When Joe Biden stepped onto the House floor just after 9 p.m. on Tuesday, for his first State of the Union address since the Republicans won control of the chamber in the midterms, the biggest question of the night was embedded in the speech’s very first passage. “Speaker,” Biden said, addressing Kevin McCarthy, who sat on the dais in the place of honor so recently occupied by Nancy Pelosi, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.” The unscripted joke was a knowing and, as it turned out, highly relevant nod to the House’s restive Republican backbenchers, hyper-vigilant to any sign that their leader might be open to compromising with the Democratic enemy.
It was no surprise that Biden, whose Presidency has been premised on restoring the traditions of cross-aisle coöperation in a capital made ever more sclerotic by Donald Trump’s four years of chaotic rule, would make such an overture to McCarthy. The suspense of the evening was not rooted in what Biden would say but how he would say it—and how it would be received. Would the far-right Republican extremists who had held up their own party’s leadership through fifteen long ballots at the start of the year, rather than sign off on McCarthy as Speaker, once again act up?
The answer, of course, was yes. As if to prove the point, even McCarthy’s audible shushing could not get a few House Republican hecklers to shut up. And if their goal was to rattle the eighty-year-old President, embattled and down in the polls and facing questions even from within his own party about whether he should run again, it’s safe to say that it didn’t work.
Biden, it seemed, had carefully prepared for their antics. Had he scripted their reaction, he could not have asked for a better foil than Marjorie Taylor Greene, the former QAnon promoter who flirts with white supremacy. Greene arrived for the State of the Union dressed for the TV cameras in an all-white fur-trimmed outfit that made her seem like a villain in a Disney movie. “Liar!” she stood and shouted at Biden, after he accused some members of her party of wanting to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security in the name of fiscal discipline. Unfazed, Biden challenged her and the others who were jeering him to prove that Republicans did not actually support such a thing. When they then rose to their feet to applaud, alongside Democrats, his pledge not to cut either Medicare or Social Security, Biden claimed it as a victory for the bipartisan dealmaking that he wants to be remembered for. “We got unanimity!” he exulted.
Even that did not fully serve to stop the G.O.P. kooks. “It’s your fault!” a Republican shouted at Biden later in his speech, right after the President had paid emotional tribute to a dad who had lost his daughter to a fentanyl overdose. Every boo from then on might as well have been a campaign contribution to Biden’s reëlection. The dystopian Republican response later in the evening from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Arkansas governor and former Trump White House press secretary, peddling Fox News talking points about the culture wars and portraying Biden’s America as an American-carnage-style hellscape conjured from her former boss’s Twitter feed, only reinforced the point. Joe Biden has been lucky in his enemies these last few years.
There is so much advance coverage of these addresses now that by the time the speech rolled around I wasn’t sure I needed to listen to Biden. These State of the Union Messages have become so formulaic and long, and they never make much news anyway. Besides, Axios had already assured me that Biden would promote a “unity agenda.” Politico was already certain that Biden would take the “high-road” and banish the “MAGA Republican” language that worked for him in the midterm campaigns. The predictions from the Washington newsletter-industrial complex were, at times, unnervingly specific. They were also, in the end, mostly correct. Hours before the speech, the Drudge Report headlined Biden as “Making the Case for 4 More Years.” And that is just what he did. Although Biden has not yet formally said the words “I’m running,” Tuesday’s address was less a State of the Union speech than a campaign kickoff, and a high-risk one at that.
Because there’s no way to know in advance how a President will fare when actually faced with a live audience of rowdy partisans and millions of voters watching at home, there was some real suspense to the event, though not over the prospect of Biden and McCarthy working together. (Spoiler alert: the answer to that is almost certainly no.) More of an open question was whether Biden could use the prime-time speech to sell himself to a skeptical public, which agrees on little else these days except that it would like to avoid the Biden-Trump rematch that both men seem intent on waging.
On Monday morning, the Washington Post published a survey saying that sixty-two per cent of the public did not believe that Biden had accomplished much as President, despite his long list of legislative victories, ranging from a bipartisan infrastructure bill to major new spending on climate change. In his address, Biden would have to rebut that, and all the other negatives, too. His approval ratings have been stuck underwater since the U.S.’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the summer of 2021. He remains the lowest-rated President since modern polling began—except for Trump. There is persistent high inflation, and a global competition with China, and a Russian invasion of Ukraine so dangerous that the United States has committed nearly fifty billion dollars in assistance to the Ukrainian cause over the last year.
In truth, during the hour and twelve minutes that Biden spoke—the longest speech of his Presidency—I didn’t learn a lot about what he plans to do in response to those challenges. There were few new policy proposals, and the world outside America’s borders was hardly mentioned, except for the obligatory line bragging about Biden’s decision, last week, to order the shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon floating across the United States. (Marjorie Taylor Greene was better behaved when this came up; she had threatened earlier in the day to bring a white balloon with her into the House chamber, but she did not.) Even on the pressing matter of the war in Ukraine, Biden spoke only briefly and mostly in triumphalist terms, as he congratulated himself and America’s allies for their unity—as if that meant that the war was already won.
The address was, nonetheless, an instructive speech and, I think, an important one. It showed that Biden, despite his age, could deliver a clear and forceful case for his record. Biden loves nothing more than to make his pitch for why government still has something to contribute to the American story, and, looking to 2024, he seems to be preparing for a campaign in which he will offer not only a rhetorically outstretched hand to congressional Republicans but an actual pitch to their voters as well. The speech was a Democratic version of populism that was right in Biden’s I’m-just-a-guy-from-Scranton comfort zone. The President’s 2020 campaign was about throwing out Trump and “restoring the soul of the nation,” as he often put it. Biden’s 2024 reëlection campaign looks to be about co-opting Trumpism, with its angry but compelling pitch to the voters of Middle America about the unfairness of it all. Unlike Trump, Biden wasn’t offering them anger; he was selling them on a President who might actually do something about their problems.
He sounded reasonable, centrist, constructive, and passionate. It might have been the best speech of Biden’s Presidency. And that’s because it was Biden right where he has always wanted to be: at center stage on Capitol Hill, telling corny, apocryphal stories about his father and his high-school coach, spinning hope, floating deals with Republicans even if they don’t have any chance of going anywhere. He is an American optimist. This is his best, and perhaps only, setting.
Did he break through with voters? Probably not. The polls have been stubbornly unmoved for more than a year and a half. But I’d say that Tuesday night did tell us something about the state of our politics, if not about the state of our union. It told us that Joe Biden, who spent his whole life trying to become President, is not going to stop now that he’s got there. The evening’s slogan was, in fact, his campaign rallying cry for 2024: “Finish the job.” He repeated it, by my count, a dozen times. So, yes, he’s running, and judging by Tuesday’s speech he means to win. ♦