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Biden to call for unity in State of the Union — after year of White House bashing the GOP

WASHINGTON — President Biden will call for “unity” in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night — after spending much of last year bashing Republicans himself and through his press secretary.

White House officials teasing Biden’s 9 p.m. speech — which will also pitch tax hikes on the wealthy — told reporters Tuesday morning that he will dust off “unity” talking points from his State of the Union last year to argue “members of both parties can come together and deliver for the American people.”

The so-called unity agenda focuses on four areas — cancer, mental health, veterans care and reducing drug overdoses — after Biden spent the past year villianizing Republicans and especially supporters of former President Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement.

But the sincerity of his message is sure to be deemed suspect after another year in which Biden and his chief spokesperson, Karine Jean-Pierre, publicly bashed Republican legislators and conservative voices on a near-daily basis.

For example, Biden delivered a strident primetime speech in Philadelphia in September calling Trump and his allies “a threat to this country” after saying in August that the movement amounted to “semi-fascism.”

“The Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans. And that is a threat to this country,” Biden said in Philadelphia as he made the message the centerpiece of Democrats’ midterm elections strategy.

President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden
Bloomberg via Getty Images

In May, Biden said, “This MAGA crowd is really the most extreme political organization that’s existed in American history,” before quickly adding, “in recent American history,” in apparent recognition of other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan hate group.

Biden even claimed that Trump-linked Republicans might pass state laws saying “that children who are LGBTQ can’t be in classrooms with other children” — even though Trump’s MAGA movement includes high-profile LGBT members, including Richard Grenell, who in 2020 became the nation’s first openly gay or lesbian cabinet-level official when Trump appointed him as acting national intelligence director.

Jean-Pierre, too, has included a deflection to blaming administration woes on the GOP at nearly every one of her briefings with the White House press corps.

Speakers on a White House press call Tuesday morning wouldn’t say how much of the State of the Union would focus on “unity” — but the fact that it was the first and thus far only press briefing ahead of the speech reflects the fact that it’s likely to be a main theme.

House Republicans reclaimed control last month, putting up a roadblock to most of Biden’s political agenda, including tax hikes that he will reportedly float for billionaires.

In the first month of divided power, Biden has refused to negotiate with Republicans on raising the debt ceiling in exchange for spending cuts — setting up an early impasse with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who Biden has repeatedly accused of plotting to cut Medicare and Social Security, despite McCarthy saying that isn’t true.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy
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“In his State of the Union today, the president will announce a new set of policies to continue to make progress advancing his unity agenda and deliver results for families across the country,” a White House official told reporters on the Tuesday morning call.

Much of the agenda is near-identical to last year’s calls for progress on cancer and a new ban on targeted online advertising for children.

The “unity” planks this year include a call for a new “entitlement” for housing for the nation’s roughly 16.5 million military veterans, who are more likely to be homeless.

A fact sheet distributed by the White House also says that Biden will launch a “sustained diplomatic push that will address fentanyl and its supply chain abroad” — after Republicans blasted Biden for not doing more to address record-high US drug overdose deaths.

White House drug czar Rahul Gupta, speaking on the call, said that “under President Biden’s leadership we’ve begun to make progress” on countering deadly drugs and touted a reform last year that allowed doctors to prescribe the opioid-treatment medicine buprenorphine with less red tape.

A reporter asked if Biden would push pressure on the Chinese government to halt the export of fentanyl as part of his diplomatic push — after Biden failed to do so during the public portion of his first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November.

President Biden and China's President Xi Jinping
Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

“The president has been so forward-leaning when it’s talking with President Lopez Obrador in Mexico or President Xi in China,” Gupta claimed — even though the White House omitted any mention of fentanyl from a readout of the private portion of the November meeting with Xi, before Biden aides later claimed he mentioned the issue behind closed doors.

“It’s important to not only address the precursors of chemicals that are being shipped predominantly from China — we have very specific asks of the PRC to take action that we know will significantly reduce if not eliminate that shipping of precursor chemicals — but also at the same time to ensure that where the production happens of fentanyl, which is mostly in Mexico, that we’re working with the Mexican authorities, and the leadership there,” Gupta said.

Gupta added that Biden “is going to be calling on to ensure that we’re working with these countries to hold illicit actors accountable in their countries, and we’re going to work with the leaders of these countries to make sure that they do just that.” 

Gupta also praised preliminary data from last year showing overdose deaths peaked in March 2022 before slightly decreasing through August, the most recent month for which preliminary national data are available.

“We’ve now seen five straight months where overdose numbers have decreased. That’s almost 3,000 people who have not died and instead are at the dinner table each night,” Gupta said.

Workers near the Capitol Building
Getty Images
Capitol Building
AFP via Getty Images

However, the victory lap could be premature. The preliminary 2022 monthly data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention include disclaimers that the figures may be “underreported due to incomplete data” and each month of preliminary data for 2022 remained near all-time highs, with the latest provisional data from August only ticking downward to the highly elevated rate seen in July 2021.

Biden botched the number of US fentanyl deaths last month when raising the issue with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — after critics blasted him for not paying enough attention to the potent synthetic opioid, which is increasingly mixed into non-opioid drugs and counterfeit prescriptions.

Biden said that fentanyl has killed “100,000” Americans, when official data actually link the potent synthetic opioid to 196,000 US deaths in 2018-2021 alone.

A record of more than 107,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2021 — more than 71,000 of them from fentanyl and related compounds, according to CDC data. There were nearly 94,000 overdose deaths in 2020, of which nearly 58,000 were linked to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl — a jump from nearly 71,000 overdose deaths in 2019, of which more than 36,000 were linked to fentanyl, up from about 31,000 in 2018.

Congressional Republicans led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) in October and again in December asked Biden to meet to discuss fentanyl while blaming him for not doing more to stop the influx of the drug.

“It is clear that families’ pleas to the administration to step up their fight against the fentanyl crisis have fallen on deaf ears,” Banks and seven other House Republicans wrote to Biden.

“We respectfully request a meeting so that we can discuss solutions to the fentanyl crisis, discuss what we learned from constituents… and share with you a box of obituaries, pictures and letters from grieving loved ones who want you to see the real life impact your refusal to address this crisis is having on families throughout our country.”

Banks said at the time, “Those 70,000 Americans [who died in 2021] have names — and they have families and their stories deserve to be heard.”