WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden hit the road Wednesday with trips to the election battlegrounds of Wisconsin and Florida, after a barnstorming State of the Union speech reinforcing expectations that the 80-year-old will seek a second term. Biden hasn't announced a reelection bid yet and given his age, many - even from his own party - feel he should step aside in 2024.

But his Tuesday night address to Congress and tens of millions of television viewers laid out what amounted to a campaign platform, which he will now pursue in DeForest, Wisconsin, with a speech on the economy, before heading Thursday to the increasingly Republican stronghold of Florida. Standing before a packed chamber on Capitol Hill, Biden appeared to be energized as he delivered a carefully focused message aimed at what he called "forgotten" working class voters and everyday issues like the price of healthcare.

Casting himself as a centrist in an era where partisan politics has become something of a bloodsport, his sunny optimism, complete with jokes and frequent pauses to smile, contrasted strongly with aggressive jeering from the ranks of Republican lawmakers. On multiple 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 members.

But the raucous far-right wing that effectively has a stranglehold on the party's congressional leadership broke with convention to hurl boos and insults. "Liar!" erupted Representative Marjorie Taylor Green, a conspiracy theory peddling acolyte of Donald Trump, the man Biden defeated in 2020 and who has already opened a bid to stage a rematch and win back the White House in 2024. Meanwhile Trump himself, a fierce Biden critic, offered a rare compliment. "I disagree with him on most of his policies, but he put into words what he felt, and ended up the evening far stronger than he began. Give him credit for that," Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform.

The Biden team quickly sought to profit from the Republicans' behavior, seeing it as a way to highlight the president's message of normalcy and seriousness that worked against Trump in 2020 - and which Biden evidently hopes to use again in a reelection bid. Biden spokesman Ian Sams went on Fox News - the network that was crucial to Trump's rise - to castigate Republicans in Congress for holding a hearing Wednesday on their allegations that Twitter and the Democrats colluded to suppress damaging news about the president's son, Hunter, during the 2020 campaign.

The hearing, Sams said, showed Republicans out of touch, staging a "bizarre political stunt" while Biden addressed "Americans' top priorities like tackling inflation, raising wages, and investing in manufacturing and infrastructure jobs". Tuesday's speech, clocking in at 72 minutes, was remarkable for the granular focus on kitchen table issues, rather than soaring rhetoric or foreign affairs.

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 first mention of Ukraine, which Biden vowed would get US support against Russia for "as long as it takes," came nearly an hour in. And 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.

The Republican rebuttal was jarring for its different tone, choosing to focus on culture war issues that have inflamed the right and currently look set to dominate the party's 2024 agenda. Speaking for the Republicans, Arkansas governor and 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. - AFP