Feb 8, 2023

Biden's State of the Union address.

Biden addresses Congress during the State of the Union, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and n. Image: C-SPAN
Biden addresses Congress during the State of the Union. Image: C-SPAN

It was a night of both bipartisanship and jeers.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 14 minutes.

A recap of Biden's State of the Union address, including a fact check on some of his claims. Plus, a poll on what you think and a story about the Trump vs. DeSantis feud. 

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Quick hits.

  1. The United States says it will sell Poland $10 billion in Himars rocket launchers and ammunition. (The sale)
  2. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) penned an op-ed making the case for continued support of Ukraine. (The op-ed)
  3. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces devastated by an earthquake. (The emergency)
  4. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will be leaving the Biden administration to take over the National Hockey League's Players Association. (The decision)
  5. Twitter employees will testify before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee today, marking Republicans' first big hearing surrounding Hunter Biden. (The updates)

Today's topic.

The State of the Union address. Last night, President Biden delivered his second ever State of the Union, an annual address to Congress and the country meant to serve as an update on the nation's current condition. The night began with Biden recognizing new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), new Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

This introduction set the tone for the night, where Biden repeatedly returned to a theme of bipartisanship and his plans to work with Republicans. In his first rhetorical flourish of the evening, Biden recapped the moments Democrats and Republicans have come together on a bipartisan basis during his administration: Supporting Ukraine, the infrastructure bill, the toxic burn pits bill, the Violence Against Women Act, the Electoral Count Reform Act, the Respect for Marriage Act, and 300 other bipartisan bills he’s signed since coming into office.

He focused on the economy and health care, touting a 50-year-low unemployment rate, now at 3.4%, a near record low unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic workers, 800,000 new manufacturing jobs, gas prices down $1.50 off their peak, inflation receding, 10 million applications to start new businesses, reducing the deficit by more than $1.7 trillion, a record 16 million people enrolled in the Affordable Care Act, and "more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years."

Biden also called on Republicans to join him in supporting bipartisan legislation over the next two years: Restoring the Child Tax Credit, banning assault weapons, raising taxes on the wealthy, a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers (along with more officers and equipment on the border), the Equality Act for LGBTQ Americans, legislation to crack down on fentanyl, more drug detection machines on the border, a cap on insulin prices for all Americans at $35 per month, and a crackdown on social media companies.

The president also made some news, announcing new standards that require construction materials in federal projects to be made in America and calling for a 4% surcharge on all corporate stock buybacks.

Biden's guests for the evening were the parents of Tyre Nichols, Paul Pelosi, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, a 26-year-old named Brandon Tsay who disarmed a mass shooter, the father of a woman who died from a fentanyl overdose, and parents of a one-year-old who survived a rare form of cancer.

Throughout the night, Biden faced some jeers and boos from Republicans, despite Speaker McCarthy warning Republicans to "behave" themselves beforehand. At one point, Biden said Republicans want to "sunset" Medicare and Medicaid every five years, which drew boos and shouts of "liar." Biden responded by sarcastically agreeing with them that all talks of cutting the popular programs were now off the table during budget negotiations. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene repeatedly screamed at Biden during the address, and at one point appeared to be shushed by McCarthy after yelling out that China was spying on Americans.

He also drew some laughter. While praising the Inflation Reduction Act's impact on the climate, Biden said the U.S. "is going to need oil for at least another decade," which caused Republicans to erupt with laughter. Early on his speech, he also quipped that he might have ruined McCarthy's reputation by expressing his support for him.

Newly minted Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders delivered a 14-minute Republican response to Biden. Sanders framed America's choice as one between "normal" and "crazy," saying Biden had been hijacked by the "radical left."

"I'm the first woman to lead my state, and he's the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can't even tell you what a woman is," she said.

Sanders also pointed to an "out of control border," rising crime, and the threat from China as evidence of Democrats’ failures. She also used inflation, supply chain issues, and chaos overseas as evidence of Biden's weakness.

"President Biden is unwilling to defend our border, defend our skies, and defend our people," she said. "He is simply unfit to serve as commander in chief. And while you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard realities Americans face every day."

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take. We'll begin with some brief fact-checks of Biden's speech. You can read the full transcript here.

Fact checks.

Claim: Republicans want to sunset Medicaid/Social Security.

Review: A major stretch. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) released a 60-page, 11-point proposal to “rescue” America. One sentence in that proposal says "all federal legislation sunsets in five years." That means Congress would have to re-authorize every bill every five years. Biden has used that sentence to claim Scott specifically wants to sunset Medicare and Social Security, even though Scott has said that's not true and he wants to find a way to preserve both programs.

