‘Pride is coming back’: Biden touts victories on jobs and climate in State of the Union address

Joe Biden called on Republicans to help him “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and restoring faith in American democracy in his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night, as he delivered urgent calls to action on police reform, gun control and the climate crisis.

Speaking to a divided Congress for the first time, a relentlessly optimistic Biden made the case that the nation was stronger and more stable than when he assumed office two years ago.

Related: Feisty Biden offers bipartisan vision while still triggering Republicans

Midway through the first term of his presidency, the president credited his policies with helping to wrench the country from the depths of the coronavirus pandemic, usher in record job growth and strengthen a democracy threatened by anti-democratic forces at home and abroad. But to ensure progress continues, Biden argued, he would need support from the very Republican House majority eager to unravel his agenda and undermine his political prospects as he prepares to seek a likely second term.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,” Biden said in the 72-minute primetime speech, which he had opened by congratulating the newly installed House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, seated behind him on the dais.

“I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” the president said to McCarthy, drawing laughs.

From the House rostrum, Biden trumpeted the legislative accomplishments from his first two years in office when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress – including a sweeping health and climate package, an infrastructure law, and major new investments in the domestic semiconductor industry. He also pointed to signs of a brightening economic outlook, easing inflation and the country’s unemployment rate, which hit a 53-year low of 3.4% last month.

“Jobs are coming back,” Biden said. “Pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”

The punchy, at times combative, performance by the 80-year-old president earned glowing praise from fellow Democrats, who had hoped the speech would dispel concerns about Biden’s age and fitness for office as he looks ahead to a re-election campaign. Democrats rose to their feet in sustained applause when Biden denounced the “big lie” embraced by Donald Trump, who the president could face in a rematch in 2024.

Biden relished the moment. “What a night,” he wrote on Twitter. In another post, he shared a clip of himself calling on Congress to “finish the job” of recovery and reunification of an American economy and society that he came into office to complete.

Even as he appealed for bipartisanship, Biden made the explicit case against the economic agenda of political foes who have sought to repeal key pieces of his signature domestic policy accomplishment. He said: “Make no mistake: if you try to do anything to raise the cost of prescription drugs, I will veto it.”

Yet the prospect of sweeping bipartisan legislation is dim, as emboldened House Republicans launch a series of politically charged investigations into the president, his family and his administration.

Those tensions were on display in the chamber on Tuesday night. On several occasions, Republicans interrupted the president by jeering or yelling, despite McCarthy’s attempt to control the emotion.

Biden introduced a father who had lost his daughter to a fentanyl overdose in 2014. Vowing to confront the fentanyl crisis, Biden was met with shouting from Republicans who blame the president’s border policies for worsening drug trafficking. Above the din, a lawmaker screamed: “It’s your fault.”

One of the most disruptive moments came when Biden charged that Republicans wanted to “sunset” social security and Medicare, popular retirement and health insurance programs for seniors, as part of their efforts to reduce the deficit. Anticipating the attack, Republicans erupted in almost theatrical outrage. “Liar,” shouted the far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Engaging, Biden acknowledged that most Republicans did not support cuts to either entitlement program, but encouraged those protesting to “contact my office” for copies of the conservative proposals that would make those programs vulnerable. The outcry persisted, and Biden teased that he won Republican assurances that the programs would be protected. “We got unanimity,” he declared, bringing lawmakers of both parties to their feet in applause.

Republicans have demanded government spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, but Biden has insisted on a “clean” bill to raise the nation’s borrowing limit with no strings attached. The treasury has warned that the US risked a catastrophic debt default unless Congress acted before June.

At times striking a populist tone, Biden implored Congress to “reward work, not wealth” by passing his proposal for a billionaire tax. Touting a new $35 cap on insulin for Medicare recipients, he said legislators should go further and extend the rule to cover all Americans.

With lawmakers once again allowed to invite guests to the State of the Union, Biden turned to some in the audience to push forth urgent calls for bipartisan collaboration.

To a nation convulsed anew by videos of police brutality of Black Americans and a string of mass shootings, Biden, echoing the calls of activists and families, demanded Congress “do something”.

In an emotional appeal for action, he turned to the box where the first lady, Jill Biden, was seated alongside the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black father who was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers. “Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true: something good must come from this,” he said.

He then acknowledged Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old man who disarmed a gunman during a shooting in Monterey Park, California. Praising his bravery, the president called for a ban on assault weapons. “He saved lives. It’s time we do the same as well,” he said of Tsay.

And as Republican-governed states rush to restrict abortion, he vowed to veto a national abortion ban that some Republicans have called for.

Also seated alongside the first lady was Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi. Paul Pelosi was brutally assaulted in the days before the midterm elections by a hammer-wielding assailant who allegedly sought to injure the Democratic lawmaker.

And, for the second year in a row, Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, attended as a guest of the Bidens. The president boasted about the successes of the international coalition the US helped marshal to help Ukraine defends itself against Russia’s invasion.

“Together, we did what America always does at our best. We led. We united Nato and built a global coalition,” Biden said. “We stood against [Vladimir] Putin’s aggression. We stood with the Ukrainian people.”

Biden made no direct reference to the downing by the US military of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, but alluded to the decision, declaring that “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country”.

The newly elected governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as Trump’s press secretary, delivered the Republican response to Biden’s speech. Sanders, currently America’s youngest governor at 40, attacked Biden over inflation and accuse Democrats of waging a “leftwing culture war” against average Americans, according to excerpts of her prepared remarks.

“Republicans believe in an America where strong families thrive in safe communities, where jobs are abundant and paychecks are rising,” Sanders said.

Yet Biden was optimistic, challenging Republicans to stand in the way of the vision he believes elevated him to the White House two years ago, and helped deliver his party and expanded Senate majority in the November midterms.

“That’s always been my vision for the country, and I know it’s many of yours’,” he said, “to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America, America’s middle class, and unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job, in my view.”