Utah Gov. Spencer Cox attended Tuesday’s State of the Union address as a guest of Sen. Mike Lee, and walked away both concerned and hopeful over what he heard from President Joe Biden. “I thought there were some unifying parts and then some very divisive parts,” he told the Deseret News.

Republicans booed Biden after he claimed the GOP wants to cut Social Security and Medicare as part of ongoing congressional negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Cox described this as a “mischaracterization” of the Republican position and expressed surprise the president would brazenly resort to this tactic while staring directly at his opponents.

“I think that was a mistake,” he said, noting that he thought some of the GOP members’ loud outbursts were justified. “It probably deserved a little bit of a reaction ... of course, I think some of the (GOP) response was over the top, but I can see why they would be upset in the moment,” he added.

Cox said he is concerned that neither party appears willing to have a serious conversation about the fiscal woes plaguing Social Security and Medicare. “We know that the ballooning numbers are just impossible to keep up with ... we need to have a conversation about spending and how we’re going to rein that in,” he said.

Acknowledging common ground

The governor did convey appreciation for a number of the policies Biden spoke about, including those that mirror what Cox is trying to do in Utah. The president called for social media companies to be held accountable “for the experiment they are running on our children.” Cox said this stood out to him since he talked about social media and young people in his State of the State address before the Utah Legislature last month.

Cox was also pleased to hear Biden call for salary increases for public school teachers. The governor recently signed into law a bill that created school choice scholarships for students and also included a $6,000 raise for public school teachers.

Increasing manufacturing jobs in the United States and addressing the fentanyl crisis were other issues mentioned by the president where Cox believes there is “broad agreement.”

A governor and senator react to Biden’s speech

In a statement to the Deseret News, Lee said he was honored to host Cox as his guest at the State of the Union, and emphasized the “inextricably” linked futures of Utah and the nation. “In the months and years ahead, Utah will face a host of challenges requiring a strong relationship between our state and federal governments,” Lee said.

Minutes after Biden’s speech concluded, Cox and Lee filmed a short conversation where they discussed their reactions to what the president said.

Cox told Lee it was intriguing for him, as a state executive office holder, to witness firsthand how the top executive of the federal government wanted to address the nation’s problems. The governor extolled the virtues of federalism, the organizing principle in the U.S. Constitution that decentralizes government power internally and between the national and state governments.

“I always wish presidents would listen to governors a little more,” Cox said, while adding that the country’s Founding Fathers intended for states “to play a more dominant role in our constitutional republic.”

While recognizing that Lee has expressed this point repeatedly in his last two terms in the Senate, Cox said he is also interested in “restoring that balance” between the states and the federal government.

Cox’s message to Biden

The Deseret News asked Cox to elaborate on his Tuesday night interview with Lee, and what message he would like to give to Biden. The governor said he would point out why the federal government’s fiscal malaise contrasts so starkly with Utah’s economic prosperity.

“I have to balance a budget, the president doesn’t,” he said, indicating that this restraint makes it necessary to prioritize government spending. Cox voiced concern over a line in the president’s speech about raising taxes on the wealthy, as though that will fix the nation’s fiscal problems. The governor said he doesn’t believe raising taxes — without cutting spending — is the panacea the Democrats say it is.

Referring to the Beehive State’s fiscal responsibility, Cox said “there are a lot ways the federal government can learn more from Utah and other state laboratories of democracy.” He attributed Utah’s ability to give public school teachers a raise, while investing in important infrastructure and rolling back the tax burden on Utahns, to the state’s fiscally conservative practices.

He said if those in Washington followed Utah’s lead, they would discover they can do a lot more for American families with a lot less of taxpayers’ hard earned money.

On immigration, the governor said he would encourage the president to follow Utah’s example by adopting something similar to the state’s compact on immigration resolution, passed more than a decade ago, as a model to “fix the divisiveness we’re seeing around the issue.”

Cox will have a chance to share his message directly with the president this week. He and other governors are scheduled to have dinner with Biden on Saturday as part of the National Governors Association meetings being held this week in Washington, D.C.

“It’ll be great opportunity for all 50 governors to sit down with the president and share what is working in our states,” he said.

Cox’s thoughts on a Biden reelection campaign

The 2024 presidential election loomed large in Biden’s speech, as he tried to make the case for his reelection to the American public.

In her official GOP rebuttal speech, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that the Biden administration has failed the American people. She also called attention to the president’s advanced age, saying it is time for a new generation of leaders.

While Cox didn’t disagree with his fellow Republican governor’s call for change, he did say a reelection campaign is ultimately up to Biden. “I will tell you, as a Republican, we hope he runs again because I think we’ll have a pretty good chance of winning back the White House,” he said.

He added that Democrats have told him privately they hope Biden does not run again. Cox said that makes it clear to him that most of the country is not pleased with the choices made by the Biden administration.