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Ashley McKinlessMarch 08, 2024
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on March 7, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Mike Johnson watch. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on March 7, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Mike Johnson watch. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For many Americans tuning in to President Biden’s 2024 State of the Union Address, the main question was: Could he make it through without a major mental or physical mishap? The 81-year-old president answered with a defiant “yes.” Though there was some coughing, slurred words and verbal slips (he mistakenly suggested Americans visit “Moscow” if they wanted cheaper prescription drugs—then turned the slip into a joke that reinforced his point), Mr. Biden was energetic and seemed to enjoy his back-and-forths with Republican hecklers in the audience over cuts to Social Security and efforts to secure the U.S-Mexico border.

Overall, the speech was a typical grab bag of past policy achievements and future promises, many of which are beyond the control of the executive branch without unified control of Congress or a change to the Constitution. Still, for Catholics who are still undecided about who to support in November, or who are interested in where the administration stands on issues of concern to Pope Francis and the U.S. church, there were a few key takeaways.

I.V.F. and abortion

In-vitro fertilization, though opposed by the Catholic Church, had not traditionally been a battle line in the “culture wars.” That seemed to change last month, when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled that embryos created through I.V.F. are considered children under the state constitution. Democrats were quick to tie the decision to the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, and I.V.F. clinics in the state ceased operations. But Republicans were also quick to distance themselves from the decision, and on Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that protects I.V.F. providers from legal liability.

Among President Biden’s guests on Thursday night was an Alabama woman whose I.V.F. treatment was put on hold, he said, because of the forces “unleashed by a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.” He called on Congress to guarantee a right to I.V.F. treatments nationwide.

On abortion, Mr. Biden said he believed “Roe v. Wade got it right” and blamed “his predecessor” for overturning the 1973 decision. (The name “Donald Trump” was not uttered in the speech—and neither was “abortion.”) He went on to ask, “My God, what freedoms will you take away next?” Pro-lifers will surely take issue with the assertion that protecting innocent lives is at the top of a slippery slope leading to the elimination of all “freedoms.”

In an appeal to pro-choice voters, Mr. Biden promised to “restore Roe v. Wade” if he can work with a congressional majority willing to do so. While the political strategy is obvious enough, a commitment to making abortion a federal issue again will once more give pause to any pro-lifers who may have re-evaluated partisan alliances in the wake of Dobbs.

Kate Cox, a woman from Texas who was a guest of the president at the speech, made headlines last year when she traveled across state lines to obtain an abortion after learning a very much wanted third child was at high risk of trisomy 18, an often deadly genetic condition. Ms. Cox had filed a lawsuit seeking permission to have an abortion as an exemption from state law prohibiting almost all abortions, an exemption that was rejected by the state Supreme Court. Delaney Coyne, an O’Hare fellow at America, wrote in December that the case “[underscores] the delicate interplay between medical necessity, legal constraints and ethical concerns within the evolving post-Dobbs reality in the United States.”

The child tax credit

On another pro-life and pro-family issue, Catholics of every political persuasion may find common cause with the president: expanding the child tax credit. In 2021, Congress increased the child tax credit as part of a Covid-19 relief package. As a result, child poverty was nearly cut in half and almost three million children were lifted out of poverty. The expansion lapsed in 2022 due to a lack of G.O.P. support in the Senate—and child poverty shot back up.

“The U.S.C.C.B. has urged Congress to expand the credit, and this is a critical step,” Kathleen Bonnette, a theologian at Georgetown University, wrote in America. “But politicians who claim to be pro-life should advocate for the expansion as well, using the power of their supporters to move the discussion forward even in defiance of Republican Party leaders.”

President Biden agrees, and in his address told Congress: “Restore that child tax credit. No child should go hungry in this country.”

Immigration

On immigration, President Biden, who campaigned in 2020 promising to reverse the inhumane border and detention policies of Mr. Trump, has since found himself in tension with advocates and the Catholic Church on the issue. A surge in unauthorized border crossings has become a political crisis for Democrats as voters increasingly see border security as a top priority.

In response, the Biden administration supported an initially bipartisan bill that would fund additional border agents, asylum officers and immigration judges with the hope of speeding up the processing of asylum claims. (It can currently take up to six years from the filing of an asylum claim to a judge’s decision, and deportation if the claim is denied.) The bill would also give the president emergency authority to shut down the border if illegal crossings reach around 5,000 per day.

