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Biden warns US will act on China after balloon downing

In State of the Union address, US president urges Congress to finish economic fightback, ban assault weapons: Accuses social media companies of exploiting children: Presses Congress for police reforms, citing Tyre Nichols death: Promises steadfast support

February 8, 2023 10:27 AM


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President Joe Biden vowed Tuesday he would not hesitate to defend US interests against China after he ordered the downing of a suspected surveillance balloon but, delivering his State of the Union address, kept the door open to cooperation.

In the annual speech to assembled lawmakers, many of whom have pressed for a hard line on China, Biden called for US investment in the military, technology and alliances to take on the country widely viewed as the chief US competitor.

"I'm committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world," Biden said.

"But make no mistake about it -- as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did," he said to applause.

Biden said that "winning the competition" with China should unite Americans.

"I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America stronger -- investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future that China intends to be dominating."

But Biden steered clear of hawkish language as he mentioned by name his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, whom he met at length in November in Indonesia.

Biden said he told Xi that "we seek competition, not conflict."

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China was one of the few foreign policy issues mentioned by Biden in a more than one-hour speech that comes as he prepares for a likely run for a second term.

He also promised long-term support for Ukraine but made no mention of Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, North Korea or this week's devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

Opposition's rebuttal

US President Joe Biden called on Republicans to help "finish the job" of delivering for hardworking families. The Democrat president stressed the importance of bipartisanship to a divided Congress where the lower chamber now has a Republican majority.

The speech was seen as a roadmap for a widely expected 2024 re-election bid.

Mr Biden's 73-minute address came as his public approval rating hovers near the lowest level of his presidency.

The opposition party delivers a response to the president's State of the Union every year. On Tuesday night, the Republican rebuttal was given by Arkansas' governor, who accused Mr Biden's government of being more preoccupied by "woke fantasies" than "the hard reality Americans face every day".

Mr Biden delivered the address to a packed chamber and high-profile guests - including U2's Bono - as well as Supreme Court justices.

Over the president's shoulder at the rostrum in the House of Representatives during the speech was one of his most vocal critics, the Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Mr Biden extended an olive branch to the opposition party, which took over the lower chamber of Congress last month with vows to investigate the president's family and Cabinet.

"To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can't work together in this new Congress," said the president, who has previously been accused by his opponents of divisive rhetoric.

"We've been sent here to finish the job!" he added.

Mr Biden also said that two years after supporters of his predecessor Donald Trump rioted at the US Capitol, America's democracy was "unbowed and unbroken".

As sometimes happens in State of the Union speeches, the president was at points heckled by opposition lawmakers.

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Biden made minimal reference in the 7,200-word speech to the foreign policy imbroglio that has gripped the nation in recent days: a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that crossed US territory before the American military shot it down off the coast of South Carolina last weekend.
The president said he was committed to working constructively with China, but cautioned: "Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did."

Republicans have been demanding to know why Mr Biden waited a week to act. The president's administration has said it wanted to avoid risk to civilians from falling debris.

Biden's speech was light on foreign policy in general, with Ukraine - the main topic of his 2022 State of the Union in the wake of Russia's invasion - getting a mention towards the end of this year's remarks. Mr Biden reiterated that the US would stand with Kyiv "as long as it takes".

The president focused on domestic issues, hailing the resilience and strength of the US economy. Unemployment dropped to a half-century low in January, and there are signs that the worst inflation in four decades is cooling. But the president acknowledged American families need more "breathing room".

Mr Biden aired his political wish-list, calling for an assault weapons ban, a minimum tax for billionaires, and access to pre-school for three and four-year-olds - though many of the proposals are likely to go nowhere in Congress.

He also condemned "outrageous" profits by oil companies, but drew scorn from Republicans in the chamber when he said: "We're going to need oil for at least another decade."

Following the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis last month, Mr Biden also challenged lawmakers to pass long-stalled reforms to policing, saying: "Do something." Mr Nichols' mother and stepfather were in the audience as guests of First Lady Jill Biden.

The president also emphasised that "most cops are good, decent people", drawing a rare standing ovation by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

The 80-year-old president is facing questions over his ability to serve a second presidential term, which would end when he is 86.

Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders - who at 40 is the country's youngest governor, and best known for her tenure as press secretary to former President Trump - delivered the Republican response to his speech.

The rebuttal is often delivered by young rising stars in the opposition party and frequently from outside Washington.

Mrs Sanders said: "Most Americans simply want to live their lives in freedom and peace, but we are under attack in a left-wing culture war we didn't start and never wanted to fight."

Blue-collar resurgence

President Joe Biden urged unity and touted a blue-collar economic resurgence Tuesday in a rousing State of the Union speech before a raucous Congress that doubled as a bid to persuade voters he still has what it takes to seek reelection at the age of 80.

