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The State of the Union address, or the great theater of the (political) world

In his last such appearance of the current term, President Biden took the opportunity to open the new phase of the campaign for the November election

Joe Biden shakes hands with the Speaker of the House, Republican Mike Johnson
Joe Biden shakes hands with the Speaker of the House, Republican Mike Johnson.SHAWN THEW / POOL (EFE)
Macarena Vidal Liy

The State of the Union address, in which the president outlines his priorities, is always the big event of the American legislative year. It is also a great political spectacle, a representation with its tragic moments — the tears of the congresswoman of Palestinian descent Rashida Tlaib in the remarks about Gaza — almost comical characters — the former congressman George Santos put in an appearance after being expelled for lying a few months ago — and more or less memorable phrases. A performance where it is certain that no matter what happens, half of the audience will applaud with dedication after each paragraph. And the other half, at best, will maintain a cold silence. That is, if it doesn’t let out a few boos.

The tragedy in this year’s performance was, without a doubt, Gaza. A war in which more than 30,000 people have died and to which Joe Biden dedicated the bulk of the foreign policy segment of his speech, to demand more humanitarian aid from Israel. On the benches, a group of congresswomen from the progressive Democratic wing, including Tlaib, were dressed in black and wore the kufiya, the Palestinian scarf, to demand a permanent ceasefire. Outside the Capitol, a group of protesters had tried to approach the caravan in which the president arrived.

Each member played their role. Behind Biden, like the masks of Greek tragedies, Vice President Kamala Harris smiled and made approving gestures after each phrase; meanwhile House Speaker Mike Johnson shook his head at every moment. The Democratic group applauded enthusiastically, sometimes with cries of “four more years, four more years!” In the half of the chamber where Democrats traditionally sit, the majority of the deputies had chosen to dress in white, the color they have worn in each of these speeches since 2019 as a gesture of support for women’s rights — white was the color of the suffragettes who demanded women’s right to vote at the beginning of the 20th century — and reproductive rights.

On the Republican side, Johnson had asked for “decorum” from his people, following recent State of the Union addresses remembered for the exchange of insults and boos. Some lawmakers from the most radical party wing had already signaled that they had no plans to obey Johnson, and they kept their word. Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene, an ardent Trump supporter, wearing the red cap that identifies the former president’s supporters, interrupted on several occasions.

But the main character, of course, was Biden. The president showed up for his last State of the Union address of this term — and possibly of his life, if he is not re-elected in November — like veteran actors do, bathed in the ovations of his party and stopping to savor each applause, to greet each friendly face, on his slow path to the stage.

Once there, he played a very different role than he did last year. In his 2023 speech, he had tried to reiterate the message with which he arrived at the White House, presenting himself as a conciliatory politician, willing to build bridges and collaborate with the opposition to heal the divisions that were opened or aggravated under his predecessor, Donald Trump.

This time, the tone was very different. In an election year, with polls placing him behind his opponent on almost every issue from immigration to the economy, Biden gave up reaching out to Republicans. His was a combative campaign speech, his first major rally after Super Tuesday made it clear that in November his confrontation against Trump from four years ago will be repeated.

Having turned down previous opportunities to address a large audience of voters — he did not accept the traditional televised interview with the president that is broadcast during the Super Bowl, the most watched sporting event in the world — this was a golden opportunity to present his campaign program directly to tens of thousands of voters. What he said, and how he said it, could affect the decision of many independent voters, a fundamental group to tip the electoral balance eight months from now.

Biden made an effort to target the younger audience with proposals on the cost of housing, student loans and climate change. He recalled the events of January 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory in the 2020 elections, and presented the November election as a choice between the defense of democracy and dictatorial chaos.

If his main problem among voters is his advanced age, Biden made an effort to joke about his years. “The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old our ideas are,” he noted. He also sought to project an image of vigor, of a leader with full powers of command. He had a few lapses, coughed several times, but maintained a strong tone of voice and responded firmly to the criticism that came from the Republican side.

Right at that moment he made a remark that has unleashed the fury of progressive groups and organizations and that may haunt him in his campaign. He was talking about immigration, and recalled that the Republican Party last month rejected the bipartisan bill agreed upon after four months of delicate negotiations. Taylor-Greene yelled out from her seat: “It’s about Laken Riley!”, alluding to a student allegedly murdered by an irregular immigrant. Biden, in an off-script comment, referred to the suspect as an “illegal” immigrant.

There was little left ahead. Biden concluded with an upbeat message: “I believe in you, the American people. You’re the reason I’ve never been more optimistic about our future! So let’s build that future together!”

And the president left as he had come, surrounded by applause, lingering along the way, greeting people as the lights went out. Savoring his moment of glory, like the actors of old.

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