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A Fiery State of the Union
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A Fiery State of the Union

Plus: The Dispatch publishes its fourth-ever editorial.

Happy Friday! We’d like to give a hearty Dispatch welcome to Will Rinehart, who launched a new technology-focused newsletter, Techne, with us yesterday! You can read the first edition here to see what it’s all about—and click “Subscribe to the newsletter” at the top of this page to ensure you never miss an issue going forward.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Hamas stepped away from ongoing ceasefire and hostage deal negotiations on Thursday after the terrorist group’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar, emerged from seclusion to demand that Israel commit to a permanent end to the war. A six-week pause in fighting was on the table, in addition to the exchange of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for roughly 40 hostages taken by Hamas during the October 7 attack on Israel. Hamas’ delegation left the latest round of talks in Cairo, mediated by Qatar and Egypt, yesterday, likely ending hopes for an agreement before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts around Sunday—though U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew expressed optimism that negotiations would resume. The Israeli delegation boycotted the latest round of talks after Hamas failed to produce a list of remaining living hostages.
  • President Joe Biden announced during his State of the Union address Thursday night that the U.S. would build a temporary pier on Gaza’s Mediterranean coast in an effort to boost the delivery of humanitarian aid. The “emergency mission,” which Biden said would not require U.S. boots on the ground in Gaza, would include a large-scale amphibious military operation to create a temporary port that could receive food and other vital supplies by sea.
  • Sweden formally became the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) on Thursday after delivering its accession documents to Washington, D.C. “We will strive for unity, solidarity, and burden-sharing, and will fully adhere to the Washington Treaty values: freedom, democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said in a statement yesterday. Sweden’s flag will be raised in a ceremony at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday.
  • The House of Representatives on Thursday passed the Laken Riley Act, a bipartisan bill named for the Augusta University student who was killed by an illegal immigrant last month while jogging on the University of Georgia campus. The bill—which passed 251-170 with 37 Democrats joining all present Republicans to vote in favor of the bill—would require federal immigration authorities to detain any undocumented migrant facing local burglary or theft charges. The man charged with Laken’s killing, Jose Ibarra, is an illegal immigrant from Venezuela who was arrested and released in New York City for acting in a manner to injure a child, and received a citation in Georgia for misdemeanor shoplifting. The bill’s fate in the Senate is uncertain.*

The State of the Union is Angry

President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber on March 7, 2024. (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden delivers the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber on March 7, 2024. (Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

The tone of last night’s State of the Union address was set perhaps even before President Joe Biden delivered a word of his speech. Protesters, pushing for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza, blocked a portion of Pennsylvania Avenue leading to the Capitol Building. GOP firebrands like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado signaled early on Thursday that they would not heed Speaker Mike Johnson’s calls for decorum. And as Biden proceeded to the dais, Greene pulled on a MAGA hat—against Congressional rules—and handed him a button embossed with the name of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student killed last month in Georgia by an illegal immigrant. 

The annual speech was delivered with just 243 days until November’s presidential election, and the specter of the campaign hung over the room as the president and congressional Republicans traded barbs throughout the night. Biden referenced his predecessor—and once-again political rival—more than a dozen times over the course of the night, using the address to make his reelection pitch. In substance, Biden’s remarks were about par for the Democrat’s course; stylistically, however, the direct partisan rancor coming from both sides previewed the long and bruising election cycle that lies ahead.

Biden headed into his address with a grim political outlook. According to RealClearPolitics polling averages, his net approval rating is 17 points underwater, and 67 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. A New York Times/Siena poll released last week found that just 18 percent of voters believe the president’s policies have personally helped them—compared to 40 percent who said the same about the policies of former President Donald Trump. That halcyon view of the Trump era undercuts a core Biden campaign theme: that voters are better off now than they were four years ago. 

It’s no wonder, then, that Biden was under pressure last night—especially from members of his own party. “We are all nervous,” one House Democrat told Axios, about Biden’s “ability to speak without blowing things.” The 81-year-old president’s mental acuity has been questioned throughout his reelection campaign, and that same Times/Siena poll showed that, on net, 73 percent of voters believe Biden is “just too old to be an effective president.” But while his delivery was sometimes garbled, the president didn’t have any major senior moments—and several times, he parried jabs from Republican audience members off the cuff before returning to prepared remarks. “Oh, you don’t like that bill, huh?” he shot back when some Republicans booed his mention of the recently scuttled bipartisan immigration package. “That conservatives got together and said was a good bill? I’ll be darned, that’s amazing.”

