“Let’s finish the job.”
If President Joe Biden said it once, he said it at least a dozen times Tuesday night.
And he did it. He got the job done.
His second State of the Union address wasn’t an oratorical beauty like any of President Obama’s, but it was a masterpiece in its own right. He let America know about all his administration’s many accomplishments in his first two years – 300 bipartisan bills, if you’re counting, and he was. He checked off a seemingly endless list of all the things he wanted Congress to pass in the next two years – for workers, for teachers, for children, for the environment, for veterans – beginning or ending each request with “Let’s finish the job.”
And he made sure Republicans heard him loud and clear, even getting their goat once or twice. Other presidents usually ignore or endure their hecklers, but Biden confronted and engaged them, or as the Trumpers like to say, “he owned” them – once in a little exchange about fentanyl and big-time in an extended riff on whether Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Giving as good as he got
In the fentanyl incident, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, sitting behind the president, nods his head in agreement as Biden says, “Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year,” but Republicans grumble loudly and Democrats shout, “Order.” Biden says, “You got it,” and two people, one right after another, shout, “Your fault,” causing McCarthy to whip his head around toward his caucus and shush them, while Biden smiles a devilishly crooked smile. And the crowd noise just … stops.
In the other incident, Biden says to a rising chorus of conservative boos, “Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage, I get it, unless I agree to their economic plan. All of you at home should know what those plans are. Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.
“I’m not saying it’s a majority,” Bidens responds to boos. “If anybody doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy of their proposal.”
As Republicans keep grumbling, Biden smiles and says “I’m glad to see. You know I enjoy conversions.” That gets him enough laughs to override the dwindling boos.
“I’m not saying it’s a majority of you. I don’t think it’s even a significant,” he continues, then suddenly turns to squarely face the Republican side of the room and, raising his voice, firmly says, “But it’s being proposed by individuals. I’m politely not naming them but it’s being proposed by some of you.”
Turning back to the center, he says, “Look, folks, the idea is we’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt if we don’t respond.” To which, he gets a round of applause.
“So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare are off the books now. Right?” and he gives a thumbs up as the applause gets louder. “All right,” he exclaims with a fist pump, then a big “We got unanimity” to another long applause, mostly from Democrats but also some Republicans
He continued the riff with a comedian’s elan several more times throughout the speech, including once when McCarthy jumped to his feet to lead a rousing standing ovation as Biden said, “So tonight, let’s all agree – and apparently, we are – let’s stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare. Those benefits belong to the American people that earn them, and if ever anyone tries to cut them – which apparently nobody is going to do – I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it.”
No safe harbor for extremism
Other than the social benefits routine, the president saved his admonishments for last and used them to segue to the State of the Union’s traditional conclusion.
“The last few year, our democracy has been threatened and attacked, put at risk, put to the test, in this very room on Jan. 6,” he said. “And then just a few months ago, an unhinged, big-lie assailant unleashed a political violence at the home of the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, using the very same language the insurrectionists used in these halls on Jan. 6.
“Here, tonight in this chamber is the man who bears the scars of that brutal attack, who is as tough and strong and resilient as they get, my friend, Paul Pelosi.”
Biden continued, “There is no place for political violence in America… Hate and extremism in any form must be given no safe harbor. Democracy must not be a partisan issue. It’s an American issue.…
“My fellow Americans we meet tonight at an inflection point. This is one of those moments that only a few generations have ever faced, when the direction we now take is going to decide the course of this nation for decades to come. . .
“So I have come to fulfill my constitutional obligation, to report the state of the union, and here’s my report. Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the state of the union, it is strong.
“I’m not new to this place. I stand here tonight having served about as long as any one of you have ever served here, but I have never been more optimistic about our future, about the future of America.
“God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.”