President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address at a critical moment in the existential battle between liberal democracies and autocracies. Biden needed to focus on riveting events in Ukraine, but didn’t want to stint on issues, such as inflation, that voters care most about. He had the unenviable task of closing the gap between voters’ perception (Everything’s terrible!) and his record that includes major wins (e.g., infrastructure, covid in retreat).
The result was almost two separate speeches: One (on democracy and national security) was historic and inspiring; the other (on his domestic agenda) was detailed and targeted to reassure Americans nervous about inflation.
Did he rise to meet the moment, rhetorically and substantively, on Ukraine? Most definitely. Biden’s opening (“Freedom will always triumph over tyranny”) and the presence of the Ukrainian ambassador in the chamber engendered big ovations. The president devoted the first part of his speech to Ukraine and a forceful defense of democracy, seeming to feed off the energy in the room. Instead of flowery language, he opted for short declarative sentences. He recognized the unprecedented worldwide reaction to Russia’s invasion and attempt to eradicate a neighboring country. Taking a victory lap for diplomacy and for rebuilding alliances, Biden declared that NATO matters and “American diplomacy matters.” He continued, “Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And, he thought he could divide us here at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready.” He touted Putin’s isolation, outlined plans to go after oligarchs’ “ill-begotten gains” and reminded viewers of the U.S. role in preparing for the invasion.
It was as inspiring as any section of a State of the Union, in large part because it was about something bigger and more compelling than politics as usual. Moreover, it was a rare display of bipartisanship, and a reminder that in facing external threats we can rise to the occasion. (“In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”) From there on out, bipartisanship receded.
Did he use the time to educate the public? Biden smartly did not assume his audience even understood why NATO was formed and who belonged. He highlighted what the United States (that is, he) did to bring democracies together. If one listened to reporters regurgitating GOP complaints, one might never have known Biden pulled off a deft, historic and far-reaching diplomatic maneuver. On the domestic front, he certainly should have used the moment to connect international events to anti-democratic conduct and voter suppression at home.
Did he make a convincing case for his economic agenda? Here Biden did well. He touted the American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure plan, contrasting them with failed “trickle-down” economics. He reeled off a list of new production jobs in the United States, including a rural Intel plant he dubbed a “field of dreams.” He urged passage of the competitiveness bill aimed at competing with China.
What was different from previous Biden speeches was the amount of time devoted to inflation. Now it is his “top priority,” he declared — quite a change from last summer, when the administration tried to play it down as temporary. He faced a dilemma, though, since the president can’t do much about inflation. (It’s the Federal Reserve’s job.) As a result, his modest proposals therefore may not have seemed equal to the task. His inflation approach boiled down to untangling supply chains, bringing down costs for families, promoting competition and stepping up domestic production. He argued that he didn’t want to cut off growth or lower wages. “I have a better plan to fight inflation: Lower your costs, not your wages.” Seemingly speaking to Sen. Joe Manchin lll (D-W.Va.) Biden argued, “My plan to fight inflation will lower your costs and lower the deficit.” It’s not clear it will convince skeptics such as Manchin, but if his intent was to convey to voters his empathy, tenacity and focus on an issue that deeply troubles Americans, he did so.
Did he tell us anything new? Much of his domestic agenda was not novel but rebranded. Many items came from the grab bag known as Build Back Better (prescription drug price controls, green energy subsidies, child-care subsidies). It was a reminder that most voters never understood what was in that monstrous bill. Repackaging them as inflation-fighting devices may have introduced voters to these plans for the first time.
Biden’s approach to covid was markedly different from his last address to Congress. It did not dominate the speech as it might have even a few months ago. He said that the “country can move forward safely” to the next phase (to be revealed tomorrow). But talk of mandates was gone; instead, Biden stressed availability of more testing kits, new treatments and, again, urged vaccination. He touted open businesses and schools (a sore point with voters and an attack line for Republicans). Democrats might have preferred a more exuberant victory lap. And while his plea to end the partisan divide on covid was moving, it is unlikely to penetrate into the MAGA media bubble.
He also rolled out a “unity agenda” to fight opioid addiction; mental health; regulation of social media to protect children and strengthen privacy; health treatment for veterans suffering from the effects of burn pits; and cure cancer. These were popular in the chamber, and likely will be with the public.
Did he show he has listened to his party and voters? Voters have signaled they are sick of infighting. Biden responded with his unity agenda. They’ve also showed they care greatly about inflation. Biden clearly heard them on the inflation front, devoting more of the speech to that issue than one might have expected.
On the crime front, he generally restated his efforts to fund the police, pushed for common-sense gun laws (which Republicans have no intention of allowing), and vowed to combat covid fraud and identity theft. Most notable, he specifically denounced “defund the police,” a position few in the party hold but Republicans routinely attack.
Finally, the only mention of immigration was almost in passing. “We need to secure our border and fix the immigration system,” he said, providing no real details.
So how’d he do? With an emotional opening on Ukraine and an uplifting close (“The state of the union is strong because you, the American people, are strong”), Biden and his team managed to pack plenty of emotion into an hour. The president managed to capture the anguish and the hope the Ukraine war has provided. His domestic initiatives may not have been earthshaking, but he did convey his determination, vision and empathy. To the relief of Democrats, he put heavy emphasis on inflation. If he did not reset his agenda, he at least reprioritized it. It was a solid speech, more bipartisan than one could have imagined. Whether it is enough to change the political landscape remains to be seen.
Image Credits: President Biden speaks during the State of the Union address at the Capitol in Washington on March 1. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)