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Trump attacks, the border, abortion and Gaza: Key moments from Biden’s State of the Union

The president’s potentially final address to Congress framed his vision against his ‘Republican predecessor’

Alex Woodward
Friday 08 March 2024 05:33 GMT
Biden vows to restore Roe v Wade during 2024 State of the Union address

President Joe Biden’s final State of the Union address in his first term in office renewed his promise of American “possibilities” with a fiery rebuke of anti-democratic threats from the man he refused to mention: his “Republican predecessor”.

Looming throughout the president’s remarks was Donald Trump, framed as the man often standing in the way of legislation blocked by a Republican-dominated chamber of Congress that Mr Biden often depicted as captivated by the party’s increasingly likely candidate for the November election.

The president offered his plans for an economy fuelled by a thriving middle class and a vision of an equitable society, ending with a demand for humanitarian aid and support for a six-week ceasefire in Gaza.

In the one-hour address, he also warned against threats to democracy at home and abroad, vowed to enshrine abortion rights into law, pleaded with lawmakers to protect the right to vote and labour rights, sparred with Republican hecklers, and forecast an era where “trickle-down economics are over”.

Here are the five main takeaways from the night:

A fiery defence of democracy – without naming Trump

President Biden’s stark opening remarks referenced a different address to the nation: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address to “wake up the Congress and alert the American people” when “freedom and democracy were under assault in the world”.

“Now it is we who face an unprecedented moment in the history of the Union,” he said.

Mr Biden went on to warn against Russian President Vladimir Putin “sowing chaos throughout Europe and beyond” and renewed congressional support for arms to Ukraine, a demand rejected by House Republicans as Mr Putin’s war enters its third year.

“If anyone in this room thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you he will not,” Mr Biden said. “That is all Ukraine is asking, they’re not asking for American soldiers. I’m determined to keep it that way.”

He pointed to former Republican President Ronald Reagan’s command to “tear down this wall” – in contrast to Mr Trump’s remark that he would allow Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to Nato members in Europe.

“Now, my predecessor, a former Republican president, tells Putin, ‘do whatever the hell you want.’ That’s a quote. A former president actually said that. Bowing down to a Russian leader,” Mr Biden said. “It’s dangerous, outrageous and it’s unacceptable.”

History is watching, he said, just as it did three years ago on January 6 2021, when “insurrectionists” fuelled by the former president’s false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him “placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy,” Mr Biden said.

“We all saw with our own eyes, the insurrectionists were not patriots,” Mr Biden said.

Lies about the attack on the US Capitol and the 2020 election “and the plot to steal the 2020 election” posed “the greatest threat to democracy since the Civil War,” he said.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address (Getty Images)

“America stood strong and democracy prevailed. The threat to democracy must be defended,” he said. “This is the moment to speak the truth … Here’s the truth: You can’t love your country only when you win.”

As he concluded his remarks, Mr Biden circled back to the election, calling on Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act, which it has repeatedly failed to do under Republican stonewalling since he took office. He urged Congress to reject “voter suppression, election subversion, unlimited dark money” and “extreme gerrymandering”.

“John Lewis was a great friend to many of us here,” said Mr Biden, referencing the late civil rights champion and congressman. “But if you truly want to honor him and all the heroes who marched with him, then it’s time for more than just talk. Pass and send me the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.”

A ‘promise’ to restore Roe v Wade

Mr Trump’s installation of three conservative justices on the US Supreme Court all but assured the end of Roe v Wade, a decades-long precedent that enshrined the constitutional right to abortion care.

Two years after that decision, anti-abortion state lawmakers have introduced a wave of anti-abortion laws across more than a dozen states, while Republican members of Congress and Mr Trump have mulled nationwide bans on abortion care.

In his address, Mr Biden said that if “Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you: I will restore Roe v Wade as the law of the land again”.

Two women who were denied emergency abortion care in Louisiana were the guests of US Rep Jerry Nadler of New York. Kaitlyn Joshua, who was denied abortion care at two Baton Rouge-area hospitals while miscarrying, and Nancy Davis, who was denied an abortion in the state despite carrying a fetus with acrania, were in attendance.

Kate Cox, who was denied emergency abortion care in Texas, was a guest of the president himself.

Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, meanwhile, invited Louisiana Right to Life president Ben Clapper, among the architects of that state’s anti-abortion laws.

“There are state laws banning the right to choose, criminalising doctors, and forcing survivors of rape and incest to leave their states as well to get the care they need,” Mr Biden said. “Many of you in this chamber, and my predecessor, are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom. My God, what freedoms will you take away next?”

Biden urges Republicans to guarantee access to IVF

He also connected the end of Roe to a recent decision from Alabama’s Supreme Court targeting in vitro fertilization (IVF) and declaring that frozen embryos have the same rights as children – a decision that drew international condemnation and alarm – with fertility clinics across the state fearing swift legal scrutiny and their forced closure while families are left in heartbreaking limbo.

