State of the Union
Earlier in the day, Speaker Mike Johnson had asked Republican lawmakers to stay civil. Shawn Thew/AP

Biden’s Speech Was Designed to Agitate Republicans. It Worked.

Some rank-and-file Republicans left the speech early, while others heckled Biden across the House chamber.

When presidents come before Congress to deliver the State of the Union address, it’s usually to offer a unifying vision of America to a deeply divided group of people. Joe Biden gave a speech Thursday night to show how big those divides actually are — and to take advantage of them.

It’s not that everything in his State of the Union speech was explicitly partisan: Biden urged Republican lawmakers to defend democracy at home and abroad, even quoting Ronald Reagan at one point. But just applauding for an unapologetic defense of democracy is awkward for much of today’s Republican Party — starting with de facto GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Throughout the speech, House Speaker Mike Johnson — seated behind Biden and painfully aware of just how divided his conference is — tried to represent all things to all Republicans. He offered nearly imperceptible head nods during the president’s remarks about NATO, firm but cautiously not-too-enthusiastic applause for defending Ukraine and an undisguised eye roll when Biden lamented the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Moments later, Johnson clapped when Biden urged members: “You can’t love your country only when you win.”

Rank-and-file Republicans weren’t as restrained, and they only grew more agitated as the night went on. Some left the speech early, while others heckled Biden across the House chamber. He appeared happy to debate: “Oh no?” he called back to his GOP critics during, of all things, a heated moment about tax policy and budget deficits. “You don’t want to do a $2 trillion tax cut this year?”

Earlier in the day, Johnson had asked Republican lawmakers to stay civil. Some of his members took that as more of a suggestion than a command, scoffing during Biden’s remarks and offering their own opinions aloud. Others couldn’t even bear to stay in the room. “I’d had enough of that,” said Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas Republican who left the speech early. “This is the most partisan, in-your-face, discourteous speech I’ve ever heard in 10 years.”

Babin said he watched Johnson’s reactions on television after he walked out — “He didn’t look like he was enjoying himself a whole lot” — while Virginia Republican Rep. Ben Cline said Johnson did exactly what he was supposed to do.

It was his first State of the Union as speaker of the House, but Johnson is familiar with these events and “knows that a raised eyebrow or a smile or smirk at the wrong time can send the wrong message,” Cline said.

Johnson said he was aware people had commented that he made “funny faces,” but it was because he was too agitated to do anything else.

“I tried to put on a poker face, but it’s very difficult,” he told reporters afterward. “I’ve disagreed so vehemently with so much, and I think people at home did as well.”

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In nearly every part of his speech, Biden went after Trump, although he only referred to him obliquely and never by name. He chided Republicans over foreign aid, guns, abortion, IVF, inflation and the border. At one point, when talking about a proposed Senate bill to provide more security at the border that was rejected by Republicans almost as soon as it was introduced, Biden told GOP members who were shouting at him to “look at the facts … I know you know how to read.” He then engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who called for Biden to acknowledge the murder of Laken Riley, a nursing student who was killed in Georgia last month by a man authorities say was in the country illegally.

“It’s a political speech,” Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar of Florida said of Biden’s approach. “Everything is negative.”

Several Republican lawmakers brushed off Biden’s comments about democracy being at risk in the United States and around the globe. “He’s full of shit,” said Florida Rep. Kat Cammack. Rep. Troy Nehls, too, laughed when asked about it.

And Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican, blamed Biden for instability: “What we’re seeing around the world is deterrence fail,” he said. Waltz’s guest to the speech was the mother of an American soldier who was killed in a terror attack at the Kabul airport during the Biden administration’s frenzied evacuation of allies after its 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. “I was tempted to yell out, ‘Just say Afghanistan,’” Waltz told reporters. “‘Just admit that it was wrong and it was shameful.’”

Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee said he was “a little” concerned Republicans were playing into Biden’s hands by reacting so strongly, but he noted Democrats had also heckled Trump. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi even ripped up her copy of Trump’s speech in 2020.

“You’ve got to remember when Trump was in there, and they started wearing those white dresses,” Burchett recalled. “They stood up and heckled pretty hard to Trump, and nobody slapped their hand.”

For some Democrats, getting a rise out of Republicans was exactly Biden’s point.

“I think he wanted it,” Virginia Democratic Rep. Jennifer McClellan said.

Haley Byrd Wilt and Oriana González are reporters at NOTUS. Tinashe Chingarande, Claire Heddles, Ben T.N. Mause, John T. Seward and Katherine Swartz are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows.