'Wake up': Biden delivers fiery State of the Union — sparring with critics and swiping at Trump

President Joe Biden said he wanted to use his State of the Union to “wake up” Congress, but he was the one who seemed suddenly energized as he sparred with Republican hecklers and repeatedly criticized former President Donald Trump.

Shaking off lackluster approval ratings and his own party’s anxiety about his political and physical health, the 81-year-old delivered on Thursday one of the feistiest and most political presidential addresses to Congress in recent memory.

He referenced “my predecessor” 13 times, not saying Trump’s name once but making him a clear focus of his speech, shouted back at firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., and sarcastically mocked Republican lawmakers.

“I know you know how to read,” he said as he criticized the GOP over their refusal to pass the bipartisan border bill, responding to some of whom heckled him from the House chamber.

While Biden was unlikely to ever sway Republicans with a speech, it may help coalesce Democrats — for a moment at least — who are alternatingly panicky and dismissive of polls showing Trump leading Biden in key swing states.

Democrats in the chamber seemed thrilled. The president lingered on the floor for another 33 minutes after the speech — a record, according to NBC News — soaking up praise, even as lights began to be turned off and the House officially adjourned, aware this could be his last chance

Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, an up-and-coming 42-year-old, delivered the Republican response.

Speaking from her kitchen, Britt accused Biden of making the country more dangerous, said the America we “know and love” may be slipping away, and said Biden is not fit for the job.

“Right now, our commander in chief is not in command. The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader,” she said.

In his own remarks, Biden targeted Trump, accusing “my predecessor” of supporting threats to democracy at home and abroad.

“They will not bow down. We will not bow down. I will not bow down,” Biden said of Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion. “History is watching. Just like history watched three years ago on Jan. 6”

Biden didn’t unveil new executive action on immigration or the southern border.

The Biden administration has been considering unilateral action for weeks that would make it harder for migrants to pass the initial screening for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, as NBC News has reported.

But that didn’t mean the speech wasn’t without a moment about the contentious issue of immigration.

In response to Greene heckling him, he picked up a button with the name of a University of Georgia student Laken Riley whose murder has been attributed by police to an undocumented immigrant. But he appeared to suggest that Greene and Republicans are right about crime by “illegals” — repeating a term that many on the left consider offensive.

“Lincoln, Lincoln Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal, that’s right, but how many thousands of people have been killed by legals?” Biden said, confusing her first name.

Biden framed his speech around the theme of freedom — including homing in on abortion rights after the landmark Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade in 2022, which Democrats think will be a potent issue with voters.

“He’s the reason it was overturned and brags about it,” Biden said of Trump, who appointed the conservative majority to the high court that overturned Roe.

Then he noted that some of the Republicans he was speaking to in the chamber wanted to pass a national abortion ban: “My God, what other freedom would you take away?”

“Clearly those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women in America. But they found out when reproductive freedom was on the ballot and won in 2022, 2023, and they will find out again in 2024,” Biden said. “If Americans 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.”

Biden made a lengthy entrance to the House Chamber for the joint address, leisurely shaking hands and posing for selfies with members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, and the joint chiefs of staff.

“If I were smart, I’d go home now,” Biden joked as he took the stage, starting off light.

The route a presidential motorcade normally takes down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol was lined with protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Instead, Biden took a longer route to the Capitol that avoided the demonstrations but delayed his speech. The protests have become a familiar distraction for Biden at recent public appearances, reminding him that the issue has divided parts of his base.

He announced plans to add a port in Gaza that will be used by the U.S. and partners to deliver aid. The operation will not involve U.S. boots on the ground, he said.

He called the humanitarian crisis in Gaza “intolerable” and said Israel has a responsibility to protect Palestinian civilians.

“Israel must do its part,” he sad, reasserting his goal for a two-state solution in the region.

With the economy the top issue on many voters minds, Biden highlighted the post-Covid economic recovery and laid out the administration’s plans to revamp the tax code, expand housing supply and reduce the federal budget deficit.

Follow live updates on the State of the Union address

The speech was also a chance for Biden to make a positive case for what he would do with another four years in the White House since Democratic rhetoric around the election so far has focused instead on stopping Trump.

In the modern politics, State of the Union addresses carry less agenda-setting power than they have in the past.

But with millions expected to watch, they are nonetheless a rare opportunity for Biden to speak to some Americans who don’t follow politics closely but tune in for big moments.

“In my career, I’ve been told I’m too young,” said Biden, who was first elected to the Senate at 30, “And I’ve been told that I’m too old.”

“Whether young or old, I’ve always known what endures,” Biden continued. “The very idea of America: That we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives.”

CORRECTION (March 7, 2024, 8:25 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It was in 2022, not last year.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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