The Democrat, who has been written off even by some supporters as too old, gave as good as he got in an unusually boisterous event, with far-right Republicans heckling and mocking throughout.

At times smiling and joking, at times showing anger, Biden concluded his address, viewed on television by tens of millions of Americans, that "because the soul of this nation is strong..., the state of the union is strong."

And without mentioning the 2024 election, he said: "Let's finish the job."

The speech, clocking in at an hour and 12 minutes, was remarkable for the granular focus on kitchen table issues, rather than soaring rhetoric or foreign affairs.

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The first mention of Ukraine, which Biden vowed would get US support against Russia for "as long as it takes," came just under an hour into the speech.

China -- which Biden warned would face a US response whenever it "threatens our sovereignty," as in last week's shooting down of an intruding high-tech Chinese balloon -- came even later.

- Democracy 'bruised' but safe -
Biden has yet to announce his run for a second term but is expected to declare soon. The State of the Union speech could serve as an opening audition.

He pitched a centrist, populist vision of a country healing after Covid and the turmoil of Donald Trump's one-term presidency. And Biden's patient, even humorous ripostes to Republican jeering backed up his claim to represent a calmer alternative to the still powerful Trump wing.

With the event sounding more like the British parliament's Question Time than the staid annual US tradition, Biden declared that US democracy was "bruised" but "unbowed and unbroken."

On a number of occasions, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the Republican heading the party's narrow new majority in the House of Representatives, stood to applaud Biden -- and appeared to try to quiet his more radical party members in the chamber.

- Populist economics -
At the core of the speech was a full throated call for Made-in-America nationalism and populist policies to rebuild the US industrial heartland -- the kind of rhetoric that once helped Trump lead Republican gains in previously Democratic working class strongholds.

Biden touted unemployment figures, now at a half-century low, and the stabilizing of inflation, as he promised to fight for the "forgotten" people of the economy.

For decades, "manufacturing jobs moved overseas, factories closed down," Biden said.

"Jobs are coming back. Pride is coming back," he said. "This is my view of a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America."

Among Biden's proposals in the speech was a new "billionaire tax" designed to "reward work, not just wealth."

And he hit out at big oil companies he accused of making "outrageous" profits.

"I ran for president to fundamentally change things to make sure our economy works for everyone, so we can all feel that pride," Biden said.

- Taking economy 'hostage' -
Biden warned Republicans in strong terms not to use their newfound power in the House to block the usually uncontroversial procedure extending the US debt limit -- something that could send the United States crashing into default on its national debt.

"Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage," Biden said.

"Let's commit here tonight that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned."

Republicans say they want to see budget cuts to reduce the debt, but Biden went off script to pile pressure on plans floated by a minority in the opposition party to cut popular social security programs.

- 'We can't turn away' -
The most emotional moment came when Biden called for reforms to policing and gun ownership laws.

In the audience as First Lady Jill Biden's guests were Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old man who disarmed the gunman in a January mass shooting in California, and also RowVaughn and Rodney Wells -- the parents of Tyre Nichols, a man whose death after a prolonged police beating in Memphis, Tennessee, shocked the nation.

"We can't turn away," Biden said, recalling the fear Black parents have of police when their children go outside.

"Do something," he said, prompting Nichols' parents to stand and applaud.

Delivering the Republican rebuttal to Biden, former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lashed out at the "radical left" and what she said was an attack against the "freedom and peace" of patriotic Americans.

"It's crazy and it's wrong," said Sanders, who has been elected governor of Arkansas since leaving Trump's administration and is a rising star on the right.

Biden accuses social media companies of exploiting children

President Biden called on US lawmakers to restrict how social media companies lure children and collect their data, as he accused Big Tech of conducting a "for profit" experiment on the nation's youth.

"We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit," Biden said.

"And it's time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data that companies collect on all of us."

Biden's remarks, which drew robust applause from members of both parties, were his latest shot across Big Tech's bow.

The president, highlighting the risks that social media pose for Americans, last month urged Republicans and his Democrats to break through years of political gridlock and pass laws that would rein in the power of US-based tech giants Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook-owner Meta.

Biden has repeatedly advocated for greater protection of people's online privacy and their personal data.

The United States has trailed governments in Europe and Asia in drawing up more modern rules to curb the power of the biggest tech companies.

In a January op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Biden said a law could give authorities access to the algorithms that power social media and that legislators should rethink an existing law that absolves tech companies of responsibility for content on their sites.

There is bipartisan support to reform that long-standing provision, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, but disagreement between political parties on how to proceed.

Such an antitrust law is seen as a longshot, with Republicans -- who last month took control of the House of Representatives after November's election -- reluctant to thwart big business.

Big Tech companies have lobbied hard in recent years to counter any momentum to legislate in Washington.



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