A video of Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) calling for phasing out the programs also went viral, but that video is 13 years old and Lee has more recently said he opposes changes to the program and has never voted otherwise. Majority Leader McCarthy says he will not consider any cuts to the programs, and former President Donald Trump, the leading GOP candidate in 2024, has also said he would not pursue cuts. Republicans have proposed some changes, like raising the retirement age, but there does not appear to be any real threat to either program.

Claim: Biden cut the deficit by more than $1.7 trillion, the largest reduction in American history.

Review: Misleading. He gets to this figure by comparing the deficit in 2020 to the deficit in 2022. This creates a huge gap, since 2020 was the year of Covid-19, which caused spending to skyrocket. The CBO had already predicted the deficit would fall in 2021 when those programs ended. In reality, Biden's policies have piled on more debt. According to The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, the CBO actually estimated the 2021 and 2022 budget deficits would be $3.31 trillion. Instead, they ended up being $4.15 trillion, meaning that the debt under Biden is now about $850 billion higher than expected.

Claim: More jobs created in two years than any president has created in four.

Review: True, but misleading. Maintaining job growth for a full four years is the real challenge, which Trump experienced (after three years of growth, the economy cratered during Covid-19). Also, Biden inherited a rapidly recovering economy that was coming out of Covid, a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, which is part of the reason he has seen such rapid growth. While Biden can tout recovery packages, so can Trump. Job growth often fluctuates untethered from any specific presidential policy. And even so, while the net job gains are high, Biden's job growth still lags behind other presidents by percentage.

Claim: 55 of the biggest companies in America made $40 billion and paid zero federal income taxes.

Review: Probably true. But difficult to prove. Company tax returns are typically not made public, so the groups that study this are analyzing corporate reports. This specific number comes from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank. But it is misleading to suggest this is only the case because of loopholes. Companies often take advantage of deliberate policy choices meant to create incentives for investment and growth in the private sector.

Claim: Billionaires pay lower tax rates than school teachers or firefighters.

Review: False. Biden leans into a White House study concluding that the 400 wealthiest taxpayers pay a tax rate of 8%. The study ignores taxes wealthy Americans pay on capital gains when selling stock or assets. The average tax rate on the top 0.001% of taxpayers was 23.7%, according to the IRS. The top 1% paid nearly 26%. Few lower-income Americans, including firefighters or teachers, pay the lowest tax rate of 10% after deductions and exemptions.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left praised the speech, saying Biden successfully talked through his many accomplishments.
  • Some argued it was one of the better addresses in recent memory.
  • Others suggested Republicans would be foolish not to join Biden on some of his objectives.

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson gave the speech a glowing review, saying Biden looked strong and vigorous.

"The president took advantage of the national television audience the speech always draws to make the case that his worldview has been proved correct: Even at a time of extreme polarization, bipartisanship is not only possible but also necessary," Robinson wrote. "He said there is 'no reason we can’t work together and find consensus in this Congress.'... Biden came prepared for catcalls from far-right members of the new House majority. My favorite was when he praised the provision in the Inflation Reduction Act, approved last year, that capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for seniors on Medicare. He called on Congress to 'finish the job' and extend that cap for all Americans. When someone on the Republican side of the room remonstrated, Biden paused before departing from his script to reply: 'As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year.'

"Biden used the august occasion — and used undisciplined Republicans as foils — to display his own vigor, sense of humor and aura of command. Behind him, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) appeared at several moments to try to shush the most voluble Republicans, perhaps knowing the clash wasn’t going well for his party," he said. "There have been times the past two years when Biden looked and acted his age — moments in which he seemed tired, lost his place in a speech or went off on some obscure tangent. But not on Tuesday night. Biden is 80, and it is legitimate to ask whether he is too old to seek another term. With this speech, he gave an answer. He sure sounded like a man who’s running."

In Politico, Jeff Greenfield said Biden gave "one of the better" State of the Union addresses he's ever heard.

"There was as well, the trumpeting of the economic news that has turned brighter in recent months — record low unemployment, an easing of inflation — and with a nationalist take on his economic agenda that may have made Donald Trump jealous," he wrote. "The meat of the speech, however, was a series of assaults on the forces that were costing Americans money — a group that included not just familiar villains of the progressive left, but those that likely never have been called out in a State of the Union speech before. Yes, there was the specter of the ultra-wealthy who paid little or no taxes... Yes, Big Oil was in the dock again, with Biden blaming them for the spike in energy costs.

"But Biden also reached down into much more quotidian matters. Look at the examples he used: 'We’re making airlines show you the full ticket price upfront and refund your money if your flight is canceled or delayed. We’ve reduced exorbitant bank overdrafts, saving consumers more than $1 billion a year. We’re cutting credit card late fees by 75 percent, from $30 to $8. Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one on your bill. … The idea that cable, internet and cell phone companies can charge you $200 or more if you decide to switch to another provider. Give me a break.' ... Biden sounded genuinely outraged, and that’s something people respond to."

