Joe Biden was basking in positive reviews of his State of the Union address on Wednesday after a night that exposed the gulf between Democrats and Republicans heading into the 2024 race for the White House.
The US president used his annual primetime speech to tout economic achievements and emphasise his appeal to working families, criticizing billionaires who pay lower tax rates than the middle class and airlines that treat their passengers like “suckers”.
But then Arkansas Republican governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, delivering her party’s response to Biden’s address, focused most of her remarks on “hot-button” social issues such as critical race theory and alleged big-tech censorship of conservatives.
“While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day,” she said. “Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a leftwing culture war we didn’t start and never wanted to fight.”
“The choice is between normal and crazy,” Sanders added – a remark that critics said carried a different meaning from what she intended.
They argued that it is Republicans who are obsessed with so-called “culture war” issues that are popular in rightwing echo chambers but have had limited utility in the past three election cycles.
Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a media watchdog, tweeted: “Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ rebuttal to Biden’s State of the Union address was indistinguishable from a Fox News monologue and shows how the GOP has been poisoned by its relationship with the rightwing press.”
Liberals also pointed to the heckling, hooting and jeering by Republicans in the House of Representatives chamber during Biden’s speech to make the case that the party remains obsessed by attention-grabbing stunts rather than substantive policy.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy had warned his members against breaches of decorum beforehand, and made agonising facial contortions to quell them during the address, but in vain.
The rowdy, disruptive approach appeared to backfire as, in a moment reminiscent of scenes more common in the British parliament, Biden relished engaging the hecklers head on regarding some Republicans’ threat of cutting Social Security and Medicare and, with facts on his side, came out on top.
It was a moment that the president seemed to relish and gave some reassurance to Democrats that, at the age of 80, he has the energy and toughness to fight another gruelling election campaign.
Kurt Bardella, a Democratic strategist, said: “Republicans, through their tantrums, ended up being the best visual aid that President Biden that the Democrats could have hoped for in bringing to life the contrast between the adults and the children.
“It just shows again how tone deaf the Republicans have become that even after an election cycle in which they underperformed at a historic level they still have chosen to double down on a strategy that isn’t working for them and instead continue the embrace of immature, childish extremists.”
For many observers, Biden’s sober appeal for bipartisanship to “finish the job” – a phrase he used at least a dozen times – in a newly divided Congress contrasted with the image of Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, sporting a white fur, yelling “Liar!” from the back benches.
His acknowledgement that, as a white man, he has enjoyed a privilege that the parents of Tyre Nichols – killed by police in Memphis – do not contrasted with Huckabee Sanders’ boast about banning “CRT [critical race theory], racism, and indoctrination in our schools” and “the use of the derogatory term ‘Latinx’ in our government”.
And his focus on Republicans as potential partners rather than “Maga extremists”, as he has branded them in the past, contrasted with the choice of Huckabee Sanders, 40, a former White House press secretary under Donald Trump, casting doubt on the notion that Republicans are eager to “move on” from the former president.
Bardella added: “The president focused his conversation on the issues that overwhelmingly all Americans care about and want to see Washington address, whether it’s the economy, inflation, healthcare, entitlement programmes.
“The Republican response was about imaginary culture wars and imagined grievances about things that aren’t real. CRT isn’t actually a real thing. It’s not being taught in K-through-12 education. It never has. You’re inventing problems that don’t actually exist.”
Culture war issues have benefited Republicans on occasion, for example in Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin won the race for governor with an emphasis on schools and “parents’ rights”. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, leading some polls for the 2024 Republican nomination, has defined his political identity around opposing “wokeness”.
It is a strategy that fires up the base but rarely reaches beyond it. Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said: “They’re making a mistake by focusing on issues that are not central to people’s lives.
“They’re stuck on the cultural issues. The cultural issues have certainly done well for them in the past but they’re not enough in and of themselves to deliver, particularly if there’s a good economy and people have jobs.”
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