Chinese Balloons, the Debt Ceiling and Biden's Big Speech
Here's what I am going to be watching for during the State of the Union tonight
Tonight, Joe Biden will stand before Congress and the nation to give what will almost certainly be his most important speech of 2023. Last year, 38 million people tuned in to watch President Biden deliver his constitutionally mandated report on the state of the union. A similar number will watch tonight’s speech. Absent a major national event on par with the Space Shuttle Challenger crash or the operation to take out Osama Bin Laden, the audience tonight will be more than ten times larger than that of any other speech Biden will give this year. The speech will also receive a ton of press attention. It has already been the subject of approximately one million thumb-sucking think pieces. The State of the Union really is a tradition like no other.
The State of the Union is also a weird speech. It’s a grand venue with a big audience in the room and across the nation. Even the least presidential Presidents look somewhat presidential giving the speech. In many ways, the State of the Union is a high-floor, low-ceiling speech. It’s hard to screw up, but it’s also hard to soar. The history, the moment, and the setting can be very restrictive.
Every year, President Obama walked into the first meeting on the SOTU and declared that he wanted to do something different — make it shorter; make it more visually interesting; fewer policies, more stories, etc. And every year, he gave a very traditional speech because of the gravitational pull of the convention of the format.
As you can probably tell, I have some PTSD from having worked on six State of the Union speeches in the White House and helping out from afar on a few more. They are no fun, but they are important — and rare — moments for Presidents to grab the attention of an easily distracted nation. Here’s what I think President Biden is dealing with tonight and what I think he will be trying to accomplish.
Pop The Balloon
Washington, D.C. and the political media lost its collective mind over the Chinese spy balloon that floated over the U.S. before being shot down in mildly dramatic fashion on Saturday. The Republicans who backed President Trump despite his very close business ties with China, treated that balloon like an act of war. The media — and particularly CNN — covered the incident with a breathless absurdity. Maybe it was a slow news weekend, but the balloon imbroglio dominated the political coverage in a dangerously disproportionate manner. The power dynamics with China are complicated and consequential. There is a real threat, but that threat is not an unarmed spy balloon. China has more precise and sophisticated satellites spying on the U.S. 24/7. And if we want to worry about espionage from China, maybe we should talk a little more about the 80 million Americans walking around with TikTok on their phones.
I’m guessing that stories about the balloon got great ratings and drove a lot of clicks, because the political press started hyperventilating about the balloon as if it already ruined Biden’s State of the Union. The headline in Sunday’s Axios morning newsletter was “China crashes Biden's State of the Union speech.” Yesterday, Politico Playbook went with “China Deflates Biden’s SOTU Swagger.”
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