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Six key takeaways from Biden's final State of the Union before the 2024 election

The president leaned in on themes that will play prominently on the campaign trail, including immigration, abortion and democracy.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden delivered the final State of the Union of his first term on Thursday, a speech packed with 2024 campaign themes and contrasts he plans to highlight in the eight months before Americans decide whether to give him — or Donald Trump — four more years in the White House.

Biden comes into the speech with an exceptionally low approval rating of 37%, according to recent NBC News polling. That's lower than the approval rating of his predecessors Trump in 2020 (46%), Barack Obama in 2012 (48%), George W. Bush in 2004 (54%) and Bill Clinton in 1996 (46%) in January of their re-election bid years.

"The state of our union is strong and getting stronger," Biden said.

Here are six key takeaways from his speech.

Confronting Trump and the GOP about Jan. 6

Biden didn't take long to zero in on one of his central campaign themes: protecting American democracy. And he looked at Republicans in the crowd and confronted them.

"The insurrectionists were not patriots. My predecessor — and some of you here — seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6. I will not do that," he said. "This is the moment to speak the truth... Here's the simple truth. You can't love your country only when you win."

"As president, my predecessor failed the most basic presidential duty that he owes to American people: The duty to care," he said. "I think that's unforgivable."

Seeking to claim the mantle of foreign policy hawkishness, Biden also pitted President Ronald Reagan's famous "tear down this wall" line against Trump's recent promise to let Russia "do whatever the hell they want" to European countries that don't pay their dues to NATO.

"My message to President Putin, who I've known for a long time, is simple. We will not walk away. We will not bow down. I will not bow down," Biden said. "In a literal sense, history is watching."

Later, he touted his legislative achievements to make the U.S. less reliant on China. "Frankly for all his tough talk on China, it never occurred to my predecessor to do any of that."

A sharper message on legalizing abortion

"In its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court majority wrote, 'Women are not without electoral or political power.' Clearly those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women in America," Biden said as several justices who wrote the Dobbs decision watched. "If you the American people send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you, I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again."

He took on Republicans and Trump directly, saying that "many of you in this chamber — and my predecessor — are promising to pass a national ban on abortion" that could amount to "forcing survivors of rape and incest" to carry the pregnancy to term.

What Biden didn't specify was that if Republicans hold control if either chamber, it's a lost cause. At a minimum, codifying abortion rights nationwide would require a Democratic trifecta and 50 votes to pierce the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule. Biden is betting heavily that a backlash to the GOP's success at overturning Roe v. Wade and attempts to restrict abortion will yield Democratic votes.

A confrontation with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene

The most regular shouter was the far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who yelled “Laken Riley!” as Biden discussed immigration.

Riley's murder has been taken up by conservatives pushing for stricter immigration policies. The 22-year-old woman was killed while jogging at the University of Georgia last month; an undocumented immigrant has been charged with her murder.

Biden called her “an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal” — a term generally avoided by Democrats — and told Republicans to pass the bipartisan border security bill to resolve the situation at the border. He said they’re blocking it on orders from Trump to deny him a political win.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “politics have derailed this bill so far.”

At another point, Greene yelled “liar” as Biden spoke.

Lawmakers had plenty to say, but no microphone to say it. At some points in Biden's speech, a few of them shouted their disapproval through boos. At other times, they used symbolism, and their ability to invite guests, to highlight their causes.

Democratic women wore white outfits and pins reading "Fighting for Reproductive Freedom." Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., and other Republicans wore white ribbons that included Riley's name. The Dad Caucus wore pins with Lego blocks to symbolize “building blocks of a better future” on matters like affordable child care and paid leave.

And Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, wore a T-shirt with Trump's mug shot from last summer in Atlanta — when he was booked for alleged election subversion — as a rallying cry for the ex-president.

Republicans invited families of Israeli hostages, while Democrats invited women affected by the recent Alabama IVF ruling.

Biden shows a populist side and jokes about age

The president sought to burnish his populist credentials before the audience, painting Democrats as a party on the side of the working class and Republicans as pawns of the super-rich.

“No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a teacher or a sanitation worker," Biden said, as Democrats broke out into applause and Republicans barely reacted, many of them looking bored and or staring at their phones.

He also accused Republicans of wanting to cut Social Security, which prompted a few shouts and boos.

"My friends on the other side of the aisle want to put Social Security on the chopping block," he said. "If anyone here tries to cut Social Security, Medicare or raise the retirement age, I will stop you."

He also mocked Republicans in the audience, saying he notices some of them voted against his infrastructure package but are “cheering on” the money that it brings to their districts.

“You don’t want that money in your district, just let me know,” Biden said, to laughs from his allies.

Toward the end of his speech, Biden alluded to his age: “I know it may not look like it but I’ve been around a while. When you get to be my age certain things become clearer than ever. I know the American story. Again and again, I’ve seen the contest between competing forces in the battle for the soul of our nation.”

Biden walks the line on Israel and Gaza

The president, who is facing a heavy backlash from the left for supporting Israel as the death toll in Gaza rises, acknowledged their concerns.

“Israel has an added burden because Hamas hides and operates among the civilian population like cowards — under hospitals, day care centers and all the like. There’s also a fundamental responsibility, though, to protect innocent civilians in Gaza,” he said. “Thirty-thousand Palestinians have been killed, most of whom are not Hamas,” he said, adding that they’re “ministers, women and children, girls and boys,” while many more are without food or medicine. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Katie Britt gives an intense GOP response

Sitting in a kitchen, Alabama Sen. Katie Britt — a rising star in the Republican Party — delivered an intense speech hammering Democrats on immigration, abortion, crime and other issues.

She talked about how "we are steeped in the blood of patriots" and called Biden "a dithering and diminished leader" who is "not in command."

At one point, Britt seemed to blame Biden for the death of Laken Riley, the 22-year-old nursing student in Georgia. An undocumented immigrant has been charged with her murder, and Republicans used the tragedy in their push for stricter border policies.

“She was brutally murdered by one of the millions of illegal border crossers President Biden chose to release into our homeland,” Britt said. “As a mom I can’t quit thinking about this; this could been my daughter. It could’ve been yours.”