In an at-times feisty State of the Union address, President Joe Biden responded to heckles by Republicans as he outlined his policy priorities, which ranged from higher taxes and regulations on corporations to criminal justice reform and fighting the drug epidemic. In a speech that stretched over an hour, Biden struck a populist tone on issues like jobs, taxes and health care costs. 

Biden seemed to relish the back-and-forth with Republicans, who booed Biden loudly when he accused “some Republicans” of wanting Social Security and Medicare to sunset, and when he blamed Republicans for the growth of the national debt during the COVID-19 pandemic. At times, new Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy shushed members of his own party as they shouted at Biden over issues like the drug epidemic and immigration.

While Biden seemed energized during the speech, he continues to struggle with low approval ratings. He faced an American electorate Tuesday night frustrated over his handling of the economy. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, four in 10 Americans say they’re worse off financially than they were when Biden came into office.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., reacts as President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. | Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

The same poll showed that in a head-to-head rematch, former President Donald Trump is ahead of Biden 48%-to-45%. Even among Democrats, Biden has faced criticism in recent days, with many of the party’s voters saying he shouldn’t run again in 2024.

But Biden’s performance Tuesday, which quickly received praise from fellow Democrats, may have at least temporarily quieted some of those critics.

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In a plea to working Americans, who were once loyal Democratic voters, Biden hit many populist notes in his speech. Multiple times he said the government should “buy American,” and he said he wanted to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Like many presidents before him, Biden called on Congress to tackle prescription drug prices, reduce health care costs and expand Medicaid coverage. He praised legislation passed last year that raised taxes on corporations, and said he wants to continue to raise business taxes and taxes on wealthy individuals.

“No billionaire should be paying a lower rate than a school teacher or a firefighter,” he said.

He also suggested Congress should increase regulations on businesses like airlines and hotel chains who charge customers higher fees for benefits like sitting near their family, or staying at a “resort.” “Americans are tired of being played for suckers,” he said.

While he touched on immigration and foreign policy matters, neither of those issues played a prominent role in his speech.

Biden said he wanted to work with China where possible, but — while not mentioning the Chinese spy balloon by name — he said the U.S. would continue to defend itself when necessary.

“Make no mistake about it, as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country, and we did,” he said. 

He also continued his calls for Congress to “defend democracy” in Ukraine.

Republican rebuttal, response to Biden’s State of the Union

Speaking about what he considers some of his greatest accomplishments over the past two years, Biden addressed congressional action on issues like infrastructure, job growth, chip manufacturing, and electoral reform. He praised those actions as “bipartisan,” and called on Congress to similarly come together on issues like the drug epidemic and veterans’ issues.

On the climate, Biden called climate change an “existential threat,” while also saying that the country would “need oil and gas for a while,” which was met by Republican applause. 

Biden called out racism and violence at the hands of police, while saying the vast majority of police officers are honorable. He called for better training and for more first responders who are trained to manage mental health crises. If police officers “violate the public trust, they must be held accountable,” he said. 

RowVaughn Wells, center, mother of Tyre Nichols, who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers, and her husband, Rodney Wells, second left, are recognized by President Joe Biden as he delivers his State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. | J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Attending the State of the Union as guests of first lady Jill Biden were the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, who buried their son last week after he was allegedly beaten to death by Memphis police officers. Calling for criminal justice reform, Biden quoted Nichols’ mom, who said “something good must come from this,” about her son’s death.  

Toward the end of his speech, Biden spoke about his quest to fight cancer — a personal mission for the president, who lost a son to brain cancer. He welcomed U2 frontman Bono to the chamber, who was involved in the global fight against AIDS. Biden said the nation should attack cancer the same way it did AIDS. “Let’s end cancer as we know it, cure some cancers once and for all,” he said. 

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi, was also in the chamber as a guest of the Bidens. Pelosi survived a brutal attack late last year, which Biden said was political.

“There’s no place for political violence in America,” he said.

Biden will now take his message on the road, as he looks toward the 2024 presidential election. The infrastructure bill, passed in 2021, will give Biden plenty of opportunities to visit cities and towns across the country, as he attends ribbon-cutting ceremonies for new projects.

As a possible recession continues to loom on the horizon, Biden may struggle to convince Americans he can help solve their economic woes. Meanwhile, Republicans in the House plan to tie his administration up with investigations and to battle him over another hike in the debt ceiling.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California as Vice President Kamala Harris applauds after the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. | Jacquelyn Martin, Associated Press