The State of the Union is...
President Biden addresses the nation
Tonight came a stark reminder that history proceeds in ways that are rarely predictable. When President Biden arrived at the Capitol to give his State of the Union, what might have been going through his mind?
One of the gravest foreign policy crisis since the end of the Cold War…
A persistent pandemic that has deeply divided the nation…
Pesky inflation undercutting a swath of otherwise positive economic news, at least in popular perception…
Ongoing threats to the sanctity and security of our democratic institutions…
And then there is everything else — all that goes with the office, in ways big and small. Challenges we can see and ones we might never know.
The winds of fortune and fate shift in ways no one could have expected. And that is embodied in the man who addressed the nation tonight, a nation that seems to be a world away from the one that elected him vice president with a sweeping mandate for change alongside Barack Obama. To reflect on all that has transpired since is to be humbled by how little we can anticipate. And that is especially true now, when the future seems particularly fraught.
This was also a speech from a president who has seen his standing slip considerably, according to almost every poll. Running as a uniter, he presides over a country even more divided. His defeated predecessor has stayed on the stage, with his lies and bombast focused squarely on riling his base against the man who defeated him. This is a moment of political peril for Biden heading into midterms elections that could define the rest of his term and his prospects for re-election.
The speech started, not surprisingly, with the war in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin, who Biden said “badly miscalculated.” The president spoke of the courage of the Ukrainian people, including a moving standing ovation in honor of the Ukrainian ambassador, who was in attendance as a guest of the First Lady. Biden spoke of the strong measures he has taken, of consensus building, crippling sanctions, and a determination to stand with our NATO allies. There was no wavering in his voice or in his words. Biden sneered at the mention of Putin: “He has no idea what’s coming.” And he clearly sought to portray a hopeful future. “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”
Biden was eager to move to what I call the Joe from Scranton section of the speech, trying to make the case once more for his domestic agenda. He pointed to record job growth. And promised a new economy, infrastructure, and “buy American.” He highlighted union steelworkers. “It’s time to retire the term the Rust Belt.” This was the way the Democratic Party used to talk for most of my adult life. But the party has slipped in many of these working-class areas. Can Biden make good on bringing it back? Can he resurrect some of the legislation that is languishing in Congress?
The president kept at the pocketbook issues, personalizing our broken healthcare system with a potent story of a young diabetic, who was in the gallery and clapped along with the president’s pledge to cap the cost of insulin. He called for Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. Democrats cheered, Republicans sneered. Cut the cost of childcare; remake our tax system; cut down on fraud; Biden listed popular policy issue after popular policy issue. These are the kinds of topics that go directly to the anxieties expressed at the kitchen table. And it is likely that Biden’s political team thinks a revival in his fortune will come with commonsense home economics.
Biden spoke plainly about the pandemic - laying out the benefits of vaccines and antiviral treatments, which are incredibly effective. And he pledged more free testing. All of this was to rally the nation to hopefully return to a more normal state of living. "It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.” And, clearly reading the sentiments of the nation: “Our kids need to be in school.” He finally pleaded to stop making COVID a method of dividing us. Good luck with that, but we can hope.
Biden has never been a gifted speaker. A lot of this is likely due to his stutter. Did he stumble over words? On some occasions. And undoubtedly his critics will pounce to turn those moments into memes to question his mental acuity. Did he speak too fast at times? Yes, especially at the beginning. Furthermore, this is not the kind of rhetoric that will be etched into marble and quoted decades from now. It is working-class plainspokenness. Tell the people what you’re going to do. Lay it out clearly. And hope they are paying attention and like what they hear.
In the end, Biden wanted to portray himself as a man of common sense. He talked about gun control, which is popular. But he also stated very clearly, “The answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police.” He talked about securing the border and also immigration reform. He said that we can find bipartisan support for issues like beating the opioid epidemic, tackling mental health, supporting veterans, and ending cancer.
For those hoping for pointed attacks against Republicans, Biden largely avoided that tack. He seemed eager to pivot from the rhetoric of rancor and re-assume the mantle that led him to the White House, the centrist problem solver. There is no doubt his eyes are open to the anti-democratic tendencies of many in the opposition party. He knows full well the frustration of obstructionism in the Senate. He is under no illusions that Republican lawmakers will deal with him in good faith.
But ultimately, it seems President Biden has decided that he will benefit from raising his stature with popular policies. He is daring Republicans to stay in the mud. He is betting that a majority of Americans is tired of the divisive circus. Whether this will be a successful approach remains to be seen. It is clear he and his advisors think it’s their best shot.
I doubt in the end this speech will make much of a difference in and of itself in changing the president’s standing. I wonder how many people were watching beyond those who already have their minds made up. But to the degree that it delineates a path forward for engagement, this could usher in a new chapter in the Biden Presidency.
Tonight’s speech was one of hope, of popular policies, and a sense of steadiness. With all that the American public has been through, perhaps the most human line in the entire speech was, “I want you to know that we are going to be okay.”
Of course one never really knows whether one will be okay, and that holds true for the fate of the Biden Presidency as well. But Biden hopes that a sense of decency and action can help heal the nation and improve his own standing in leading it.
As you know, I believe in steadiness and hope, as long is they are tethered to reality. I believe that most people are decent and want what’s best for their families, their broader communities, their nations, and indeed the world. I believe we have big challenges, some from our history and some from our present circumstances. But I also believe we can rally to address these challenges. Time and again, moments of division in our national story have been followed by leadership, action, and progress. This is the vein into which President Biden hopes to tap. And I agree with him. I too think we can once again find our way back to steady.
What did you think? Did you watch? Have you heard from friends and family what they thought?