The partisan tone set in the lead-up to the president’s address was present throughout the speech, as well as the response from the room. While Democrats engaged in the typically partisan calisthenics of rising in support of their guy at every third sentence—chants of “four more years!” broke out at several points—the night was short on moments that had the whole room standing. Many—though not all—in the room rose when Biden expressed his commitment to bringing home all of the Hamas-held hostages in Gaza. Biden’s acknowledgement of Betty May Fikes, an invited guest who fought for civil rights with the late Rep. John Lewis, also drew bipartisan applause. Far more common, though, were hecklers—both from the House floor and the gallery. A Gold Star father, whose son was one of the 13 Marines killed in the 2021 Abbey Gate attack at Kabul airport during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, was asked to leave the gallery after yelling at the president during his address. At one point during the speech, GOP Rep. Derrick Van Orden of Wisconsin shouted “Lies!”

But it was Biden’s comments about “his predecessor”—whom he never mentioned directly by name—that drew the most Republican ire. He called Trump out no fewer than 13 times, poking at fault lines in the Republican Party and drawing a contrast between himself and the man currently leading him in several national polls. Opening with an appeal to Congress to pass aid to Ukraine, he offered an olive branch to the more hawkish faction of the GOP—to which recently vanquished Republican presidential candidate, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and many of her voters belong—by contrasting Trump with a past hero. “​​It wasn’t that long ago when a Republican president named Ronald Reagan thundered, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,’” Biden said. “Now, my predecessor, a former Republican president, tells Putin, ‘Do whatever the hell you want.’ That’s a quote. A former American president actually said that, bowing down to a Russian leader. It’s outrageous. It’s dangerous. It’s unacceptable.”

He then sharply pivoted to the events of January 6, 2021, describing a day when “insurrectionists stormed this very Capitol and placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy.” He accused his “predecessor and some of you here” of trying to “bury the truth of January 6,” and condemned political violence. “You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said. “Remember your oath of office to defend against all threats foreign and domestic.” 

During a section of the speech about abortion policy, Biden also directly went after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, several members of which were seated just feet away. “In its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court majority wrote the following, and with all due respect justices, ‘Women are not without electoral, electoral power’—excuse me—‘electoral or political power,’ he said. “You’re about to realize just how much you got right about that.”

On immigration, too, Biden had harsh words for Trump, whom he accused of derailing the bipartisan immigration bill. The deal, negotiated by Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, was roundly condemned by GOP senators before many lawmakers even had had time to read the text of the agreement. Republicans booed as Biden recounted the details of the bill—unlikely to ever again see the light of day, much less come to another vote. Amid the heckling, the cable news feed panned to Lankford, sitting stony-faced. “That’s true,” Lankford appeared to mouth, confirming the president’s description. 

Why did Republicans abandon the bill? Because Trump publicly opposed it and privately lobbied against it. “I’m told my predecessor called members of Congress and the Senate to demand they block the bill,” Biden said. “He feels that it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him. It’s not about him. It’s not about me.”

Then, in one of the shakier ad-libbed moments of the speech, Biden responded to shouts from Rep. Greene demanding that he “say [Laken Riley’s] name.” Biden held up the button Greene handed him as he entered the chambers and said she was “an innocent young woman killed by an illegal.” The president employing the term “illegal” drew the ire of multiple Democratic lawmakers after the speech ended.

There were other moments last night when Democratic divisions were made plain. Though most of the protestations against Biden last night were shouted, several members of the progressive “Squad”—who have been vocal critics of the president’s policy toward Israel and Gaza—silently held up signs that read “lasting ceasefire” and “stop sending bombs,” and withheld their applause. Three of them wore keffiyehs—scarves donned by supporters of the Palestinian national movement.

Relative to Ukraine, Biden did not spend much of his speech talking about the war in Gaza—a weak spot for him with progressive and young voters—and mentioned Hamas’ sponsor Iran only once. Though he reaffirmed his support for Israel’s campaign against Hamas (going off-script to refer to the terrorist organization as “cowards” for hiding amongst the Palestinian population), he forcefully pushed for Israel to do more to protect Gazan civilians. “Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” he said. “Protecting and saving innocent lives has to be a priority.” During the speech, Biden announced that the U.S. would build a temporary port on Gaza’s Mediterranean shore to accept aid shipments.

