Last night, President Biden gave the annual State of the Union address, stuffed with data-infused tidbits about his administration’s accomplishments. The president, enjoying his first time in the national spotlight since his party defied expectations in the November midterm elections, was unusually lucid and buoyant in his hour-plus speech, telling a story about record-low unemployment and bipartisan legislative achievements. But that wasn’t what last night will be remembered for—once again, his loopy MAGA counterparts did Biden’s job for him by making an embarrassing spectacle of themselves. It made the 80-year-old president look like a generational political talent.
A little over half an hour into his remarks, Biden spoke about the GOP’s plans for cutting beloved social spending programs in exchange for lifting the debt ceiling. “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans, some Republicans, want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s the majority,” he said as Republicans erupted in faux outrage. “Anybody who doubts it,” Biden said grinning, “contact my office. I’ll give you a copy of the proposal,” presumably talking about Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s spectacularly stupid public plan to sunset all federal legislation every five years as a way of controlling spending.
From the back of the room, the Republicans’ new spiritual and perhaps future political leader Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), clad on brand in a white fur Cruella de Ville jacket, shouted “liar” at the president, who looked like a slugger who had been fed a meatball down the middle of the plate.
He conceded that a majority of Republicans had not publicly backed Scott’s plan and that he was “politely not naming names” before reiterating that he would not allow Republicans to hold spending hostage over the debt ceiling. “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now,” he thundered, a classic Biden mixed-metaphor slurry that makes no sense if you think about it too hard. Off the books? Isn’t that what Republicans want?
“All right,” he said coolly as members of Congress from both sides of the aisle stood and applauded the signature social programs GOP elites have been trying to destroy for decades. Biden pumped his fist like he was watching his beloved Philadelphia Phillies celebrate the National League Championship. Sensing that he could keep this incredible moment going, Biden thundered, “Let’s stand up for seniors!” With many Republicans now goaded into being on their feet, he went on. “We will not cut Social Security! We will not cut Medicare!”
“And if anyone tries to cut Social Security,” he smiled like a stand-up comedian tying the evening’s themes together with one last joke, “which apparently no one’s gonna do, and if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them, I’ll veto it. I’m not gonna allow them to take away, be taken away, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.” He took one more beat, like he had practiced the whole thing just so. “But apparently it’s not gonna be a problem,” he quipped as the chamber erupted again in laughter.
Republicans stumbled directly into that extended humiliation months ago, when now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) promised to use the debt ceiling as a cudgel to cut spending and then refused to rule out slashing Social Security and Medicare. No one believes, or should believe, his belated January promise not to force cuts to those programs, especially given his pledge to cap fiscal spending at 2022 levels as part of what was effectively a coalition agreement with the craziest members of his own party.
Throughout the night, Biden touted his economic, foreign policy and legislative achievements. He looked confident and pleased with himself despite his public approval ratings hovering around 43 percent. With unemployment at its lowest level since 1969, inflation easing and the worst of the COVID crisis (knock on wood) in the rearview, Biden sensed he had the upper hand after a frequently difficult first two years in office.
It’s not hard to see the source of the president’s confidence last night. Unlike his last two predecessors, he wasn’t facing a hostile and newly emboldened Congress dominated by adversaries who had given him an electoral shellacking in his first midterm. Instead, Republicans had a wan-looking McCarthy, who commands a tiny, fractious House majority and owes his tenuous position as Speaker to the very far-right nihilists that Biden was batting around like a kitten with a ball of yarn.
So Biden had a great night, but he probably could have walked out there and babbled about Corn Pop for an hour and still emerged with a polling bounce. That’s because America’s loyal opposition is now unquestionably dominated by hot mess expresses like Greene and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, along with the newest addition to The Real World: Capitol Hill, Rep. George Santos, alias Anthony Devalder, whose unique combination of hilarious resume-padding and utter shamelessness marks him an instant rising star in a party that now attracts clout-chasing extremists with questionable morals from coast to coast.
Before Biden started speaking, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) was spotted dressing down Santos (R-NY). “You oughta be embarrassed,” Romney told him. Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee for president, represents the GOP’s dying establishment wing, increasingly eclipsed by performatively weird MAGA fabulists and QAnon cranks. A still-incensed Romney told reporters that Santos is a “sick puppy” who has no business being in Congress.
Unfortunately, in today’s GOP, it is the Mitt Romneys who don’t belong in the caucus. The sick puppies have staged an internal coup and are running loose.
And last night President Biden clearly relished his new role as the nation’s chief dog-catcher.
David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.