Credit: George Danby

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Adriana E. Ramírez is a columnist and InReview editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Tuesday night, President Joe Biden delivered the best State of the Union address I’ve heard in my lifetime. He turned what is usually a boring exercise in partisan clapping and mutual back-patting into a riveting combination pep rally, poetry slam and real-time legislative session. I was entranced the entire 72 minutes. I laughed. I cried. I yelled “sick burn.”

Even Speaker Kevin McCarthy nodded along to half of what the president had to say. Joe Cool was bipartisan. He appealed to Middle America. He handled his hecklers with a million-watt smile. He looked and sounded like presidents do in the movies.

The president had swagger.

I did not expect it at all.

The State of the Union is usually a perfunctory exercise in restating the politics of the day, with some mild Washingtonian theatrics layered on top. One party lays out its platform, while the other demonstrates its indifference through pointed silence.

As soon as the president got on stage, though, it was clear this night would be different. “Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden said, shaking McCarthy’s hand. Everyone laughed.

I believe the tension broke a little on Tuesday night — the horrible divide that keeps our diverging ideologies from letting us enjoy each other’s company. It wasn’t a kumbaya moment, to be sure. The haters showed up. And for the people who truly hate the president, no amount of charm will overcome their feelings.

But I also noted how often McCarthy shushed those haters when they tried to interrupt. Are we somehow reverting back to civil discourse? Is there a chance that we could actually begin to speak to each other with respect?

In a moment that defied all expectations for a State of the Union address, Biden earned concessions from Republicans negotiating the debt ceiling. That’s right — during a speech, the president managed to negotiate with some obstinate members of the opposition.

Instead of merely absorbing Republicans’ jeers after accusing some of them of targeting Social Security and Medicare, he began an impromptu dialogue that resulted in a live legislative commitment. “Social Security and Medicare are off the chopping block?” the president asked. Both sides of the room answered in applause. Even Biden couldn’t believe it. He had achieved an actual moment of bipartisan consensus in the middle of the joint session.

And don’t get me wrong, the actual speech hit all the right notes. The folks sitting up on the balcony played their part as the president told their stories. I teared up several times. Some people, like my husband, hate these spotlights. But I enjoy knowing that there is a face and name to the people evoked in political speeches.

Even as Biden delivered some good entertainment — pointing out how long he’s served in government got a bipartisan chuckle — he also touted his administration’s accomplishments.

To quote my husband, “I didn’t think he had that many accomplishments, until he told me all of them.” I was particularly surprised when Biden mentioned legislation that would cap insulin at $35 for Medicare recipients, in addition to revealing that Medicare now has the power to directly negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. This has the potential to affect every American. As does his proposed legislation on junk fees, which includes removing “resort fees” hotels are charging that, as Biden noted, “aren’t even resorts.”

Jokes aside, the president laid out plans that will tangibly improve American lives. I found myself particularly moved by his Cancer Moonshot plan. As someone with a family member who battles cancer as we speak, I know the difficulties the disease brings, and I will support any administration that aims to prevent other families from experiencing its hardships.

Like all political speeches, Biden had plans that seem great but are near-impossible to achieve. Free internet for American households, privileging American-made products without increasing the cost of goods and services, universal preschool, and gun reform feel as far away as ever. As a left-leaning moderate, I appreciated his attempts at moving forward with unworkable plans, even as I find myself checked by expectations of what’s actually possible.

Overall, the evening was a resounding success for Biden and his speechwriters. The president didn’t speak with perfect polish, but that worked in his favor. He remains relatable, energetic and appealing to the average person in an old-school way — rough edges and all.

There were a handful of Republicans who weren’t won over by Biden’s star-quarterback offensive. But the president assured them that all Americans would benefit from infrastructure repairs, even people who voted against him. Even their Republican representatives. “I’ll see you at the groundbreaking,” Biden said to the right side of the room with a wide, picture-perfect smile.

All swagger.