While Biden spent a fair amount of time discussing threats to democracy both foreign and domestic, he devoted much of his speech to all the administration’s kitchen-table appeals to the middle class. Biden ticked through the litany of new government investments in American manufacturing, infrastructure projects, and critical industries like semiconductor chips. He also highlighted his efforts to lower prescription drug costs and expand the Affordable Care Act. 

But the speech also included new economic proposals with a more populist bent. “Tonight I want to talk about the future of possibilities that we can build together,” he said. “A future where the days of trickle-down economics are over and the wealthy and biggest corporations no longer get all the breaks.” Biden advocated for a 25 percent tax rate for billionaires, saying the additional revenue could be spent on child care and paid leave. To address high home prices, he proposed a new $10,000 tax credit (spread over two years) to subsidize mortgages for first-time homebuyers and another $10,000 credit for middle-class households who sell their “starter home.” He also floated a plan to provide preschool for three- and four-year-olds. And, in perhaps the most comical line of the night, Biden accused corporations of price gouging and deceptive practices. “The snack companies think you won’t notice if they change the size of the bag,” he said. “They put a hell of a lot fewer—same size bag—put fewer chips in it. No, I’m not joking. It’s called shrinkflation.”

The Republican response was delivered by freshman Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama, speaking from her own kitchen table. She cast herself as an everymom, likening her family’s struggles and worries to those of average Americans. Britt criticized the president as “out of touch” and at fault for leaving American families worse off economically and less safe. She pivoted—at times theatrically—between sheer indignation, hitting Biden for weakening border security and telling the horrific story of a woman sex trafficked by cartels, and eager optimism, defending in vitro fertilization and espousing Republican-led upward economic mobility. “We are the party of hardworking parents and families,” she said of Republicans, “and we want to give you and your children the opportunities to thrive.”

Britt’s response, and its mix of smiles and fire and brimstone, was likely a preview of the Republican strategy against Biden in the general election campaign. One ad, launched ahead of the speech, blamed Biden’s border policies for the death of Laken Riley—her murderer had entered the country illegally and had been arrested previously, but was released. Polling from Gallup released last month found that respondents ranked immigration ahead of all other issues as the most important problem facing the country for the first time since 2019. Republicans have also repeatedly hit Biden on his age, and a new ad depicts the president struggling to collect his thoughts and asks, “If Biden wins, can he even survive till 2029?” 

As Biden closed his speech—which lasted more than an hour—he gave a nod to his age. “I know I may not look like it,” he joked, “but I’ve been around a while.” Recapping his long life of public service, he argued that “the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old our ideas are.” He laid out his vision for the future, and urged Americans to look forward, not backward—in one final reference to his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, whom he’ll face again in the 2024 election.

The American People Should Demand Better

We don’t publish many editorials here at The Dispatch, but the fourth one in our company’s history went live this morning, arguing the American people “should demand better than the decision our two decaying, corrupted parties—channeling the dueling forces of tribalism and inertia—are set to thrust upon them.” The entire piece is out from behind the paywall, and we hope you’ll take a few minutes this morning to read and share it. Here’s an excerpt:

As we move toward the general election, the pressure from partisan cheerleaders to line up behind one of these two unfit men will only grow louder. Progressive commentator Robert Reich, for example, has spent months encouraging people who actively dislike Biden to vote for him anyway as the “lesser of two evils.” On Wednesday, prominent right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt pushed Nikki Haley to offer Trump a “full-throated endorsement” and “promise to campaign hard for him” because “that’s the traditional GOP way.”

Look where the “lesser-of-two-evils” mindset and the “traditional GOP way” have gotten us: a contest between the most unpopular presidential nominees in the history of polling.

Politicians respond to incentives. We’ve arrived at this point because the disaffected majority of voters who are fed up with today’s political climate have consistently held their noses and settled for candidates they don’t like who have been imposed upon them by the hyperpartisan fringes. In the United States, a shockingly small percentage of the overall electorate determines the two major parties’ nominees. The country will never return to the smoke-filled rooms of the past, but the tyranny of the most rabidly partisan doesn’t strike us as much of an improvement.