In The New Republic, Timothy Noah said Republicans would be fools not to support Biden's newly proposed stock buyback tax.

"Stock buybacks are, among other things, an outrageously corrupt way for corporate chiefs to enrich themselves, because their compensation, and that of their boards, is tied to stock price," he said. "Will House Republicans support this? They didn’t in August, when not a single Republican voted for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which (see Chapter 37) levied the first-ever tax on stock buybacks at 1 percent. Some Republicans, Biden noted Tuesday night, want to repeal the IRA. (He said he’d veto that.) The 1 percent tax will raise about $78 billion over the next decade, according to an estimate by the Penn Wharton Budget Model," Noah wrote. "Quadrupling that to 4 percent could theoretically raise $312 billion over the next decade, but that’s presuming the higher tax’s impact on stock buybacks remains inconsequential, as it has been thus far.

"Why would Republicans be foolish not to get behind increasing the stock buyback tax? Because there’s absolutely no way to argue that increasing this tax would reduce job creation. It’s the stock buybacks that reduce job creation by siphoning capital away from productive investment and into stockholders’ pockets. In 2013 through 2017, the money corporations spent on buybacks actually exceeded capital expenditures," he said. "If 1 percent isn’t high enough to deter buybacks, would 4 percent be high enough? Possibly not. But if that turns out to be the case, the next step will be for Biden to propose doubling the tax to 8 or 10 percent in next year’s State of the Union address."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right were critical of the speech, saying Biden misled viewers.
  • Some called out his framing of the social security debate, arguing that it was full of lies.
  • Others said the real story was all the things Biden didn't mention.

The New York Post's Steven Nelson and Samuel Chamberlain called the speech "crimes against reality."

"By the end of the night, any bipartisan feeling had disappeared as Biden wrongly accused the GOP of trying to abandon America’s seniors, while Republicans in the audience challenged him over issues like illegal immigration, the surge in fentanyl overdoses, and the threat of China — with the president barely mentioning America’s great adversary days after a spy balloon from the communist aggressor traversed the US last week," they wrote. "No attack from the president caused more GOP uproar than his insistence that 'instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.' The furious reaction left Biden attempting to calm the heckling by saying, 'I’m not saying it’s a majority.'

"Biden has repeatedly claimed that the GOP wants to cut Social Security and Medicare — despite McCarthy repeatedly and publicly ruling that out as he and other conservatives push for cuts to discretionary spending and a clawback of unspent pandemic stimulus funds as part of a debt ceiling impasse," they said. "The House chamber — packed with senators, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and other US government leaders — again descended into chaos as Biden talked about surging fentanyl overdoses amid criticism that he has not done enough to counter the scourge of the deadly, largely China-sourced synthetic compound... 'It’s your fault,' an unknown man shouted at Biden."

In National Review, Philip Klein said the most grotesque part of the night was actually one of the most bipartisan.

"When both Republicans and Democrats stood with Biden to applaud the idea of not touching Social Security and Medicare, which both desperately need to be pared if there is any hope of the United States escaping a fiscal crisis," he wrote. "As Guy Benson notes, Republicans may stipulate that the current position is being taken within the context of debt-ceiling negotiations. But this would be a more defensible line were Republicans showing any seriousness about reforming the programs outside of the debt-ceiling fight. The flip side of sanctimoniously refusing to touch Medicare and Social Security in the name of protecting current seniors is that the failure to take action is punishing working-age Americans.

"Medicare and Social Security are already spending more money on benefits than they take in via taxes. Under current law, the programs can continue to offer full benefits, because there were years in which they generated a surplus of tax revenue that was used to finance other government priorities," Klein wrote. "However, at some point in the next presidential term, Medicare’s hospital program will have exhausted those prior surpluses — and Social Security will face the same fate in about a decade. At that point, absent action, Medicare beneficiaries will receive an automatic 10 percent cut, and Social Security beneficiaries will receive an automatic 23 percent cut. The only way to avert those cuts — which there seems to be a bipartisan consensus about — will be to change the law in a way that will ultimately shift even more of the burden onto working-age Americans."

In Fox News, Mark Penn said Biden is taking a big gamble on ignoring certain issues.

"First, let’s cover what was not in the speech. Inflation – the nation’s number one problem – got almost no mention. In the world of this speech there was no Afghanistan, no crisis at the border, no criminals outside of identity fraudsters and fentanyl runners, no multi-billion-dollar crypto swindles, and of course no deficit or need to restrain spending," Penn said. "There was a passing reference to America’s dropping educational standards but no plan to raise them and better educate our children. There was no big tech restraint on censorship, no call to take violent criminals off our streets, no call to strengthen families... It was a litany of promises big and small from ending cancer as we know it to dealing with junk fees at airports.

