When millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma, we owe them greater access to mental health care at school”, he said.
“America’s border problems won’t be fixed until Congress acts”, Biden said tonight on the immigration issue. The president, who has faced a tough situation on the line with Mexico over increased illegal immigration, says the situation requires the support of Republicans.
He noted that during his administration, 8.000 human traffickers have been arrested and more than nine tons of fentanyl, the potent synthetic opiate, have been seized in recent months.
“Since we launched our new border plan last month, unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela has come down 97%”, added the president. Biden also stressed the need to give Dreamers citizenship, one of his first promises upon reaching the White House that remains unfulfilled.
Economy, collaboration with Republicans, police violence, firearms, Ukraine and China
U.S. President Joe Biden has been speaking just over an hour now. He has reached out to Republicans to work together (“The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for fighting’s sake, power for power’s sake, conflict for conflict’s sake, gets us nowhere”), he has showcased the economic achievements of his presidency (“Two years ago our economy was faltering. As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs: more jobs have been created in two years than any president has created in four years”), called for police reform and a ban on assault weapons. He also sent a message of support to Ukraine and issued a warning to China: “If China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country”, he said.
Unwavering support for Ukraine in the face of Putin’s imperialist aggression
Biden reaffirmed his support for Ukraine to curb Vladimir Putin’s imperialist ambitions and the role of the United States as guarantor of the international order in the face of illiberal threats. “Let’s remember the world is watching. I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal war against Ukraine. A murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II. Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world”. Then, he rhetorically posed in his speech whether the US, and by extension the West, was ready to come to Ukraine’s defense. “Would we stand for the most basic of principles? Would we stand for sovereignty? Would we stand for the right of people to live free from tyranny? Would we stand for the defense of democracy? For such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity. One year later, we know the answer. Yes, we would”, he stressed, in the presence of the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, guest of honor at the event.
A call to ban assault weapons
Biden has never hidden his intention to regulate access to guns, including banning assault or combat weapons, the deadliest, and raising the minimum age for purchasing such weapons: “Do something. That was the same plea of parents who lost their children in Uvalde: Do something on gun violence. Thank God we did, passing the most sweeping gun safety law in three decades. That includes things that the majority of responsible gun owners support, like enhanced background checks for 18 to 21-year-olds and red flag laws keeping guns out of the hands of people who are a danger to themselves and others. But we know our work is not done”.
“Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform”
With the memory still fresh of the beating death of young African-American Tyre Nichols in Memphis, at the hands of five police officers, also black, Biden calls for progress on a police reform that has been stalled for two years in Congress by Republican opposition. “I know most police officers are good, decent people,” the president said. “But what happened in Memphis, it happens too often.”
Biden has called for resources to diagnose and tackle mental health problems encountered by officers on the streets. “We need more money to reduce violent crime and gun crime; more community intervention programs; more investments in housing, education and job training”.
“With the support of victims’ families,” he continued, “civil rights groups and law enforcement, I signed an executive order for all federal agents that bans chokeholds, restricts warrants and other key elements of the George Floyd Act.” He did so in May 2022, on the second anniversary of the death of Floyd, an African-American, from choking under the weight of a white officer’s knee. That unleashed a wave of global protests that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Several family members of victims of police brutality have been invited to tonight’s speech. Among them, those of Nichols, who have risen to receive applause from the congressmen. “Let’s come together on police reform,” Biden said.
It was one of the most emotional moments of the speech. The chamber fell silent when he said, “I’ve never had to have the talk with my children – Beau, Hunter, and Ashley – that so many Black and Brown families have had with their children. If a police officer pulls you over, turn on your interior lights. Don’t reach for your license. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Imagine having to worry like that every day in America.”
That part of the speech ended with a bipartisan ovation for the families of those killed.
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