We understand and respect that Americans will respond to the dismal choice in front of them in different ways—for different reasons—but we encourage them to weigh their options carefully, clear-eyed about the potential ramifications of either man securing a second term and on guard against the natural impulse to justify their vote by turning a blind eye to the candidates’ obvious flaws. No matter who wins, we will desperately need as many people as possible who can still tell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and lie. In a democracy, such people are the only guardrail against tyranny.

We’re under no illusion that our words here will meaningfully alter the outcome in November. If we had more sway, the country wouldn’t be in this position. And we host a podcast called The Remnant for a reason.

But we do know that that “remnant”—Americans who believe in individual liberty, pluralism, and a U.S.-led global order—is much larger than the leaders of either major political party think. And if enough of these voters break free of their partisan shackles, change may not come immediately—but it will come. To paraphrase a recent piece from our colleague, Nick Catoggio, all that’s to be done is to forge ahead, speak the truth, and trust that doing so will matter somehow.

And that is what we will continue to do.

Worth Your Time

  • Writing for Law and Liberty, Rachel Lomasky, a data scientist working in artificial intelligence (AI), argued for a longer view on AI development. “Recent advances in AI are truly significant, but the hype is overblown,” she wrote. “[Generative] AI passes the Turing Test, relatively non-controversially, and is also acing tests meant to measure human knowledge, e.g., the LSAT and AP Exams. It obeys Amara’s Law, which states, ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.’ AI will continue on its current, mostly mundane, somewhat delightful course, but the pace will accelerate. The trajectory of Gen AI is promising, but it would be a big mistake to extrapolate too far. This is not the first time people have worried that artificial human-level intelligence might be within sight. … So what’s next? Nobody is sure, although everyone seems to have an opinion. The only definite thing is that AI will take us in unexpected directions. Who would have thought thirty years ago that everyone would have a phone in their pocket, and yet nobody would call each other?”

Presented Without Comment 

To prepare for last night’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden sought advice from actors who played fictional presidents, including Morgan Freeman (Deep Impact) and Bill Pullman (Independence Day). 

Also Presented Without Comment 

Washington Post: TikTok Users Flood Congress with Calls as House Weighs Potential Ban

Individual House offices have since received hundreds of calls from TikTok users, at times fielding upward of 20 a minute, according to eight congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the outreach. The volume has been so immense that some offices resorted to temporarily shutting off phones, two aides said, while others struggled to field unrelated calls.

The episode began just hours before lawmakers advanced a bill explicitly targeting TikTok and other apps they accuse of being “controlled” by foreign adversaries, such as China. The proposal could force TikTok’s China-based parent company to sell off the app or block it entirely in the United States. The legislation sailed out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee unopposed Thursday afternoon, 50-0, in a sweeping bipartisan rebuke of the app.

Toeing the Company Line

  • Sarah, Steve, David, John, and Declan discussed the State of the Union address and took questions from audience members on last night’s late-night episode of Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun, either video or audio-only, by clicking here.
  • Alex fact-checked a recent HuffPost story that stripped context from comments made by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson about women and voting.
  • In the newsletters: Will Rinehart introduced his new tech-focused newsletter for The Dispatch, Mike and Sarah recapped Monday’s Supreme Court ruling and checked in on all the various Biden investigations in The Collision, and Nick previewed (🔒) the upcoming post-filibuster age. 
  • On the podcasts: Jonah, David, and Adaam review Denis Villeneuve’s Dune 2 on The Skiff (🔒).

Let Us Know

If you tuned in, do you think President Biden achieved what he set out to with last night’s address? How about Sen. Katie Britt?

Correction, March 8, 2024: Laken Riley was a student at Augusta University, not the University of Georgia.

James Scimecca works on editorial partnerships for The Dispatch, and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he served as the director of communications at the Empire Center for Public Policy. When James is not promoting the work of his Dispatch colleagues, he can usually be found running along the Potomac River, cooking up a new recipe, or rooting for a beleaguered New York sports team.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.

Grayson Logue is the deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he worked in political risk consulting, helping advise Fortune 50 companies. He was also an assistant editor at Providence Magazine and is a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh, pursuing a Master’s degree in history. When Grayson is not helping write The Morning Dispatch, he is probably working hard to reduce the number of balls he loses on the golf course.