Mr Biden introduced Latorya Beasley of Birmingham, who “scheduled treatments to have a second child, but the Alabama Supreme Court shut down IVF treatments across the state,” he said. Unless Congress acts, “it could happen again,” he warned, as he called on lawmakers to “guarantee the right to IVF nationwide”.

Pledging Gaza aid – and recognising ‘30,000 Palestinians have been killed’

As Israel’s most powerful ally, the US has repeatedly rejected international pressure to support a ceasefire in Gaza, where Benjamin Netanyahu’s retaliatory campaign since the 7 October Hamas attacks has killed more than 30,000 people. More than 13,000 children are among those killed.

The president has also rebuffed ceasefire demands from members of Congress, staff from his own administration and campaign, and urgent calls from international humanitarian aid groups pleading for an end to Israel’s destruction in the face of mass death and fears of famine and starvation.

Before his motorcade arrived at the Capitol, hundreds of protesters demanding a ceasefire blocked nearby streets.

In his remarks, five months to the day of Hamas’s attacks, Mr Biden addressed the massive death toll in Gaza, citing a figure that his administration has often publicly refused to state.

“This war has taken a greater toll on innocent civilians than all previous wars in Gaza combined. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas. Thousands and thousands of innocent women and children. Girls and boys are orphaned. Nearly two million more Palestinians under bombardment or displaced,” Mr Biden said.

The president announced plans to direct the US military to lead “an emergency mission” to build a temporary pier on Gaza’s coast to “receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters”.

U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Cori Bush (D-MO) and Summer Lee (D-PA) put on Palestinian keffiyehs prior to the State of the Union address at the US Capitol (REUTERS)

The plan would “enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day,” he said.

“To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” he added. “Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority. … The only real solution is a two-state solution over time.”

Republicans ‘owe it to the American people’ to tackle the border

Far-right US Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene, wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat, greeted President Biden as he entered the chamber with a pin featuring the face of Laken Riley, a nursing student whose suspected killer was in the country without legal permission.

Mr Biden held the button while Ms Greene was yelling at the president in the middle of his remarks on immigration and border security.

“An innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal,” he said in unscripted remarks. “To her parents I say, and my heart goes out to you, having lost children myself, I understand.”

The president lambasted Republicans who have rejected bipartisan legislation to boost US-Mexico border security they helped draft. “I know you know how to read,” he told them as he blamed Mr Trump for the way “politics have derailed” progress on the measure.

“I’m told my predecessor called Republicans in Congress and demanded they block the bill,” he said. “He feels it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him. It’s not about him, it’s not about me.”

Republicans “owe it to the American people” to “get this bill done,” he said.

“And if my predecessor is watching: instead of playing politics and pressuring members of Congress to block the bill, join me in telling Congress to pass it,” he added.

Biden faces down Republican heckling, urges action on border bill

Republican members of Congress booed his mention of the “toughest” border reform measure in US history. “Oh, you don’t think so?” he fired back.

Mr Biden said he would not “demonise immigrants saying they’re poisoning the blood of the country,” referencing Mr Trump’s blood-and-soil remarks that echoed similar rhetoric from the pages of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

“Unlike my predecessor, I know who we are as Americans,” he said.

‘Imagine a future’ in Biden’s economy

The bulk of Mr Biden’s remarks – framed by his pledges to defend democracy – renewed a platform for economic progress that started with an economy “that was on the brink” when he entered office. “Now our economy is the envy of the world,” he said.

Despite cooling inflation and stronger job numbers, most Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy, and have felt left out of progress championed by the White House.

In his remarks, Mr Biden pointed to signs of improvement, from the elimination of junk fees to lowering prescription drug costs and expanding access to healthcare through the Affordable Care Act. He urged Congress to support legislation to boost union protections and slammed “the last administration” for passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that delivered a $2 trillion tax cut that “overwhelmingly benefits the very wealthy and the biggest corporations and exploded the federal deficit”.

“They added more to the national debt than in any presidential term in American history,” he said. “Does anybody really think the tax code is fair? Do you really think the wealthy and big corporations need another $2 trillion in tax breaks? I sure don’t. I’m going to keep fighting like hell to make it fair.”

US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 7, 2024 (AFP via Getty Images)

He revived his proposal for a 25 per cent billionaire tax that would raise $500bn over the next decade, offering a vision to Americans of “what that could do for America”.

“Imagine a future with affordable child care so millions of families can get the care they need and still go to work and help grow the economy,” he said. “Imagine a future with paid leave because no one should have to choose between working and taking care of yourself or a sick family member.

He needled Republicans who have suggested cutting Social Security and enshrining tax cuts for the wealthy – drawing boos from GOP lawmakers.

“Oh, no? You guys don’t want another $2 trillion tax cut?” he said. “I kind of thought that’s what your plan was. Well, that’s good to hear.”

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