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Why Republican heckling of Biden’s State of the Union mattered

What mattered more than Republicans heckling the State of the Union address? The fact that President Joe Biden and his team didn't seem to mind.


In September 2009, President Barack Obama delivered a speech on health care policy to a joint session of Congress, and assured the public that his plan would not extend benefits to undocumented immigrants. Rep. Joe Wilson responded by shouting, “You lie!

Substantively, Obama was right and the South Carolina Republican was wrong, but this wasn’t the detail that stood out at the time. In the United States, there was an expectation that elected officials, especially on Capitol Hill during a presidential address, would conduct themselves with a degree of dignity.

Members don’t want to applaud? Fine. They don’t want to stand during ovations? No problem. But the floor of the U.S. House is not a comedy club, and presidential addresses are not wrestling matches. Federal policymakers in the world’s preeminent superpower are supposed to have some class.

Wilson’s breach in protocol was considered stunning — there were audible gasps in the room at the time — and no GOP leaders were willing to defend the congressman's heckling. Within hours of the speech, Wilson was on the phone with the White House apologizing, and the South Carolinian publicly conceded that his outburst was “inappropriate and regrettable.”

The House formally rebuked Wilson less than a week after the address — and seven GOP lawmakers voted with Democrats in support of the resolution.

Nearly 14 years later, the incident almost seems quaint.

Toward the end of his 2022 State of the Union address, President Joe Biden reflected on the dangers U.S. troops have faced in the Middle East, and he referenced the cancer-stricken troops who ended up in flag-draped coffins. It was at that point that Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado thought it’d be a good idea to heckle the Democrat.

Last night, as The New York Times reported, the jeers were even more intense.

President Biden was about midway through a speech of about 7,218-words on Tuesday when a Republican lawmaker tried to shut him down with a single one: “Liar!” It was Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whom the president had baited by accusing Republicans of wanting to threaten entitlement programs like Social Security. Later in the speech, when Mr. Biden called for an end to the fentanyl crisis in the United States, another lawmaker yelled out, “It’s your fault!” — a reference to the amount of drugs that are smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border. Another lawmaker yelled out an expletive.

The fentanyl-related heckling was especially odd given how often Republicans highlight the Biden administration successfully blocking fentanyl shipments before they reach U.S. soil.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy reminded his members yesterday to be on their best behavior and conduct themselves in a respectful manner. Several of them, apparently unable to help themselves, ignored the good advice. It was a reminder that as coarse as GOP politics was in 2009, it’s even more toxic now.

But there was another dimension to this that shouldn’t go overlooked amidst the disappointment with the Republicans’ childish antics: Biden didn’t seem to mind.

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans, some Republicans, want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” the president said, referring to Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s far-right plan. When GOP lawmakers responded with boos, Biden departed from his prepared remarks, apparently pleased with the partisan jeers.

After some additional exchanges — the president said with a smile that he enjoys “conversion” — the Democrat concluded, “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? We’ve got unanimity.”

A Politico report added this morning, “West Wing aides cheered and high-fived each other as Biden engaged Republicans who were triggered by his accusation that some in the GOP want to cut Medicare and Social Security. When Biden returned to the White House and met with his staff, Ron Klain hailed the clash over entitlements as one of the all-time great State of the Union moments that people would look back on for years.”

Or put another way, congressional decorum is in trouble, but after last night’s partisan antics, Republican plans to go after Social Security and Medicare are in even worse shape.