In-Your-Face Biden Takes on Trump and His Own Doubters

This was not Old Man Joe. This was Forceful Joe. This was Angry Joe. This was Loud Joe. This was Game-On Joe.

In an in-your-face election-year State of the Union address, President Biden delivered one of the most confrontational speeches that any president has offered from the House rostrum, met by equally fractious heckling from his Republican opponents.

It was an extraordinary spectacle that exemplified the raucous nature of modern American politics, one that made clear how far Washington has traveled from the days of decorous presidential addresses aimed at the history books. Mr. Biden again and again assailed his opponent in the fall election and the opposition lawmakers sitting in front of him. Republicans jeered and booed. Democrats chanted, “Four more years,” as if it were a campaign rally.

But that was the point. Frustrated by all the talk about his age and determined to dispel voter doubts, Mr. Biden, 81, used the most prominent platform of this election year, with what is likely the largest television and internet audience he will address before November, to exhibit his stamina, his vitality, his capacity and, yes, his umbrage. Defiant and feisty, he dispensed with the conventions of the format to directly take on former President Donald J. Trump and attempted to make the election a referendum on his predecessor rather than himself.

While he did not use Mr. Trump’s name, Mr. Biden referred to “my predecessor” 13 times and unabashedly denounced “you in this chamber” for being the former president’s lackeys by blocking security aid to Ukraine and a bipartisan border deal for political reasons. Every time they hooted or interrupted, he gave as good as he got, mocking their points and challenging them to pass important legislation.

He was so pumped up, so eager to get started, that he rolled right over House Speaker Mike Johnson, opening his speech without letting the neophyte Republican leader make the traditional “high privilege and distinct honor” introduction. Mr. Biden shouted his lines, clearly intending to use volume to demonstrate vigor. The prepared text had 80 exclamation points in it and he surely added more on his own as he went along.

“My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6th!” he declared about the 2021 attack on the Capitol instigated by Mr. Trump.

“We stopped you 50 times before and we will stop you again!” he vowed about Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“My God, what freedom else would you take away?” he demanded after condemning the overturning of Roe v. Wade by Trump-appointed justices.

If the subtext of the 68-minute speech was to calm Democrats and independents worried that he is too old to seek another term, Mr. Biden addressed the matter explicitly at the very end, referring to “other people my age,” meaning Mr. Trump, who is 77 and also has moments of public confusion and memory lapses.

“My fellow Americans, the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old are our ideas,” Mr. Biden said. “Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back. To lead America, the land of possibilities, you need a vision for the future and what can and should be done.”

The president’s address seemed to get under Mr. Trump’s skin. “That may be the Angriest, Least Compassionate, and Worst State of the Union Speech ever made,” Mr. Trump wrote on his social media site afterward, including his own exclamation point. “It was an Embarrassment to our Country!”

For many watching, the speech presumably generated a different impression of Mr. Biden than he sometimes leaves in public appearances, when he can seem frail and halting. While he mangled his lines at points and interrupted his speech to cough a couple times, he came across as far more commanding and energized, reassuring some of his supporters.

More than most presidents on such occasions, he departed from the prepared text on the teleprompter to ad-lib lines — at times curiously, as when he talked about Snickers bars “with 10 percent fewer Snickers in them,” at other times aggressively, as when he responded to the rowdiest members of the audience.

At one point, Mr. Biden had almost a repeat of last year’s State of the Union address, when he turned the tables on Republicans protesting his claims about their plans to undermine Social Security. “Republicans can cut Social Security and give more tax breaks to the wealthy,” he said this time, at which point G.O.P. lawmakers interrupted with boos and catcalls.

“You guys don’t want another $2 trillion tax cut?” he said with a smile on his face. “I kind of thought that’s what your plan was. Well, that’s good to hear.”

At another point, when he invoked the bipartisan border deal rejected by Republicans, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted about the case of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing college student from Georgia who was killed last month, according to authorities, by a Venezuelan migrant who had entered the country illegally. “Say her name!” she screamed.

Ms. Greene, the proudly rabble-rousing Republican from Georgia who used to espouse QAnon conspiracy theories, showed up wearing a red Make America Great Again hat and a “Say Her Name” T-shirt. Mr. Biden called her bluff and interrupted his speech to hold up a “Say Her Name” button that had been given to him. He went ahead to say Ms. Riley’s name — although he botched it by calling her “Lincoln” instead of “Laken.”

He added that “my heart goes out” to her family but asked “how many thousands” had been killed by people living in the United States legally and argued that passing the border bill would reduce illegal crossings. “Get this bill done,” he told Republicans. “We need to act now.”

Mr. Biden, who began attending State of the Union addresses in the early 1970s as a young senator, was clearly comfortable and enjoyed the return to Capitol Hill. He took his time entering the chamber, shaking hands and chatting with lawmakers, even making a playful face at Ms. Greene when he saw her hat. Likewise, he hung around long after the speech, rehashing its best moments with Democrats who surrounded him on the floor.

Unleashed and unyielding, Mr. Biden seemed to relish the showdown. While he boasted of his accomplishments and rattled off the usual litany of policy pronouncements as presidents usually do, he made no aspiration to lofty rhetorical flourishes.

He mentioned only in passing his “unity agenda” in a speech with almost no unity in it. Instead, he conveyed the impression of a candidate itching for a fight, coming across as more combative than even the typically bellicose Mr. Trump did in the same setting four years ago.

“We will not walk away,” Mr. Biden said early in his address. “We will not bow down. I will not bow down.”

He was speaking at that moment specifically of the fight against Russia. But he seemed to also mean the fight for his own presidency.

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