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Biden takes on his foes — and one of his biggest weaknesses

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday.
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... President Biden speaks in Battleground Wisconsin the day after his State of the Union address. ... “Let’s finish the job,” Biden says in speech last night. “There’s more to do.” ... GOP members heckle Biden with boos and shouts of “liar.” ... Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders pulls no punches in GOP’s official response to Biden: “Biden and the Democrats have failed you.” ... Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, clashes with Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y.: “He’s a sick puppy,” Romney says of embattled congressman. ... And death toll from earthquakes in Turkey and Syria surpasses 11,000.

But first: Of all the lackluster numbers for President Biden in the latest NBC News poll, this might have been the roughest: Just 28% of Americans gave him high marks for having the physical and mental health to be president.

And Biden took that perception head-on in last night’s State of the Union address.

He spoke for more than an hour — his longest speech to Congress. He mixed it up with Republicans. He cracked jokes. And he stuck around the House chamber, slapping backs and taking selfies.

All as he’s expected — soon — to announce his 2024 re-election plans.

The L.A. Times called Biden “feisty.”

NBC News’ Jonathan Allen writes that Biden “demonstrated the mental dexterity that critics — and, in private moments, even some allies — say he lacks,” specifically in an off-the-cuff exchange with Republicans over protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Even Donald Trump tipped his cap at his 2020 (and potential 2024) adversary: “I disagree with him on most of his policies, but he put into words what he felt, and he ended up the evening far stronger than he began,” Trump said of Biden on his social media site.

It was one of best performances we’ve seen from Biden in our years of watching him.

The question, of course, is whether he can sustain it.

Especially as he ramps up his travel and activity (Wisconsin today, Florida tomorrow and an upcoming interview with PBS’s Judy Woodruff).

During what’s likely going to be a fierce battle over raising the debt limit.

And — most likely — during a 2024 campaign that will require constant fundraisers, rallies and travel across the country.

Quote of the day

“I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”

— President Joe Biden to Republicans who tout infrastructure projects in their districts funded by a bill they opposed.

Data Download: The number of the day is … 73 minutes 

That was about the length of Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night. (NBC’s Katie Primm says Biden’s 1:12:45 speech doesn’t crack the Top 5 longest State of the Union addresses of all time, but it is Biden’s longest.)

Biden used the word “folks” 21 times, per NBC News’ Julia Jester. And as he sets up his likely re-election campaign, he said the phrase “finish the job” 12 times during his speech. 

And despite the tense, partisan exchanges in the chamber at times, there were moments of bipartisan agreement too. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy applauded 40 times, including 16 standing ovations, during the substance of Biden’s address, Jester notes. 

Other numbers to know:

40 years old: The age of Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tapped by the GOP to give the party's response to the State of the Union, who emphasized her youth during the speech as a contrast to Biden. 

985: How many people have been arrested relating to the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the Capitol, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington, D.C. announced Tuesday, per NBC News’ Daniel Barnes. 

Less than 130,000: How many encounters border patrol agents had with migrants at the southern border in January, the lowest level in two years, per NBC News’ Julia Ainsley. 

25 million: The number of lives saved from AIDS by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief (PEPFAR), announced during President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union. 

16 years old: The minimum age Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., wants to set for using social media, NBC News’ Allan Smith reports. 

Over 11,000: The number of people dead after Monday’s earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, a number still expected to rise.

$25 million: The value of humanitarian aid the United Nations has released to help with the humanitarian crisis in Turkey and Syria following the earthquakes. 

3: The number of special elections Democrats won in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, giving them a clear majority in the state House.

38,390: The number of points Lakers player Lebron James has scored over his career, eclipsing the record that had been held for 39 years by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Eyes on 2024: Biden hits the road

If Tuesday night’s State of the Union address was a preview of Biden’s re-election pitch, the rest of the week may be a preview of Biden’s travels on the campaign trail. Biden is ramping up his travel to battleground states, expanding his trips beyond his recent travels in the northeast. 

Biden heads Wednesday to Wisconsin (albeit to the liberal enclave of Madison) to tout his economic message, with a focus on boosting union jobs, the White House announced earlier this week. Biden’s narrow victory there in 2020 helped him win the White House — but he won by just 21,000 votes. 

And on Thursday, Biden goes to Tampa, Fla., a battleground state where Democrats have struggled in recent election cycles. There Biden is expected to focus on Social Security, Medicare and health care costs. 

In other campaign news: 

DeSantis talks defamation: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis held a roundtable Tuesday with people at the center of high-profile defamation claims (many of which have been championed by conservatives), where they spoke about possible policy changes surrounding allegations of defamation by media outlets. 

A “no!” from Joni: Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, responded with an emphatic, “No!” when asked Tuesday on “Meet the Press” NOW whether she might jump into the 2024 presidential race. Ernst also said she and GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley will once again stay neutral in the state’s presidential caucus.

Joe doesn’t say if it’s so: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., dodged a question during a Semafor forum on Tuesday whether he is considering a run for president. CBS’ Robert Costa, who questioned Manchin during the forum, reported that some “business leaders” are encouraging Manchin to run. 

Not the last of Lee: Fresh off a closer-than-expected run against Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, former GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin isn’t ruling out a run against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand next year, per North Country Public Radio. 

Barnes’ next act: Former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who lost a close race against GOP Sen. Ron Johnson last year, announced Tuesday he is launching a new group dubbed “The Long Run PAC.” The PAC “will support diverse and ground-breaking candidates around the country,” per a press release. 

Lake’s next act?: Arizona Republican Kari Lake, who lost last year’s gubernatorial race in the state but continues to cast doubt on the legitimacy of that election, honed attacks against Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema as she continues to mull a Senate bid. 

ICYMI: What ELSE is happening in the world

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh (who served as the administration’s “designated survivor” during the State of the Union) is leaving his post to head the National Hockey League’s player’s union.

China’s defense minister declined a call with American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over the weekend after the military shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon, the Defense Department said.

The Associated Press reports that an officer involved in the death of Tyre Nichols sent a photo of Nichols to others after the beating. 

An ex-prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office alleges in a new book that District Attorney Alvin Bragg should have filed charges against former President Donald Trump.