Republicans are quick to accuse President Joe Biden of losing his footing, but he was quick enough Tuesday night to box them in on Social Security and Medicare. And he did it in part by deviating from the script.
Nearly halfway through his State of the Union address, Biden stated that “some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years,” and that others want to use the threat of federal debt default as leverage to cut those programmes.
Republicans booed. “Liar!” yelled Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a newly empowered voice in her party.
Biden initially offered to provide documentation. Then he simply accepted the response as the GOP’s on-the-spot agreement to keep the programmes intact.
“As we all seem to agree,” he said, deviating from his prepared remarks and grinning like a cat with a canary feather stuck in his teeth, “Social Security and Medicare are no longer on the books.”
There is a duality to what appeared to be a quick policy victory for Biden: to the extent that he protected entitlement programmes, he also made it more difficult to campaign on the idea that Republicans are hell-bent on destroying them. But, perhaps more importantly, as he prepares to run for re-election, Biden demonstrated the mental agility that critics — and, in private, some allies — claim he lacks.
Without the script, Biden appeared sharper.
“It was a great Biden moment that demonstrated why he needs more chances to freewheel and speak from his gut,” said Faiz Shakir, who ran Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 primary campaign against Biden. “He basically held a live pledge-a-thon and got vast majorities to commit to taking Social Security and Medicare off the table.”
It’s not difficult to conclude that Biden scored one of the clearest victories of any president when addressing hecklers in a speech to Congress. It’s also reasonable to assume that most people will not be thinking about the State of the Union in 2023 when they vote in 2024.
However, the exchange’s themes may help frame the coming months and the next election.
When Biden said there was some Republican support for letting Social Security and Medicare expire after five years if Congress did not pass a new law, he wasn’t lying. During the midterm elections, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, proposed just such a plan. Despite the fact that other Republican leaders distanced themselves from Scott’s agenda, it became a point of contention in some races.
But his case for raising the debt ceiling was more shaky. Republicans emphasised Tuesday night that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has stated that “cuts to Medicare and Social Security” are “off the table.”
In any case, by declaring a policy victory on entitlement programmes, Biden may have given the GOP an unexpected gift.
“President Biden relinquished his political cudgel by giving Speaker McCarthy and every other Republican the opportunity to publicly support Social Security, and they gladly took it,” Republican strategist Matt Mowers said.
For Democrats, seeing Biden dance around the ring was a source of joy.
“Did @potus just bait and switch the GOP into agreeing to protect Medicare and Social Security on live national TV?” tweeted former Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va.
That’s precisely what he did.