WASHINGTON — During a State of the Union address full of Bidenese Dictionary classics like “folks” and “I need to be crystal clear,” one entry stood out.
As President Biden delivered his speech on Tuesday evening, he issued a challenge to Republicans who have threatened to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act: “That’s OK,” he said. “As my football coach used to say: ‘Lots of luck in your senior year.’”
Democrats laughed. Republicans did not. Viewers watching at home smiled and nodded, maybe getting it but not totally getting it. Representative Ro Khanna, a Democrat of California, said he had “no idea” what the football line meant, but that he was inspired by the president’s economic plan.
The White House did not respond to requests about what the line actually means, but a review of Mr. Biden’s public statements over the decades — and a cursory dip into the world of high school and collegiate football — suggests that the phrase has been used by seasoned veterans to signal to the inexperienced that they’re running out of time to learn the ropes.
Still, in the daily Rorschach test that is modern politics, everyone saw what they wanted in the Bidenism du jour.
Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat of Michigan, shared her theory: Perhaps, she said in an interview, it was Mr. Biden’s way of telling Republicans that an agenda staked on undoing legislation was not rooted in the reality many Americans are facing.
“He’s also trying to say that people don’t care about people as they get older,” Ms. Dingell said, a reference to provisions in the law that lower health care costs for the elderly.
Republicans took issue with most of Mr. Biden’s remarks, including the one about senior year. A spokesman for Representative Jim Banks, a Republican of Indiana, said in an email that the congressman was “bewildered several times during the speech.”
Others who watched said they were inspired by the quip even though they ultimately weren’t sure what Mr. Biden was saying. The author Saeed Jones, who watched the speech from Columbus, was among them: “I have no idea what it means, but it was a HIT,” Mr. Jones tweeted.
When asked in a later interview to define what “lots of luck in your senior year” meant to him, Mr. Jones said that the line reminded him of a line from a Toni Morrison novel in which one character spoke dismissively to another.
Mr. Biden has always communicated through bits of personal folklore. Sometimes, he veers into fiction — like claiming his home had burned down when it hadn’t. Or he embellishes his stories, like when he talked about confronting a teenage adversary named Corn Pop. (That conflict is rooted in truth, but with exaggerated details.)
Growing up, Mr. Biden did have a football coach at Archmere Academy. When John Walsh was inducted into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame in 2012, Mr. Biden attended and delivered remarks: “He urged us to play the game the same way you lived your life, with passion and integrity,” Mr. Biden said.
No remarks on “senior year,” though.
Mr. Biden usually deploys the phrase as a dismissive insult to less-experienced lawmakers who have logged fewer years in politics and have promised to tackle Democratic legislation.
During one of Mr. Biden’s last interviews as vice president, the journalist Andrea Mitchell asked him about the promise of Donald J. Trump, the president-elect, to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it within the span of one day.
“Remember the expression you’d have when you’d pass around your yearbook to be signed, and someone would say, ‘Lots of luck in your senior year?’” an amused Mr. Biden asked. “Lots of luck in your senior year, Mr. Trump.”
Mr. Trump chipped away at the law’s provisions but was not successful in repealing it.
Last November, when Mr. Biden was asked during a news conference to respond to Republican lawmakers planning to investigate his son, Hunter, and his family’s business interests, he again revisited the salty aside.
“Lots of luck in your senior year, as my coach used to say,” Mr. Biden said. “I think the American public wants us to move on and get things done for them.”
At times, Mr. Biden has suggested that the phrase is more of a yearbook-style salutation. In 1999, Mr. Biden told his Senate colleagues that when he told Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia, that he was a war criminal, Mr. Milosevic was unmoved.
“He looked at me as if I had said, ‘Lots of luck in your senior year.’ It did not faze him a bit,” Mr. Biden recalled of his interaction with Mr. Milosevic, who was put on trial for crimes against humanity and genocide during the Bosnian war.
Mr. Biden is also happy to use the rejoinder for his domestic opponents.
During the 2020 election, Mr. Biden used it to respond to Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, who suggested he wouldn’t be able to beat Mr. Trump.
“Good luck, Bernie,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the time. “Lots of luck in your senior year, Bernie. That’s what they used to say in the yearbooks, you know, lots of luck in your senior year.”
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