State of the Union: Biden promotes agenda, warns Trump poses dire threat

The president also engaged in a back-and-forth with congressional Republicans during his speech.

(Maansi Srivastava | The New York Times) President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on March 7, 2024.

President Joe Biden used his State of the Union address on Thursday to launch a series of fiery attacks against former President Donald Trump, a competitor whom he did not mention by name but labeled as a dire threat to American democracy and stability in the world.

In a televised speech to a joint session of Congress, Biden brought the energy his allies and aides had hoped he would display to warn of what could happen should Ukraine continue to lose ground to Russia. Invoking an overseas war at the top of his address was an unusual introduction to a speech that was in many ways a political argument for his reelection.

“Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault at home as they are today,” Biden said, raising his voice to a shout. “What makes our moment rare is the freedom of democracy, under attack both at home and overseas.”

Biden’s speech had to accomplish several goals at once, including taking credit for an economy that has outperformed expectations but whose effects many Americans say they cannot feel. He touched on a range of issues, including immigration, abortion, prescription drug costs and the war in the Gaza Strip.

He also engaged in a back-and-forth with congressional Republicans, picking up a button circulated by Republicans that called for people to say the name of Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student who was killed in February by, according to authorities, an immigrant who had entered the country illegally.

“To her parents, I say, my heart goes out to you. Having lost children myself, I understand,” he said at one point, going off script and addressing Republicans by using the phrase “an illegal” to describe the accused, which is not the term preferred by his party.

He used his time in front of one of the biggest audiences he will have before the November election to tell Americans that personal freedoms, diplomatic relationships and democratic rule in the United States are at stake if Trump is reelected.

Biden assailed Trump for his soft treatment of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose troops invaded Ukraine more than two years ago. “If anybody in this room thinks Putin will stop in Ukraine, I assure you he will not,” Biden said, warning that the world was watching the United States.

“We will not bow down,” Biden said. “I will not bow down.”

He called out the former president’s behavior, including Trump’s lies that Biden had stolen the 2020 election from him. “You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said.

Trump, never one to sit quietly, responded to many of Biden’s points in a stream of real-time posts on his social media site, Truth Social. “Putin only invaded Ukraine, because he has no respect for Biden,” he asserted in one post.

Before the speech, Biden was under pressure to address the issue of his age. He argued that his 81 years had taught him to “embrace freedom and democracy” and “to give hate no safe harbor,” remarks meant to address concerns about his age and draw a clear contrast with Trump.

“Now some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge and retribution. That’s not me,” Biden said — a clear jab at his predecessor, who is four years younger and whose victory speech after Super Tuesday primary elections portended a dark future for America, a country he referred to as “third world.”

Biden also tried to quell dissatisfaction within his own party over his handling of the conflict in Gaza. Earlier Thursday, the Biden administration said the United States would build a temporary seaport off Gaza to assist with the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Israel-Hamas war has become a serious vulnerability for Biden, as United Nations officials warn that famine is imminent in Gaza and progressive voters of the Democratic Party are deeply angry with Biden’s support for Israel.

“Israel must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure that humanitarian workers aren’t caught in the crossfire,” Biden said. “To the leadership of Israel I say this: Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip.”

Biden focused extensively on reproductive rights, which have become among the most galvanizing issues for his party. Republicans cheered the Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had established a constitutional right to abortion, but the party has been hurt in state elections since. Several women invited by the White House or Democratic lawmakers on Thursday evening had suffered life-threatening medical complications during pregnancies.

“Clearly those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women,” Biden said. “But they found out when reproductive freedom was on the ballot and we won in 2022, 2023, and we’ll win again in 2024.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.