President Joe Biden is turning to a reliably Republican state – and its GOP governor – to highlight one of his key bipartisan accomplishments he’s trying to sell to voters heading into 2024.
The visit to Utah, where he arrived Wednesday, caps a four-day sales pitch through the West as he seeks to convince skeptical voters of the impacts of his economic and legislative achievements.
But unlike his prior two stops in Arizona and New Mexico, which are home to Democratic governors, the president is joined here in Salt Lake City by the state’s Republican governor – Spencer Cox – as he makes his case for one of those bipartisan wins.
Biden on Thursday touted a key plank of his so-called “unity agenda”: Caring for US veterans. The president will visit the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City for remarks celebrating the one-year anniversary of the passage of the PACT Act, a bill that provides critical health care benefits to veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during their military service.
Biden made the case for his so-called “unity agenda” aimed at building bipartisan consensus on a number of common issues.
“Don’t tell me we can’t get things done when we work together – Democrats and Republicans work together to get this done,” Biden said.
Cox, who greeted Biden Wednesday evening as he arrived in Salt Lake City, was also on hand for the event, marking a rare occasion where a Republican governor is joining the Democratic president to promote policy initiatives.
Utah’s governor, who serves as chair of the National Governors Association, has advocated for bipartisan work, telling reporters at the White House earlier this year that Americans are “hungry for bipartisanship. They want to see both sides working together.”
The president doled out praise for Cox at the White House during that visit, saying, “Governor Cox, I promise I won’t tell anybody how much I like you. We’ll keep it quiet as long as we can.” And on Wednesday, he invited the governor and his wife, Abby, to join him in the motorcade from the airport to his hotel.
However, ahead of the president’s visit to Utah, Cox did voice disapproval for the president’s decision to designate nearly one million acres around the Grand Canyon as a national monument, calling it a “mistake.”
Cox said Thursday it is “insane” that his presence at the event was ever questioned. He welcomed Biden to Utah as he said it was an “amazing opportunity” to both “work closely together” and “push back on policies with which I disagree.”
“There has been some question over whether or not the governor of the state of Utah would welcome a president of a different party. I think it’s insane that we are having those conversations in our country today,” Cox said to applause.
He continued, “I so appreciate my blue state partners, governors who welcomed President Trump, and we welcome President Biden here. We honor this office of the presidency. When the president succeeds, America succeeds, and we want to find ways to work together.”
Cox, who serves as chair of the nonpartisan National Governors Association, has been an outspoken advocate for bipartisanship and pushing back on toxic politics, recently participating in an ad with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis promoting civility at the dinner table.
“We also do want to push back when we disagree, and I think we’ve gotten really good at that part, but we need to remember the other part of that equation that makes us so proud to be Americans,” Cox said.
But their focus here in Utah is on an issue both believe to be bipartisan at its core. The president will mark one year since the PACT Act was signed into law after passing Congress on a bipartisan basis, even though no members of Utah’s congressional delegation – all Republicans – voted for the bill.
Since the bill was passed, more than 4.1 million veterans have received toxic exposure screenings, with more than $1.85 billion “in earned PACT Act-related benefits [delivered] to veterans and their survivors,” according to a fact sheet from the White House. The White House also touted record applications for VA benefits, with 1.95 million claims submitted by veterans and survivors in the past fiscal year, a 37% increase from the prior year. That, the White House said, includes “843,448 PACT Act- specific claims applications.”
The PACT Act, Biden said, has “met that sacred obligation” to care for “those we send into harm’s way … when they come home.” He compared the toxic burn pit exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War and said that the bill “means today’s veterans and their families won’t suffer the same painful, frustrating delays and denials.”
He detailed some of its provisions, including speeding up the qualification process, regular toxic exposure screenings, new facilities, new research and more health care workers. For those who have lost a family member to toxic exposure, it also provides potential access to life insurance, tuition benefits for surviving family members, home loan assistance and monthly stipends. The benefits “cannot replace one of the breadwinners in their home, but it sure as hell can help,” he said, noting that over 340,000 veterans have benefited from the law so far, “including over 2,000 veterans here in Utah.”
Biden noted that over 340,000 veterans have benefited from the law so far, “including over 2,000 veterans here in Utah.”
“We’re determined to address this problem, come hell or high water, and compensate these veterans and their families who have suffered the consequences of this tragedy,” Biden said.
He called it a “moral obligation” to spread the word about the benefits and urged those affected to visit va.gov/pact to file a claim or apply for health care.
The bill is also personal to the president, who has linked toxic smoke exposure to his late son Beau Biden’s cancer.
“It’s personal for my family but it’s also personal for so many of you,” Biden said Thursday, pointing to Beau Biden’s military service in Iraq, where he lived near a burn pit and “breathed that toxic material.”
Beau Biden was the “fittest guy in his unit, and came home,” the president said, pausing, and choking up, “And came home and died of glioblastoma.”
The president’s trip put him in front of a deeply Republican electorate in the state. Biden lost Utah to former President Donald Trump by more than 20 points in 2020, and the state hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson won in a landslide.
Utah is the second solidly Republican state the president has visited since launching his reelection bid. Biden visited South Carolina last month to make his “Bidenomics” pitch.
But his trip to Utah also serves a more lucrative purpose: Biden will make a second stop in tony Park City, a luxury ski destination, for a campaign fundraiser as he looks to build up his campaign war chest during the summer months when fundraising is often sluggish.