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After Shouts of ‘Liar’ and Worse, Biden Takes on His Detractors in Real Time

WASHINGTON — President Biden was about midway through a speech of about 7,218-words on Tuesday when a Republican lawmaker tried to shut him down with a single one: “Liar!”

It was Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whom the president had baited by accusing Republicans of wanting to threaten entitlement programs like Social Security.

Later in the speech, when Mr. Biden called for an end to the fentanyl crisis in the United States, another lawmaker yelled out, “It’s your fault!” — a reference to the amount of drugs that are smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. Another lawmaker yelled out an expletive.

His second State of the Union address was punctuated by outbursts, jeers and peels of mocking laughter, but Mr. Biden turned the tables on his Republican opponents and argued in real time with the insurgents. It appeared to be the start of his re-election campaign.

When the Republicans shouted back that no, they were not threatening Social Security, Mr. Biden smiled, appearing to relish the scrimmage, and ad-libbed that he was pleased they all agreed.

“I’m glad to see — no, I tell you, I enjoy conversion,” Mr. Biden said. He is unlikely to win over a large number of Republicans to support legislation, but his reply to the contingent led by Ms. Greene was meant as an unsubtle reminder that he spent 36 years as a senator working to win Republican votes for his legislative efforts.

Mr. Biden arriving in the House chamber for the speech.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Vice President Kamala Harris greeting President Biden at the address, in a break from the generally combative mood.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

Mr. Biden walked into his speech facing low approval ratings and flashing-red polling numbers that suggest Americans do not feel that his economic policies have helped them. He also entered a chamber full of people who have quietly (and not so quietly) questioned how an 80-year-old president could run for re-election.

Yet Mr. Biden appeared in control as he took his time “How are ya, man”-ning down the aisle of the House chamber before reaching the dais, where Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, were waiting. Breaking from the combative mood of the chamber, Ms. Harris and Mr. McCarthy engaged in small talk, and the speaker greeted Mr. Biden warmly.

The president had a shaky start on the teleprompter as he raced through his remarks and mangled some lines, although he had plenty of energy. He got an even bigger burst once the Republicans heckles and boos began, and was most animated when he veered off the teleprompter and addressed them directly before a live television audience of millions. At times, the House floor seemed like the British Parliament, where catcalls and shouted insults from the opposing party are tradition.

In 2009, it was considered a travesty when Representative Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, shouted “you lie” at President Barack Obama during a joint address to Congress. Back then, Mr. Wilson was formally rebuked by the whole House.

Times have changed. Republican lawmakers shouted both “liar” and “bullshit” at parts of Mr. Biden’s speech, and no one appeared shocked. After the speech, Representative Andy Ogles of Tennessee defended yelling out “it’s your fault” as Mr. Biden described the fentanyl crisis, telling reporters it was “a visceral response.”

Though Mr. McCarthy appeared willing to play peacemaker at moments when tensions threatened to boil over — the speaker shushed Republicans who yelled at Mr. Biden for calling to codify citizenship for Americans brought to the United States as children — his role over the next months will be to oppose virtually all of Mr. Biden’s agenda.

On Tuesday, Republicans spent much of their time signaling that they would help in that mission. Some lawmakers even prepared to mock Mr. Biden in advance: Ms. Greene carried a white helium balloon around the Capitol, mocking Mr. Biden’s response to a giant Chinese spy balloon that traversed the United States this past week before an American F-22 blew it up off the coast of South Carolina.

Mr. Biden spotlighted Rodney Wells and RowVaughn Wells, the stepfather and mother of Tyre Nichols, as he called for police reform.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

At points, Mr. Biden turned down the volume, calling for police reform by spotlighting the grieving parents of Tyre Nichols,who died after a brutal beating on Jan. 7 at the hands of Memphis police officers. The president emphatically called for more research to end cancer. And he spoke directly to “forgotten” Americans who are struggling financially.

“Jobs are coming back,” Mr. Biden said. “Pride is coming back, because of choices we made in the last several years.”

When asked if Mr. Biden was prepared for the jeers from Republicans, a senior administration official said the news media had underestimated him — a common refrain from Mr. Biden’s advisers.

Jeff Nussbaum, a former Biden speechwriter, praised Mr. Biden for “doing a great job of seeking common ground and defining sacred ground.”

Much of the president’s speech was vintage Biden, full of well-worn phrasing he has used since the beginning of his first campaigns a half-century ago. The familiar seemed to help his comfort in taking on the Republicans.

“There are some good things about doing something for 50 years,” said Greg Schultz, Mr. Biden’s first 2020 campaign manager. “He’s got some riffs that are just not going to ever change.”

When the president returned to the White House late Tuesday night, the staff stood and applauded him.

Catie Edmondson and Karoun Demirjian contributed reporting.

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