Tuesday, March 01, 2022

State of the Union Address Review: Biden Tries to Cheer Up the Country—and His Party

In the early weeks of Joe Biden's second year in the presidency, the nation he governs is by some important measures moving in the right direction. Job, wage, and economic growth are all positive; the prevalence and deadliness of COVID-19 is (at least for now) fading rapidly; and there are no ongoing domestic crises or major scandals. But the national mood has become increasingly sour over the past year, a pessimism reflected in Biden's declining job approval ratings and an emerging Republican advantage in midterm election polls.

Biden's State of the Union address contained a familiar sequence of policy proposals and details—the "laundry list" approach to speechmaking that is especially beloved of leaders in the Democratic Party, where many different constituencies all demand recognition. (And it won't be hard to find complaints that he didn't say enough about this or that pet liberal priority, as if these speeches are capable of exerting transformative effects on the policy agenda of the American public.) Biden's own communication instincts were reflected in his emphasis on economic issues over cultural matters; his aversion to overly abstract or metaphorical oratory; and his regular claims to stand for bipartisanship, pragmatism, and common sense. 

Biden's State of the Union address did not "make news" in the sense of revealing a major new initiative or governing approach; even the planted media hints from earlier in the day that he would be signaling a redoubled focus on deficit reduction or inflation-taming seemed to oversell the novelty of the speech. What the address seemed to represent, most of all, was something like a national halftime pep talk. "I want you to know that we are going to be okay," Biden said while discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, though this sentiment seemed to apply to his message on the economy, COVID, and domestic policy as well. Rather than invoke the constitutional purpose of the annual address near the beginning of his remarks, as most presidents do, Biden saved his "report . . . that the State of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong" for his conclusion of his speech, adding, "we are stronger today than we were a year ago and we will be stronger a year from now than we are today."

While the White House would be happy to convince anyone of this view, there's little doubt that a particularly important audience for Biden's words are the members of his own party, who are less enthusiastic about the Biden presidency than they once were and whose energetic mobilization will be necessary to avoid a national Republican sweep in the fall midterm elections. Biden cannot count on the personal devotion or symbolic importance that his immediate predecessor enjoyed. His voters will not reward him for merely picking a fight on camera with a reporter or mocking an opponent at a rally; they expect much more tangible returns on their support. 

And so even the opening language in tonight's speech that detailed the Biden administration's efforts to assist Ukraine and punish Russia, for all its appeal to national and political unity, had a clear second meaning that extended to later passages on infrastructure and COVID. You can be proud of your president, they said; all things considered, he's doing okay. So cheer up a little, America—and cheer up a lot, Democrats.