Democracy is under attack in the U.S. and around the world, President Joe Biden is warning in a fired-up State of the Union address that marks the unofficial start of his marathon re-election fight against Donald Trump.

In a sharp-elbowed, roughly hour-long speech before both houses of Congress Thursday evening, Mr. Biden repeatedly laced into Mr. Trump without naming him – referring instead to “my predecessor” – for threatening to abandon NATO allies, appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned abortion rights and provoking the Capitol riot that aimed to reverse his re-election defeat.

“Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault at home as they are today,” he said. “What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time.”

He called on Congress to pass a long-stalled military aid package for Ukraine and accused Mr. Trump of “bowing down” to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It’s outrageous, it’s dangerous, it’s unacceptable,” Mr. Biden said, before castigating the Jan. 6, 2021 “insurrectionists” who “held a dagger to the throat of American democracy.”

Next, he reiterated a promise to reinstate nationwide abortion rights if voters re-elect him and send a pro-choice majority to Congress. Mr. Trump and others who are “bragging” about ending abortion access “have no clue” about the power of female voters, he warned. In the House of Representatives chamber in front of him, scores of Democratic lawmakers wore white, the colour of the suffragettes, in support of abortion rights.

Some of the speech returned to the leftist economic populism that animated the Democratic base during Mr. Trump’s time in office. If re-elected, Mr. Biden promised, he will raise taxes on wealthy people and corporations, including a 25 per cent tax on all billionaires.

“The days of trickle-down economics are over,” he said. “No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a teacher, a sanitation worker or a nurse.”

The President also tacked right, however, calling for a clampdown on the country’s southern border in a tacit acknowledgment that record levels of migration are damaging him politically. He reminded viewers that congressional Republicans torpedoed a bill that would have allowed him to turn back asylum seekers because Mr. Trump wanted to keep the issue on the table until the election.

At one point, Mr. Biden referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegals,” borrowing a term common among Mr. Trump’s supporters but hardly ever used by Democrats.

In response to heckling from far-right congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Mr. Biden went off-script to reference the undocumented immigrant charged with murdering a nursing student in Georgia last month.

“Laken Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right,” Mr. Biden said, holding up a button with her name on it. “But how many thousands of people are being killed by illegals?”

It was one of several moments Mr. Biden departed from his prepared text to engage with and, in some cases, directly taunt Republicans in the room. While touting his infrastructure spending package, he mocked legislators who voted against it but then celebrated the projects it funded in their ridings. “If any of you don’t want that money in your district, let me know,” he said.

Such moments, along with Mr. Biden’s oft-shouting cadence, appeared an effort to tamp down fears about his age and energy. At 81, he is already the oldest president in history. Mr. Trump is 77.

But Mr. Biden frequently stumbled over his words, particularly during ad-libs. One mistake, for instance, came when he attempted to underline his promise to push down prescription drug costs by pointing out how much cheaper they are around the world.

“Anyone who wants to get into Air Force One with me and fly to Toronto, Berlin, Moscow – I mean, excuse me – well, even Moscow, probably – and bring your prescription with you and I promise you, I will get it for you for 40 per cent the cost you’re paying now,” he said.

On the other topic causing Mr. Biden the most headaches – Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip – he tried to steer a middle course. The President condemned Hamas, reaffirmed his support for Israel and acknowledged the families of hostages still held in Gaza sitting in the gallery. But he also decried the killing of Palestinian civilians.

“More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas,” he said, arguing that Israel “has a fundamental responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.”

Mr. Biden promised to build a new port in Gaza to speed up deliveries of aid, which currently have to go through border crossings controlled by Israel and Egypt.

The President faced throngs of pro-Palestinian protesters calling for a ceasefire as he made his way from the White House to the Capitol to deliver the speech. One group shut down a street near the White House while another blocked Pennsylvania Avenue, the main thoroughfare leading to Capitol Hill. Mr. Biden’s motorcade diverted to an alternate route.

The President closed his speech by attempting to tackle the question of his age head-on – and drawing another contrast with Mr. Trump.

“The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old our ideas are. Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are the oldest of ideas,” he said, referencing “other people my age” who promote “resentment, revenge and retribution.”

“That’s not me,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, March 7, 2024