State of the Union 2023: Biden urges Congress to finish economic fightback

Source: BBC

US President Joe Biden called on Republicans to help “finish the job” of delivering for hard-working families in his annual State of the Union address.

The Democrat stressed the importance of finding consensus as he addressed a divided Congress, where the lower chamber now has a Republican majority.

But a series of interruptions and heckles indicated the uphill task it will be to find co-operation.

In their speech, Republicans accused the president of “woke fantasies”.

Mr Biden’s words were received by a packed chamber and high-profile guests – including U2’s Bono – as well as Supreme Court justices.

Over the president’s shoulder at the rostrum in the House of Representatives was one of his most vocal critics, the Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Mr Biden extended an olive branch to the opposition party, which took over the lower chamber last month with vows to investigate the president’s family and Cabinet.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,” said the president.

“We’ve been sent here to finish the job!” he added.

Mr Biden also said that two years after supporters of his predecessor Donald Trump rioted at the US Capitol, America’s democracy was “unbowed and unbroken”.

Despite Mr Biden saying he wanted unity, he also took shots at Republicans – and at one point, he accused them of wanting to cut welfare for pensioners.

Half of the chamber erupted, with Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene – the main heckler of the night – shouting “You’re a liar!”

Mr Biden made minimal reference in his hour-long speech to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that gripped the nation as it crossed US territory before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina.The president said he was committed to working constructively with the rival superpower but cautioned: “Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”

In response to Mr Biden’s speech, Beijing said it would “firmly defend” its interests and urged the US to work on repairing relations.

Republicans have been demanding to know why Mr Biden waited a week to act on the balloon. The president’s administration has said it wanted to avoid risk to civilians from falling debris.

The speech was light on foreign policy in general, with Ukraine – the main topic 12 months ago – only getting a mention towards the end when Mr Biden said the US would stand with Kyiv “as long as it takes”.

The president focused on domestic issues, hailing the resilience and strength of the US economy. Unemployment dropped to a half-century low in January and there are signs that the worst inflation in four decades is cooling. But the president acknowledged American families need more “breathing room”.

Mr Biden aired his political wish-list, calling for an assault weapons ban, a minimum tax for billionaires, and access to pre-school for three and four-year-olds – though many of the proposals are likely to go nowhere in Congress.

He also condemned “outrageous” profits by oil companies, but drew scorn from Republicans in the chamber when he said: “We’re going to need oil for at least another decade.”

Following the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis last month, Mr Biden also challenged lawmakers to pass long-stalled reforms to policing, saying: “Do something.”

Mr Nichols’ mother and stepfather were in the audience as guests of First Lady Jill Biden.

The president also emphasised that “most cops are good, decent people”, drawing a rare standing ovation by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The 80-year-old is expected to announce plans for another presidential run soon, but his age was raised as an issue by the Republican who delivered the party’s rebuttal speech after he finished.

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders accused his government of being more preoccupied by “woke fantasies” than “the hard reality Americans face every day”.

Ms Huckabee Sanders, 40, is the country’s youngest governor and best known for her tenure as press secretary to former President Trump.

In her pre-recorded message, she said: “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”

Republicans had left the Congress chamber by this point, departing quickly after the president’s speech wrapped up.

As Mr Biden mingled with some members of Congress, one Democrat shouted with a thumbs up: “Mr President, that was awesome.”

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