While the bill ultimately failed, Kevin Appleby, a senior fellow at the Center for Migration Studies of New York and the former director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told America’s J.D. Long García that Democrats went farther than ever “in terms of agreeing with Republicans on restrictive measures. That in and of itself can be harmful. Because it sets a bad precedent.”

In his speech, Mr. Biden again blamed “his predecessor” for sinking the bill and called on Republicans in Congress to pass the bill.

But the president also sought to distance himself from Mr. Trump’s bigoted immigration rhetoric and policies, quoting Mr. Trump directly: “I will not demonize immigrants, saying they are ‘poison in the blood of our country.’ I will not separate families. I will not ban people because of their faith.”

War and peace

Mr. Biden began his address with a fiery rallying cry for democracy at home and abroad, including in Ukraine. “Ukraine can stop Putin,” he said. “Ukraine can stop Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons they need to defend itself.”

In February, the Senate passed a $95 billion security and aid package for Ukraine and Israel, but it has yet to be taken up in the House.

Bishops in the United States support increased humanitarian aid for Ukraine, but when it comes to the supply of weapons, the Catholic Church and the Biden administration do not see eye to eye. While Pope Francis said in 2022 that it can be “morally defensible” to provide arms to Ukraine to defend itself, he has also blamed the arms industry for the “martyrdom” of the Ukrainian people, victims of a “‘piecemeal’ third world war.”

The ultimate aims of the United States and the Vatican are also not perfectly aligned. The United States views the defeat of Vladimir Putin as a primary objective in the war—Mr. Biden’s message to the Russian president last night was: “We will not walk away. We will not bow down. I will not bow down.” Pope Francis, on the other hand, has repeatedly called for an immediate end to the fighting—to the chagrin of some Ukrainians who feel he does not sufficiently emphasize the justness of their cause.

The pope has also repeatedly called for an immediate cease-fire and the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid into Gaza. Last night, Mr. Biden began by acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas following the atrocities of Oct. 7. He said that Israel has both “an added burden” in its fight against an enemy that hides among the civilian population and a “fundamental responsibility” to protect civilian lives. But speaking to “the leadership of Israel,” he said that humanitarian assistance must be prioritized rather than be a “secondary consideration,” and he emphasized that only a two-state solution could provide lasting security and peace in Israel and Palestine.

The president called for an immediate six-week cease-fire to allow for the return of all remaining hostages in Gaza “and ease the intolerable humanitarian crisis, and build toward an enduring, something more enduring.” Mr. Biden also directed the U.S. military to build a pier on the coast of Gaza to expedite the provision of “food, water, medicine and temporary shelters.”

Climate change

Mr. Biden touted his record on responding to climate change, pointing to policies aimed at achieving a 50 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030, “tens of thousands of clean energy jobs,” land and water conservation, and the creation of the Climate Corps, which puts young people to work on clean energy projects.

While these efforts would certainly be welcomed by the “Laudato Si’ pope,” they likely do not go as far as climate activists or Francis would hope. In “Laudate Deum,” his follow-up to the landmark 2015 encyclical, Francis singled out the United States for its role in the climate crisis. After noting that the per capita emissions in the United States are “about two times greater than those of individuals living in China, and about seven times greater than the average of the poorest countries,” he wrote: “We can state that a broad change in the irresponsible lifestyle connected with the Western model would have a significant long-term impact” (No. 72). Most politicians would rather not contemplate what changes the pope might be hinting at here—especially in the United States, where a growing economy is seen as the best guarantee of job security for elected officials.

Age

Mr. Biden’s age has certainly been widely covered by the media (and understandably so). The president ended his address by tackling concerns about his age head-on.

“I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around awhile,” Mr. Biden quipped. “When you get to my age, certain things become clearer than ever before. I know the American story.”

“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy,” he said. “A future based on core values that have defined America. Honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor.”

“Now other people my age see it differently,” Mr. Biden added, in a not-so-subtle reference to Mr. Trump, who is 77.

Age is, of course, a two-edged sword. There comes a time when a politician (or any one of us) is simply not physically or mentally up to the job at hand. For those who may be nearing that point, my colleague J.D. Long García suggests following the lead of the late Pope Benedict XVI and bowing out gracefully.

But Pope Francis—who himself turned 87 in December—has also reminded Catholics again and again not to discard the elderly or neglect their hard-earned wisdom.

It will be up to the wisdom of Catholic voters and of the American people to decide which candidate best embodies their values and has the wherewithal to govern according to them.

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