Joe Biden got the reception he deserved at his State of the Union speech

At first, it sounded like Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address was going to be another snoozer. Out of the gate came clanging all the usual paeans to bipartisanship: ‘To my Republican friends,’ Biden said, ‘if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress!’

Given that just five months ago Biden was pronouncing Trump supporters ‘a threat to this country’, that seemed a bit rich. Sure enough the fake bonhomie didn’t last. What unfolded over the next hour and a quarter was the weirdest, most disorienting State of the Union address I’ve ever seen.

The president kept lowering his voice only to abruptly scream ‘AMERICA! AMERICA!’ Kamala Harris was slowly eaten alive by her chair. And Republican legislators verbally sparred with Biden amid a tense atmosphere that felt more like the Commons than the US Capitol.

If the president is allowed to be political, shouldn’t his opponents?

When Biden accused ‘some Republicans’ of wanting ‘Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years’, Republicans loudly booed and Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted ‘liar!’. When he warned about the scourge of fentanyl, they retorted ‘secure the border!’ and ‘it’s your fault!’ When he claimed that legions of fast-food workers were being made to sign non-compete contracts — really? — Kevin McCarthy couldn’t resist glancing at his caucus and chuckling.

This kind of thing is supposed to be a no-no at State of the Union addresses, which take the United States’s democratic institutions and submerge them in all the pageantry of the ancient Persian court. The president is supposed to be a sun-god in these moments, with everyone else his captive worshippers. When Republican congressman Joe Wilson dared to shout ‘you lie!’ at Barack Obama back in 2009, he was promptly hooded like a falcon and hauled away to a prison barge. Yet in 2023 a more raucous approach managed to prevail.

As it should be. America’s most North Korean political ritual originates in Article II of the Constitution, which says the president ‘shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union’. It does not say he ‘shall get a free ninety-minute campaign speech during which his political opponents shall be Gorilla-Glued to their chairs’. Yet this is the way it’s often turned out. The State of the Union has become an inherently political event, an opportunity for the president to hit the stump during an off year. Speeches read like campaign wish lists: more teachers! More Pell grants! More EVs!

Yet if the president is allowed to be political, shouldn’t his opponents? This is all the more important if the president is lying, which Biden was. ‘Some Republicans’ do not want ‘Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years’; one Republican, Senator Rick Scott of Florida, has endorsed that, and his proposal was dead on arrival in Congress. Fentanyl is indeed a crisis, but that’s because it’s spilling across the US’s unsecured southern border, which Biden neglected to mention is far less safe because he dismantled Donald Trump’s immigration and asylum policies. And, of course, there is no rash of McDonald’s workers deep in talks with Wendy’s only to suddenly discover they’re contractually barred.

It can’t be in a liberal democratic nation that these state-subsidised fibs go out unchallenged. Yes, it’s a shame to see another one of our institutions coarsened by partisanship. But then the pompous State of the Union was never that great of an institution anyway. Surely those words ‘State of the Union’ ought to mean something. Right now, the state of the union is tense, fractious, divided, at odds over difficult questions of politics and culture. In the past, these speeches have served as concealer, presenting a false image of unity. Last night, amid all the rancour and farce, what we saw felt at last like an honest reflection.

A version of this article originally appeared on Spectator World


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