Biden draws election battle lines in State of the Union address

Opinion polls show American voters are distinctly unenthusiastic about the seemingly inevitable Biden-Trump 2024 rematch

US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address. Getty / AFP
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US President Joe Biden had set limited expectations for himself before Thursday night’s State of the Union speech, as a series of gaffes and stumbles fuelled a narrative that he was too old for a second term in the White House.

The bar for an acceptable performance was so low that many Democrats would have been happy if Mr Biden had simply read the teleprompter for an hour without falling off the podium.

But instead of a senile old man mumbling through his lines, the 81-year-old Mr Biden come out swinging for a loud and pugnacious performance that his fellow Democrats saw as proof he has the stamina for a bruising eight months until the November 5 general election.

He turned the address, historically a sombre and solemn occasion designed to project political and national unity, into a rhetorical partisan hammer to bash his challenger Donald Trump and the Republican Party writ large.

Frequently shouting, he accused Mr Trump, who he never mentioned by name but referred to as his “predecessor” 13 times, of “bowing down” to Russian President Vladimir Putin after the former president said the US might not protect Nato allies who are not spending enough on defence from any Russian invasion.

“Wasn’t long ago when a Republican president named Ronald Reagan thundered, 'Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,'” Mr Biden said.

“Now, now my predecessor, a former Republican president, tells Putin: 'Do whatever the hell you want.' … It’s outrageous, it’s dangerous, and it’s unacceptable.”

Mr Trump, 77, had hyped what he promised would be a live stream of his retorts to the State of the Union address, but his Truth Social platform experienced frequent glitches and outages, and his one-line comebacks amounted to feeble projections of his own inadequacies.

“This was an angry, polarising, and hate-filled speech,” wrote the man who whips supporters into a frenzy at rallies and whose hate-filled rhetoric and election denialism fuelled an insurrection that sought to end the peaceful handover of power.

For the first two years of his presidency, Mr Biden refused to even mention Mr Trump, but as it has become clear that the November 5 election will be a referendum on the two of them he has sharpened his attacks.

“Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault at home as they are today,” Mr Biden said.

“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy. Other people my age see it differently.

“The American story of resentment, revenge and retribution – that’s not me.”

Mr Biden seemed to delight in goading Republican hecklers, who long ago abandoned any sense of decorum and frequently screamed at the President as he spoke about the economy, immigration and gun violence.

When he chastised the conservatives for cutting taxes for the mega-rich to the tune of $2 trillion, Republicans booed loudly at him.

“Oh no, you guys don’t want another $2 trillion tax cut?” Mr Biden said, smiling. “I kinda thought that’s what your plan was. Well, that’s good to hear.”

Republicans interrupted Mr Biden several other times and he pushed back quickly, seeming to relish the combative exchanges, particularly around the issue of immigration.

“I will not demonise immigrants saying they 'poison the blood of our country' as [Mr Trump] said in his own words,” said Mr Biden, who previously has accused Mr Trump of using Nazi-like rhetoric.

Opinion polls show American voters are distinctly unenthusiastic about the seemingly inevitable Biden-Trump 2024 rematch (it won't be certain until they are nominated by their parties over the summer), with Mr Biden trailing Mr Trump in polls.

Mr Biden, who beat Mr Trump in 2020 by more than seven million votes, says he relishes the idea of a November rematch and frequently expresses confidence his track record shows he is the man who can beat the former president once more.

But one night's decent performance does not a strong campaign make, and Mr Biden remains dogged by any number of perils, including crumbling support from progressives and Arab Americans over his handling of the Israel-Gaza war.

Published: March 08, 2024, 5:51 PM