7 takeaways from Biden's fiery State of the Union

As the election gears up, he touted his record and went after Republicans.

March 8, 2024, 1:28 AM

President Joe Biden delivered an alternately fiery and forceful State of the Union address on Thursday night under what may have been the brightest spotlight of the year so far -- just as he gears up for a general election campaign against former President Donald Trump.

Biden, whose time in office has been increasingly clouded by public concerns over his age and fitness, offered a vociferous defense of his record and a new spin on the value of his 81 years.

He also took congressional Republicans and Trump -- though, in the latter's case, conspicuously not by name -- to task over their opposition to his administration and their own policies on abortion, the border, democracy, taxes and more.

Biden specifically hit on several foreign policy flashpoints, including Israel's war with Hamas and Ukraine's defense against Russia's invasion, while pushing for action on domestic issues like reproductive health care and high immigration.

"Above all, I see a future for all Americans," he said. "I see a country for all Americans."

Meanwhile, Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, a rising GOP star, gave the Republican response to Biden's address, which was dismissed by House Speaker Mike Johnson as "a campaign speech -- and a pretty vitriolic one."

Here are seven takeaways from Thursday night's remarks.

PHOTO: Republican Representative from Georgia Marjorie Taylor shouts as President Joe Biden delivers his third State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Mar. 7, 2024.
Republican Representative from Georgia Marjorie Taylor shouts as President Joe Biden delivers his third State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Mar. 7, 2024.
Shawn Thew/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Biden seemed eager to tangle with Republicans

Thursday's State of the Union was the source of much anticipation -- and Democratic hand-wringing -- as polling shows that even many Democrats think that Biden is not up for four more years in the White House.

The president's speech sought to put those worries to bed.

Across roughly 70 minutes before Congress, Biden kept his well-known habit for verbal stumbles to a minimum while at times virtually shouting, despite Republicans' attacks painting him as a "diminished" leader.

Biden also goaded conservatives in the crowd and appeared ready to parry boos from the rowdy members of the other party.

After drawing outcry for claiming Republicans would "gut" Social Security and cut taxes for the ultra-wealthy, Biden, in a flashback from the 2023 State of the Union said, "Oh, no? You guys don't want another $2 trillion tax cut? I kinda thought that's what your plan was. You're not gonna cut another $2 trillion for the super wealthy? Well, that's good to hear."

He also engaged with Republicans in the crowd when he lambasted them for tanking a bill that would have combined aid to Israel, Taiwan and Ukraine with an overhaul of border reforms that was stricter than Democrats have previously backed.

"Oh, you don't like that bill, huh, that conservatives got together and said was a good bill?" he said when lawmakers booed. "I'll be darned, that's amazing."

Toward the end of his speech, Biden also directly addressed his age to cast himself as wise.

"I know I may not look like it, but I've been around a while," he joked. "And when you get to my age, certain things become clearer than ever before."

"My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy," he said. "A future based on the core values that have defined America: Honesty. Decency. Dignity. Equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor."

The performance soon had some Democrats jubilant ahead of an election that is likely to be in part determined by perceptions of Biden's stamina and fitness compared to Trump, with Tim Lim, a Biden fundraiser, telling ABC News it "should calm down the anxious chattering class."

"Republicans made the floor for this speech so low, but Joe Biden showed up dancing on the ceiling," said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist working with pro-Biden outside groups this election cycle.

Biden touts his own agenda -- with little push for bipartisanship

Biden also rolled out a full-throated defense of his own agenda that left little room for cooperation with Republicans -- leaving behind a hallmark of bipartisanship that he frequently promised during his 2020 campaign.

Speaker Johnson, reacting later Thursday, criticized that.

"The country needs to be united. This commander in chief is unwilling or incapable of doing that. And I think that's what the American people saw tonight," Johnson told reporters. "And, you know, it was unfortunate, I really regretted the way they went down."

But rather than pitch areas of future compromise, the president touted how his administration has focused on kitchen-table issues, including tackling so-called consumer junk fees, protecting and expanding the Affordable Care Act and focusing on middle-class jobs and investment.

Gone were the pronouncements of lawmakers working together on Capitol Hill, replaced instead with election-year suggestions that Republicans would roll back progress on many issues dear to Americans.

"Folks, Obamacare, known as the Affordable Care Act is still a very big deal. Over 100 million of you can no longer be denied health insurance because of pre-existing conditions. But my predecessor and many in this chamber want to take that protection away by repealing the Affordable Care Act. I won't let that happen. We stopped you 50 times before and we will stop you again," he said.

Beyond parrying Republicans' boos on policy, the president also went straight back at the GOP on an issue that is sure to animate his campaign: democracy itself.

"My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth of Jan. 6. I will not do that," he said, in one of the repeated instances in which he cited Trump without naming him. "This is a moment to speak the truth and bury the lies. And here's the simplest truth: You can't love your country only when you win."

Democratic observers relished that approach.

"Biden did exactly what he needed to do, it was a great speech, and he delivered it with force and compassion," said Karen Finney, who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. "He also made it clear he is not going to shrink from tough fights, either political or policy. And honestly his realistic optimism is such a strong contrast with Trump. Also, framing the GOP agenda as old ideas is very effective."

PHOTO: President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber in Washington, Mar. 7, 2024.
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber in Washington, Mar. 7, 2024.
Shawn Thew/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine a top priority

Biden started his speech by drawing parallels to then-President Franklin Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union, delivered less than a year before the U.S. entered World War II.

