A Steady and Strong State of the Union
President Biden's well-received State of the Union seemed perfectly designed to address his biggest political challenges
I am willing to bet that this was not the speech President Biden planned to give, but it ended up being the speech he needed to give. I am confident Team Biden wanted to use his biggest audience of the year to prove his economic bonafide, resuscitate his legislative agenda, and promote his historic nominee to the Supreme Court. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the context for the overly long State of the Union speech.
By opening his speech with a bold, unifying message about what the U.S. has done to push back against Russia and punish Putin, Biden was able to emphasize the qualities that helped him win in 2020 and are dragging him down in 2022: strength and competence.
Competence vs. Crisis
My old friend David Axelrod’s theory of American politics was hammered into our heads during the 2008 campaign. He wrote in the New York Times after the 2016 election:
Voters rarely seek the replica of what they have. They almost always seek the remedy, the candidate who has the personal qualities the public finds lacking in the departing executive.
Every election is about that core contrast. In 2020, America elected Biden in a time of crisis because he had the experience and poise Trump so obviously lacked. Confidence in Biden’s competence and ability to handle a crisis buoyed his approval ratings through the first half of 2021. Then events intervened — COVID roared back, the Afghanistan withdrawal devolved into crisis, inflation took hold, and his legislative agenda crashed. This neverending cascade of crises took its toll on that core part of Biden’s appeal. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found:
An underlying weakness affecting perceptions of Biden’s performance in office is the degree to which people have doubts about his personal capacities. On the question of whether he is a strong leader, 59 percent say no and 36 percent say yes — closely aligned with his overall approval rating. Among independents, 65 percent say he is not strong.
This diminished view of Biden’s leadership capabilities is dragging him down on every issue including Ukraine. In the most recent Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 56 percent of respondents agree with Biden’s approach, but only 34 percent approve of the way he is handling it.
Last night’s speech seemed designed to address that very issue.
Punishing Putin and Populism
Too often Biden appears a bystander to these events. Very little of this is President Biden’s fault. Crises cannot be controlled and they take a vicious toll on any president. But it is also true that President Biden is not a politician tailor-made for our “content is king” media environment. He is not someone who naturally inserts himself into every trending topic or feels comfortable narrating events as they happen. Biden tends to do the work behind the scenes and hope the results speak for themselves. That trait is admirable, but not always advisable.
Tonight, Biden was able to appear in command in front of a large audience. There are three moments I think were most powerful and effective in reminding people why Joe Biden is the person they elected:
The Ukraine Section: By opening with an aggressive condemnation of Putin and recitation of the strong steps taken, Biden could speak with strength on a topic that received rapturous applause from both sides of the aisle:
Populist Approach to Inflation: A lot of Democrats wondered how Biden would address inflation in the speech. Fortunately, he adopted an aggressive, populist approach. According to various groups dial-testing the speech, this section tested particularly well:President Biden: I’m a capitalist, but capitalism without competition is not capitalism. Capitalism without competition is exploitation—and it drives up profits. #SOTU
Republicans, the media and, to some extent, the public pressed Biden over inflation for months. It’s great he identified a foil and punched back with strength.
The Close: Holding the much-anticipated verdict on the state of the union until the end of the speech was a clever bit of speechcraft. It built drama and allowed Biden to end on a high note with the confident and patriotic optimism that was a hallmark of his 2020 victory.
In the end, the State of the Union is just a speech. The impact is often overstated and the politics over-analyzed. But the speech given by the President last night tells me he and his team understand the cause of their political problems and have a plan to address them.