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Biden's State of the Union address focused on middle and working-class voters

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In his State of the Union address last night, President Biden repeated one simple refrain.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let's finish the job.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

That line was aimed partly at a newly divided Congress where some of his agenda seems likely to stall. But it was also a message for people at home, voters whose support he would need to secure a second term.

FADEL: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow joins me now to discuss. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

FADEL: So you've been listening to Joe Biden's speeches for years now. As he ran for office, and since he's been at the White House, that's been your job. What stood out to you about this speech?

DETROW: You know, I think having heard probably thousands of his speeches at this point, this was Biden-ism at its heart. It was a speech focused squarely on middle- and working-class voters, more moderate swing voters. Biden, at times, spoke directly to people like that, saying, I know you feel forgotten. I know you feel left behind. And throughout that first half-hour of the speech, he seemed to be trying over and over to give very easy, concrete examples of his administration's policies that are helping people - new bridges, cheaper insulin, better and faster internet, things like that. The whole thing seemed to me to be an appeal to moderate, politically disengaged, working- and middle-class voters - the exact type of voter the Democrats have been losing over the past decade but that he sees as the key to staving off Trumpism.

FADEL: So speaking to the American people but also Biden talking a lot about bipartisanship. And he took digs at Republicans, too, as he talked about this. What message was he trying to drive home there?

DETROW: Yeah. You know, ever since Republicans took back the House, he has repeatedly framed the party as split between two wings - one that he can work with to govern and the other a right-wing faction. And he kept touting, especially early on, Republican support for that infrastructure law, making a point to say about 300 laws he signed over the first two years had Republican support. But there was a little bit of a tone, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BIDEN: I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law and my Republican friends who voted against it as well. But I'm still - I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well. But don't worry. I promised I'd be a president for all Americans. We'll fund these projects, and I'll see you at the groundbreaking.

DETROW: And one key moment was when Biden highlighted a proposal from Florida Senator Rick Scott that he made last year to hold votes to renew Social Security and Medicare every five years. And Biden got a lot of boos and heckles from Republicans at that point.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BIDEN: Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I'm not saying it's the majority.

(BOOING)

BIDEN: Let me give you - anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I'll give you a copy. I'll give you a copy of the proposal.

DETROW: And, you know, Scott's not exactly a backbencher. He ran Republican Senate campaigns last year. But even as Republicans are demanding spending cuts right now, their leaders are insisting they don't want to cut those two programs. And Republicans heckled and yelled over and over and over to make that point.

FADEL: And the president seemed happy to engage.

DETROW: Oh, he seemed to love it. And he kept saying, look, we agree. He had ignored hecklers at other point. But here he kept returning to it, smiling as he did it. He clearly relished the opportunity to draw some policy contrast, but I think he also liked showing an audience that even as many Republicans imply he's senile, that he was going back and forth with hecklers, carrying out a high stakes, ad-libbed argument in real time in front of millions of viewers.

FADEL: A really big issue right now - police brutality after the beating death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols by Memphis police. How did Biden deal with that in his speech?

DETROW: Yeah. It was an emotional moment. Biden pointed to Nichols' parents, who were sitting with first lady Jill Biden watching the speech. He talked about how many Black and brown families live with that fear of something similar happening. And Biden called once again for police reform, urging Congress to pass a measure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

BIDEN: It's up to us, to all of us. We all want the same thing - neighborhoods free of violence, law enforcement who earns the community's trust. Just as every cop, when they pin on that badge in the morning, has a right to be able to go home at night, so does everybody else out there.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: Our children have a right to come home safely.

DETROW: But it's worth pointing out, similar efforts stalled last Congress when Democrats had full control. Republicans opposed big chunks of this bill. It's hard to see it passing this Congress.

FADEL: So this speech, was it the start of a 2024 campaign?

DETROW: Almost certainly. The official announcement is probably not going to come for another few weeks, possibly months. But the text of this speech was clear. Biden is making the case for another term.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Detrow, thanks so much.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.

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