The State of the Union was . . . loud. Delivering the annual speech to Congress in this election year was a near-impossible assignment for Joe Biden, an embattled President facing an increasingly uphill campaign amid concerns about his age and endurance. Expectations tend to be outsized for the ritual Presidential address, especially considering that it is often a dud of a speech—a windy laundry list of crowd-pleasing agenda items that may never see legislative action. These nights are more famous for being long than they are for being good. Few of the speeches have been memorable in recent years. I cannot think of a single case of a State of the Union rescuing a troubled Presidency—or sinking one, for that matter.

But, with Biden trailing Donald Trump in the polls and facing persistent questions from within the Democratic Party about his ability to win reëlection and serve a second term, the President had no choice but to try something different for the large national TV audience. The result was a most unusual State of the Union—partisan, shouty, and even, at times, a bit rowdy. What a contrast to the usual hoary clichés and bipartisan applause lines. Democrats loved it; Republicans looked on, squirming in their seats as if they’d accidentally been forced to sit through the Democratic National Convention.

Congress, it turns out, is an appealing backdrop for a campaign rally. And there is nothing that this President likes more than to extol the virtues of infrastructure spending and union manufacturing jobs before a cheering crowd in the packed House chamber. Biden wasn’t exactly a happy warrior on Thursday night, but he was a forceful one. He seemed unfazed by the occasional word salad that he made of his script. He was definitely not soporific. The speech kept one part of the evening’s traditions intact—it was terribly long, more than an hour—but the general vibe was different than most State of the Union addresses I can recall—sharply confrontational, intensely divided. Democrats broke into a raucous chant of “Four more years!” even before Biden began speaking; a few Republicans heckled and jeered. The prepared text had eighty exclamation points in it; Biden may have added a few more along the way. With his Presidency on the line, no one was going to accuse this eighty-one-year-old of a geriatric showing when it mattered.

Politically, it was also a very different State of the Union than most: its purpose was clearly to rally wavering Democrats far more than it was to push legislation that would have no chance of passing a Republican House anyway. Did Biden cross the line into yelling? Probably. But his high-decibel performance seemed to confound Republicans, who have spent years seeking to portray Biden as a near-catatonic dementia case. The Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, who has done as much to promote Trump’s “Sleepy Joe” narrative as anyone, complained that the President had morphed into “Jacked-Up Joe” for Thursday’s speech, “a hyper-caffeinated, angry old man!” Democrats, I imagine, mostly responded with a collective exhale. Whatever low bar there had been for Biden going into the speech, he had surely cleared it with his energetic peroration.

Biden arrived a bit late, just after 9:15 P.M.; his motorcade, in a sign of the fractious times, had to take the long way from the White House to avoid a crowd of pro-Palestinian protesters that sought to block his route. Inside the chamber, as the President walked the aisle to the podium, slowly, endlessly, glad-handing legislators, he was confronted by the Republican representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who wore a red MAGA hat despite the House’s ban on campaign paraphernalia. (Watch Biden’s priceless reaction, mouth agape and eyes wide, here.) “If I were smart, I’d go home now,” Biden joked, by way of opening; some Republicans cheered. It was going to be that kind of a night.

That this was a more combative Biden than usual was evident from the opening sections of the speech, which took hard punches at reliable bad guys—Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, House Republicans who are blocking a vote on his sixty-billion-dollar request for assistance to Ukraine, meddling judges who take away women’s reproductive rights. An array of policy promises to please every conceivable constituency followed—from pledges to lower credit-card late-payment fees to caps on prescription-drug costs to a new minimum tax on billionaires—though there was little actual news beyond the announcement, previewed earlier in the day, that Biden had ordered the U.S. military to construct a temporary floating pier off the coast of Gaza, to bypass Israel’s blockade and deliver more humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Amid the jumble, the sprawling speech offered a sharp-edged preview of the President’s 2024 campaign theme—a warning to Americans of the threat to their freedoms from illiberal, anti-democratic forces, whether the January 6th rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol or the Russians who invaded Ukraine. “Freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time,” he warned, adding, “History is watching.”

The inescapable context for the speech—as for Biden’s entire Presidency—was Trump. The ex-President went unmentioned by name—Biden referred only to “my predecessor”—but the increasingly real threat of his return gave palpable urgency to Biden’s address, coming as it did the same week that Trump, for the third election running, shoved aside all comers to claim his party’s nomination. “This is a moment to speak the truth and to bury the lies,” Biden said, early on. “Here’s the simplest truth: you can’t love your country only when you win.” Stone-faced Republicans could not even applaud this most American of sentiments.

Biden invoked the spectre of Trump throughout his speech, even directly quoting the ex-President to mock him for telling Americans to do nothing to stop gun violence, and for his recent memorable line that Russia should do “whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies who don’t spend what Trump wants them to on defense. In fact, the prepared text of Biden’s speech had thirteen references to “my predecessor,” which was unorthodox for a State of the Union but directly appealed to Democrats who have been yearning for Biden to draw a sharper contrast. One of Biden’s best lines came near the end of the speech, when, invoking Trump, he said, “Now, other people my age see it differently. The American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution.”

No speech, though, could begin to explain why Trump’s grievance-filled narrative has him beating Biden in most recent national polls. Or why it is that Biden’s insistent optimism and signature pleas for bipartisan action have been falling flat with many voters. Going into the speech, the Web site FiveThirtyEight had Biden’s unfavorable ratings at the highest level of his Presidency, with more than fifty-six per cent disapproving of his performance in office.

In this awful political climate, it is hard to imagine that Biden’s address will change anyone’s mind. But I do not think that was the goal. The flood of words—and especially their in-your-face delivery—aimed more to reassure than to persuade; this was Biden promising his own party that he is still in the fight, that he is not too old to join the battle and say all the tough things that need to be said. Was it a game changer? The speech of a lifetime? Of course not. I don’t think it needed to be.

In 2023, Biden also delivered a strong—if overly long—State of the Union. His corny jokes landed; his pleas for bipartisan dealmaking sounded genuine and constructive—and contrasted well with the Republican hecklers newly ascendant in the House. And yet it made essentially zero difference for the President’s political standing. The bottom line, then and now, is this: the work of 2024 will not be done in a night, even a very good one for Joe Biden. But it sure beats the alternative. ♦





Source link