By Jeff Mason, Nandita Bose and Gram Slattery
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden challenged Republicans to lift the U.S. debt ceiling and support tax policies that were friendlier to middle class Americans on Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that served as a blueprint for his 2024 re-election campaign.
Assailing oil companies for making high profits and corporate America for taking advantage of consumers, Biden used his prime time speech to outline progressive priorities of his Democratic Party that are anathema to many Republican lawmakers.
Making his first address to a joint session of Congress since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January, Biden pledged to work with opposition lawmakers even as he sparred with them in the chamber.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” he said.
Some Republicans heckled and jeered him at times during a speech that lasted some 73 minutes.
Biden took them on, challenging Republicans to raise the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, which must be lifted in the coming months to avoid a default. The White House has said Biden will not negotiate over that necessity; Republicans want spending cuts in exchange for their support.
“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage – I get it – unless I agree to their economic plans. All of you at home should know what those plans are. Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans … want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” he said, drawing boos.
He then urged lawmakers to stand up for senior citizens, which they did, prompting Biden to claim victory. “I enjoy conversion,” he quipped, suggesting such cuts to the social safety net programs popular with voters were now off the table.
The back and forth underscored Biden’s apparent comfort in Congress, where he engaged in debates as a U.S. senator for 36 years.
“Joe Biden sparring with the crowd and winning wasn’t something I expected,” said former Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican, on Twitter.
The president called for reforms in policing after Tyre Nichols, a Black man, died last month after being beaten by officers in Memphis, Tennessee. Nichols’ mother and stepfather were among the guests at the speech.
Highlighting topics that could feature prominently in a re-election campaign, Biden said the economy was benefiting from 12 million new jobs, COVID-19 no longer controls American lives, and U.S. democracy remains intact despite facing its biggest threat since the Civil War.
“Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken,” he said.
As a candidate in 2020 and at his inauguration in 2021, shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden said he wanted to unify the country. And he stuck to that theme, highlighting a massive infrastructure bill and ribbing Republican lawmakers who opposed it.
“I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law,” he said. “My Republican friends who voted against it … I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well, but don’t worry, I promised I’d be a president for all Americans.”
Despite his efforts, Biden remains unpopular.
His public approval rating edged one percentage point higher to 41% in a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll that closed on Sunday. That is close to the lowest level of his presidency, with 65% of Americans saying they believe the country is on the wrong track, compared to 58% a year earlier.
Similarly, in the autumn of 2020, when Donald Trump was president, 65% of registered voters believed the country was on the wrong track, according to Reuters/Ipsos polling.
Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who once served as press secretary for Trump, rejected Biden’s upbeat vision of the country in her Republican response to his address.
“In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire. But you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race,” Sanders said in her televised remarks.
Biden aides see the speech as a milestone ahead of the second presidential campaign he is expected to launch in coming weeks.
Biden turned 80 in November and, if re-elected, would be 82 at the start of a second term, a fact that concerns many Democratic voters, recent polls show.
Biden faced a splintered gathering of Republican lawmakers, eager to put their conservative mark on U.S. policy following four years of Democratic control of the House.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Republican who has faced challenges unifying lawmakers from his party, sat behind Biden during the address for the first time. “Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden said, drawing laughs.
McCarthy and Vice President Kamala Harris smiled and chatted from the dais before Biden’s arrival.
I respect the other side,” McCarthy said earlier on Tuesday in a video. “I can disagree on policy. But I want to make sure this country is stronger, economically sound, energy independent, secure and accountable.”
Some House Republican lawmakers have questioned Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential race against Trump, vowing to investigate his Cabinet and family.
Biden hailed the resilience and strength of the U.S. economy, with unemployment having dropped to a nearly 54-year low in January.
He hammered corporations for profiteering from the pandemic and ran through a wish list of economic proposals, many of which are unlikely to be passed by Congress. They included a minimum tax for billionaires and a quadrupling of the tax on corporate stock buybacks.
Biden was especially critical of oil companies’ profits. “I think it’s outrageous,” he said. He said the United States would need oil for at least another decade, drawing laughter from some in the chamber.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Nandita Bose and Gram Slattery; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Andrea Shalal, Trevor Hunnicutt, Steve Holland, Costas Pitas and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Heather Timmons and Howard Goller)