The comparison was clear, in Biden's words: U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, under current funding, is nearly at an end amid Republican skepticism of its importance and without more help, Kyiv's defenses against Russia could crumble.

"President Roosevelt's purpose was to wake up the Congress and alert the American people that this was no ordinary moment. Freedom and democracy were under assault in the world," Biden said.

He warned of issues both at home and abroad.

"Overseas, [President Vladimir] Putin of Russia is on the march, invading Ukraine and sowing chaos throughout Europe and beyond," he went on to say. "But Ukraine can stop Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons it needs to defend itself. That is all Ukraine is asking ... But now assistance for Ukraine is being blocked by those who want us to walk away from our leadership in the world."

He also posed a stark contrast to his response to the war with that of Trump, who recently floated that he would not come to NATO allies' defense if they too were invaded, citing frustrations with their contributions to shared defense.

"My message to President Putin ... is simple: We will not walk away. We will not bow down!" Biden said. "I will not bow down!"

Biden tries to walk the line on Israel, Gaza

Biden walked a narrower tightrope on Israel, as he looked to voice support for Jerusalem while urging it to provide more aid for Palestinians civilians caught in the middle of fighting with Hamas in Gaza, where tens of thousands have been killed, according to Hamas health authorities.

The president promoted himself as a "lifelong supporter of Israel and the only American president to visit Israel in wartime" while insisting that the country has "has a right to go after Hamas."

However, he noted that Israel "also has a fundamental responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Gaza," urging leaders there to not view humanitarian aid to Gaza as a "secondary consideration or a bargaining chip."

Putting a finer point on that argument, Biden announced an emergency mission to build a port on Gaza's Mediterranean coast to get aid to civilians -- a significant escalation of America's humanitarian contributions that also brings the military closer but not directly involved in the conflict.

"This temporary pier would enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day. But Israel must also do its part," he said.

The push came as liberal and pro-Palestinian critics of his response to the war have made their voices heard with protest votes in some early Democratic primary states, chiefly in Michigan, where more than 100,000 people who voted in the nominating race there backed "uncommitted."

Reproductive rights still a top issue for Democrats

Reproductive rights have been a top issue for Democrats since the U.S. Supreme Court scraped constitutional protections for abortion in 2022 -- and Thursday's speech indicated that dynamic won't change before November.

Biden took Republicans to task for not codifying abortion protections or access to in vitro fertilization into federal law after Alabama's Supreme Court threw that procedure into jeopardy in the state by ruling that embryos are children.

The point was also made in a White House guest list that included Kate Cox, a Texas woman who had to go to New Mexico for an abortion to end what she called a life-threatening pregnancy, and Latorya Beasley, a social worker from Birmingham, Alabama, trying to have a second child via IVF.

"What her family has gone through should never have happened as well. But it is happening to so many others. There are state laws banning the right to choose, criminalizing doctors and forcing survivors of rape and incest to leave their states as well to get the care they need," Biden said, referencing Cox's story.

"Many of you in this chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom. My God, what freedoms will you take away next?" he said.

Biden mixes it up with Republicans on immigration

Beyond Biden's age, immigration is one of the top issues Republicans are looking to tie around the president's neck this year -- as polls also show it is a major problem for him -- and they came in on the offensive Thursday night.

Many GOP lawmakers had pins honoring Laken Riley, the nursing student who was killed in Georgia last month, allegedly by an immigrant who entered the U.S. illegally. Some conservatives have blamed Biden's policies for her death.

When heckled by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., to say Riley's name during his speech, Biden picked up one of the buttons, calling her an "innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal" (a remark that drew its own criticsim from Democrats).

He then looked to her parents, saying, "My heart goes out to you having lost children myself."

Biden used the opportunity to pivot to the bipartisan bill combining foreign aid and border restrictions, saying the legislation would curtail the incentives for people to illegally cross the border.

PHOTO: Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama delivers the Republican response following President Biden's State of the Union speech, Mar. 7, 2024.
Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama delivers the Republican response following President Biden's State of the Union speech, Mar. 7, 2024.
ABC News

Britt paints dark picture of the country

Britt, who first won her seat in 2022 as the youngest Republican woman elected to the Senate, used the Republicans' official response to the Statue of the Union to paint a bleak picture of the country under Biden.

"Right now, the American dream has turned into a nightmare for so many," she said.

"Tonight, the American family needs to have a tough conversation because the truth is we are all worried about the future of our nation. The country we know and love seems to be slipping away, and it feels like the next generation will have fewer opportunities and less freedoms then we did," she said. "I worry my own children may not even get a shot at living their American dream."

Despite Biden's animated speech, Britt raised worries over the president's fitness and jabbed at him as "not in command."

"The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader. America deserves leaders who recognize that secure borders, stable prices, safe streets and a strong defense are the cornerstones of a great nation," she said.

Addressing "moms and dads" who were watching, Britt said, "You are why I believe with every fiber of my being that despite the current state of our union our best days are still ahead."

Other Republicans also cast the speech as one of hope, noting that voters will be presented with a choice this November.

"While Biden ignored his role in rising crime, the border crisis, and Bidenflation, Senator Britt delivered a message to American families that was full of hope, reminding a new generation of Americans that our country can be saved with commonsense, conservative leadership," said outgoing Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.

ABC News' Noah Minnie contributed to this report.

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