"The Age of Possibility (another retread theme) knew no limits of government that could not be solved with raising taxes on billionaires and auditing the rich. In 1995, President Bill Clinton declared, 'the era of big government is over.' In this State of the Union, Big Government was back bigger than ever," Penn said. "He also threatened to veto non-existent laws to abolish abortion that could never pass either chamber. And said he would protect 30 million cashiers from non-existent non-compete contract clauses... Overall, the big gamble of the speech, and of his nascent re-election campaign, is how the president can raise his poor job ratings with new taxes and big promises while sidestepping or ignoring the kitchen-table issues of inflation, immigration and crime on the minds of many Americans who see the country as headed in the wrong direction."

My take.

Here's a political journalist's confession: I've always felt that State of the Union addresses were pretty boring and unimportant. I found myself switching between Biden's address and the end of the Brooklyn Nets vs. Phoenix Suns game, knowing I could rewatch it in the morning on YouTube or just read the transcript. The most interesting moment to me was probably Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) telling off George Santos on the House floor, apparently insisting to him that he didn't belong there.

State of the Union addresses do little to change anyone's opinion on political figures like Biden. While they give plenty of ammunition to the press for punchy headlines and fact checks, I think their central function should be viewed much like a president's social media account. They are a statement of intent and laundry list of boasts. Except, unlike Biden's Twitter, they're aimed at the whole country rather than just his base.

In that context, my takeaway was this: Biden knows his economic message isn't yet landing, and despite some stellar numbers on all the things we typically measure the economy by — unemployment, job growth, wages — people are feeling low, probably because of inflation and labor shortages. He tried to change that last night. I don't suspect it will move the needle much, but we'll see.

He also clearly intends to trumpet bipartisan work, running through a rather impressive list of legislation passed with support from Republicans. As I've said before in Tangle, I think it is a myth that Congress is totally mired in do-nothingness, and Biden's record is actual proof of that. This part of his speech landed well, at least for me, and there were some conservative pundits who conceded Biden had a good night ("Deal with it: Biden's State of the Union was an Aesthetic Win," Jeffrey Blehar said in National Review).

There was the usual hand-wringing about decorum, which is undoubtedly deteriorating in Congress. But honestly? I actually prefer it this way. Our meeting of members is far more boring than, say, the Brits’, and the most interesting parts of the night were when Biden and Republicans chopped it up in improv mode. Deteriorating decorum with genuinely spontaneous back and forth is a lot more interesting — and revealing — than the scripted applause lines.

All in all, the address was solid. I appreciated the emphasis on bipartisan problem solving and a few decent attempts at humor. His fibs and lies were the usual kind of exaggerated self-congratulation we see in most State of the Union addresses, and many were familiar lines Biden recycles — though not getting any truer with repetition.

His public appearance has looked unsteady enough that he'll get credit for simply standing up there for over an hour, even if he misidentified Sen. Chuck Schumer as "minority leader" and slurred a few words. He looked younger and more enthusiastic than usual, and his off-script moments with Republicans didn't come with any major gaffes. That'll matter (a little) to Americans who pay tangential attention to politics, but I don’t think it’ll change any minds about whether he should run again in 2024.

Your questions, answered.

We're skipping today's reader question to give space to our main coverage. Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Former President Trump is ratcheting up his attacks on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, this time suggesting he was "grooming" high school girls at parties when he was a teacher. On his social media platform Truth Social, Trump "re-truthed" an image showing a 23-year-old DeSantis smiling between three women whose faces are blurred. The caption says "Here is Ron DeSanctimonious grooming high school girls with alcohol as a teacher." Trump reposted the image, writing "That's not Ron, is it? He would never do such a thing!" The photo was taken after the 2001 to 2002 academic year when DeSantis was a teacher at the elite Darlington School, before attending Harvard Law School. Students allege DeSantis attended parties with seniors, despite being a college graduate. Business Insider has the story.


  • 72. The length, in minutes, of Biden's speech.
  • 9,191. The length of Biden's speech in words, the longest ever.
  • 7,500. The average length, in words, of Biden's State of the Union addresses, the longest in modern history.
  • 35. The number of times he said the word "job" or "jobs."
  • Eight. The number of times he said "let's finish the job."
  • Seven. The number of times he said "Covid."
  • Four. The number of times he said "police."

The Extras.

Have a nice day.

Last February, Diane Gordon's car broke down. Since then, the Michigan resident has been walking to work — three miles round trip — five days a week. On January 21, as she was walking home she spotted a plastic bag full of cash. "This doesn't belong to me, I need to call a police officer," she remembered thinking to herself. So she reported it to police, and discovered that the $14,780 in cash belonged to a newlywed couple whose ceremony was earlier that day. Stacy Connell, the wife of the police officer who responded to Gordon’s call, decided to set up a GoFundMe page telling her story. It has now raised close to $80,000, some of which was used to buy Gordon a brand new Jeep Compass. People Magazine has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.