WASHINGTON — President Biden heads to Florida on Thursday afternoon with a political gift he had not been expecting before Tuesday night’s State of the Union speech.
The perfect foil.
Mr. Biden had always planned to use his visit to the University of Tampa to warn about what he says are Republican proposals to cut Medicare and Social Security. The White House sees the issue as a potent one for the president as he prepares to seek a second term.
But despite months of warning about “MAGA Republicans,” Mr. Biden had so far failed to make the threats seem real to voters. Numerous recent polls show Mr. Biden’s support lagging, even among Democrats, who overwhelmingly say they want someone else as their nominee in the 2024 presidential election.
Strategists from both parties said the Republican outbursts during his address to Congress — and Mr. Biden’s real-time exchange about the fate of the entitlement programs with a handful of heckling lawmakers — instantly crystallized, on national television in front of millions of Americans, what Mr. Biden has been struggling to say.
Aides said the president returned to the White House late Tuesday astonished that Republicans had played into his hands, giving him a prime-time opportunity to look commanding on an issue that resonates deeply with many Democrats, Republicans and independents. They said Mr. Biden would refer to the exchange with the Republicans during his remarks on Thursday.
The remarkable back-and-forth started when Mr. Biden accused some Republicans of threatening Social Security and Medicare — an assertion that they rejected, loudly.
“Liar!” screamed Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia.
When Republicans continued to deny they planned to cut the social programs, the president said he was happy Republicans were committing to leave the programs alone.
Biden’s State of the Union Address
- Challenging the G.O.P.: In the first State of the Union address of a new era of divided government, President Biden delivered a plea to Republicans for unity but vowed not to back off his economic agenda.
- State of Uncertainty: Mr. Biden used his speech to portray the United States as a country in recovery. But what he did not emphasize was that America also faces a lot of uncertainty in 2023.
- Foreign Policy: Mr. Biden spends his days confronting Russia and China. So it was especially striking that in his address, he chose to spend relatively little time on America’s global role.
- A Tense Exchange: Before the speech, Senator Mitt Romney admonished Representative George Santos, a fellow Republican, telling him he “shouldn’t have been there.”
“That moment — if Republicans don’t do something to fix it — could present the perfect contrast that Biden would need going into 2024,” said Kevin Madden, who served as a senior adviser to Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, during Mr. Romney’s two presidential campaigns, in 2008 and 2012.
That opportunity couldn’t have come soon enough for Mr. Biden, who is widely expected to announce his re-election plans by April.
Since he defeated former President Donald J. Trump in 2020, Mr. Biden has had difficulty conjuring a useful political villain, in part because Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. For much of his first year, Mr. Biden seemed to be fighting more with his own party — specifically, Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — than with Republicans.
During the 2022 midterm elections, many Democratic congressional candidates won by connecting their opponents to Mr. Trump and the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election had been stolen. A senior White House adviser, who asked for anonymity to discuss political strategy, said that since those elections ended, Mr. Biden has been hampered by having no well-defined opponent (and only Mr. Trump as a declared candidate for 2024).
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Mr. Biden and one of his top communications advisers, said the scrimmage between the president and House Republicans on Tuesday night should provide Americans with a more visceral understanding of what the president has been talking about.
“Clearly, having the House Republican caucus behaving the way they are, and are signaling strongly they will continue to behave, is going to give the president an easy contrast,” she said. “What the House Republican caucus is doing for him is giving him a way to draw a contrast between what he is for — what he’s trying to get done, and who he’s trying to get it done for — with the House Republicans.”
Republicans accuse Mr. Biden of lying about their intentions. Many, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, say they are not willing to consider any proposals to cut funding for Medicare and Social Security to pay for desired reductions in the nation’s debt and deficit. When Mr. Biden suggested the opposite Tuesday night, Republicans erupted in boos.
At times, Mr. McCarthy seemed to be trying to shush his members, a sign that he did not see their outbursts as helpful to their cause.
But Republicans so far have not said how they propose to reduce spending by a large enough amount to achieve their debt reduction goals. And there have been several notable Republicans who have proposed ideas like making all laws expire after five years unless lawmakers renew them — an idea that Mr. Biden says means Social Security and Medicare would go away automatically if such a vote failed.
Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the Republican who put forward the five-year expiration idea, blasted Mr. Biden on Twitter on Wednesday.
“@JoeBiden once again lies about Republicans trying to cut Social Security and Medicare,” he wrote, along with a video calling on Mr. Biden to resign that he said would run Thursday to greet Mr. Biden’s arrival.
The debate over entitlements is a complicated one, and Republicans have recently seized on an announcement from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that they would be cracking down on private insurance companies that are overcharging the government through Medicare Advantage programs that are add-ons to traditional Medicare.
Administration officials call the move a needed effort at financial accountability that could save taxpayers $4.7 billion over 10 years. But Republicans are already calling it a Medicare cut by Mr. Biden’s government and using it to deflect the president’s own accusations.
“It’s President Biden who is proposing to cut Medicare Advantage, a program used by almost 4 in 10 Arkansas seniors,” Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, tweeted this week. “This would be a mistake.”
Mr. Madden said the White House is smart to maximize the impact of the exchange between Mr. Biden and the Republicans during what has traditionally been a decorous gathering of the nation’s leaders.
He said the television coverage of the exchange had focused on the most extreme voices in the Republican Party, like Ms. Greene, who have “a sort of a political appeal that’s toxic in many swing states and in the most important areas of swing states, like suburbs.”
But he cautioned that even the most astonishing moments from State of the Union speeches “tend to melt on contact,” evaporating quickly in the ever-changing news cycle.
“That is the challenge for this White House,” Mr. Madden said. “They have often tired of their own message and haven’t driven one consistently.”
Still, supporters of Mr. Biden said the president and the White House should do whatever possible to keep Americans’ attention on the contrast between the president and the House Republicans who heckled him.
Last October, before the midterm elections, Eric Schultz, who served as a deputy press secretary for former President Barack Obama, predicted that Republicans would eventually do or say something to make the difference clear.
“This isn’t a group that’s known for a measured approach,” he said at the time. “The more clownish they are, the better it is for the administration. Betting on House Republicans being clownish is a good bet.”
Contacted on Wednesday, Mr. Schultz said he still agreed with that sentiment.