Sometimes, amid the theatrics and showboating of partisan politics, a real policy issue breaks out.

That seemed to happen with President Biden’s State of the Union address last Tuesday, when he offered to work with Republicans even as some of them loudly punctuated his speech with outbursts, jeers and guffaws of mocking laughter.

Remember how Rep. Joe Wilson, a South Carolina Republican, raised looks of alarm even among some of his allies by shouting “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s first joint session of Congress? He later apologized, but the rudeness has returned and escalated in Donald Trump’s MAGA era.

No apologies were heard at Biden’s first joint speech to Congress after two glory-seeking Republican newbies, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, led a two-woman chant at one point.

This year, the two were better behaved or, at least less noticeable among the other noisemakers. Biden returned fire more graciously but defiantly as he deliberately needled some of his adversaries in the Grand Old Party, accusing them of threatening two of the government’s most popular programs, Social Security and Medicare.

How popular? Perhaps you’ve heard these two entitlements called “third-rail” issues in political circles, meaning “touch them and you die.”


“Amtrak Joe,” Biden’s nickname from the days when he commuted to Capitol Hill from his Delaware home, is hardly new to this route.

As a result, attempts by the new GOP crowd in Congress to use catcalls to rattle Biden clearly backfired.

When impolite Republicans booed, jeered and insisted that ”No, no, no,” they were absolutely not threatening Social Security or Medicare, Biden smiled, appearing to thoroughly enjoy the back and forth while accepting their objections as agreement on the need to keep their hands off the entitlements.

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share,” Biden said, “some Republicans, some Republicans, want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.”

When that triggered a loud burst of Republican objections, Biden quietly added, “I’m not saying it’s the majority,” even as the robust GOP objections hinted otherwise.

Taking their objections as a sign of support for maintaining and protecting the entitlements, Biden said with a smile of triumph, “I’m glad to see – no, I tell you, I enjoy conversion.”


Sure, especially when the conversion appears to be moving to your side?

The clash was significant as a big pushback from Democrats against the periodically recurring campaigns to undo the crown jewels of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The next day Biden took his State of the Union argument to Florida, the home state of GOP Sen. Rick Scott, who has proposed “sunsetting” federal legislation, including Social Security and Medicare, every five years. That would mean the programs would have to be voted on again every five years or they automatically would expire.

Biden also quoted a 2010 video of another conservative, Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, in which Lee said it was his “objective to phase out Social Security” and that “Medicare and Medicaid … need to be pulled up” by their roots.

And, speaking in DeForest, Wisconsin, last Wednesday, Biden noted that the state’s Republican senior senator, Ron Johnson, also has expressed strong support for sunsetting the two programs in a budget-cutting move, calling Social Security a “legal Ponzi scheme” that should have been privatized.

Yet Johnson objected to Biden’s objections, saying in radio interviews, “I want to save these programs.”


Sure. But does he have to burn the programs down in order to save them?

There are plenty of legitimate arguments to make about the long-term funding of these very popular but expensive programs. But politicians from opposing parties have to work together to reach lasting compromises on such issues. Theatrics aren’t enough.

For now, we appear to be stuck with a new period of divisive performative politics, meaning a lot of political theater that makes some people feel good by making others feel angry. But, too often, they have little to do with the real purpose of governing, which is supposed to be about identifying and solving of problems, not just shouting at each other.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He may be contacted at:
Twitter: @cptime

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.