Biden Seizes the Center

In his first State of the Union address, the president sought to rescue his dismal approval ratings by avoiding stark partisanship.

President Joe Biden is seen giving the State of the Union address with Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi in the background
Saul Loeb / Reuters

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

If it’s not quite morning in America, President Joe Biden tried to persuade Americans during his first State of the Union address, we might be starting to see glimmers of the dawn.

“There’s something happening in America,” Biden said tonight. “Just look around and you’ll see an amazing story.” That message is a tough sell. Polls show that Americans are not happy about what they see around them—or how the president is governing. Large majorities believe that the country is on the wrong track, and the president’s approval rating continues to sink. Even as COVID-19 numbers recede in the United States, voters are nervously watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

So rather than trying to convince Americans not to believe what they’re feeling, or claiming credit for things they don’t see, Biden offered them a promise that things are about to get better. To make the case, he tacked toward the middle—with a few pointed detours—delivering a speech that hews closer to the “popularist” movement in the Democratic Party than to its more progressive contingent.

Thus one of Biden’s most notable lines was about criminal justice. “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them.”

This is not a new position for him—Biden bucked calls to slash spending on law enforcement during the 2020 primary campaign and has remained steadfast in his support of police. But giving the law-enforcement community an honored role in the speech was a statement of Biden’s politics as much as his policy. When the president discussed immigration, he led with efforts to make the border more secure, and only afterward called for a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and some other immigrants. And a section of Biden’s speech, about revitalizing manufacturing and buying American goods, even inspired a “U-S-A” chant—just like the one that broke out during one of Donald Trump’s State of the Union speeches.

Biden didn’t embrace Republican positions, but he emphasized areas where bipartisanship already exists. The speech began with a rousing paean to Ukraine. Vladimir Putin “thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined,” Biden said. “He met the Ukrainian people.” Members stood to applaud Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, and many in the chamber wore the Ukrainian colors of yellow and blue.

Later, Biden delivered a cautious declaration of victory over COVID. “Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines,” he said.

He was more tentative than he had been with last summer’s premature celebration, which was soon swamped by the Delta and then Omicron variants of the coronavirus. But Biden applauded the end of recommended masking for most Americans and said that students need to be back in schools in person. These are two ideas with widespread support among Republicans as well as a large and growing portion of Democrats, and Biden didn’t miss the chance for another unity push. “Let’s use this moment to reset. Let’s stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: a god-awful disease,” Biden said. “Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we really are: fellow Americans.”

With the pandemic easing, the economy remains Biden’s greatest liability, and although he touted his achievements here—record job gains, consistent growth, a shrinking deficit, and last year’s infrastructure bill—he was careful not to celebrate too much at a time when inflation is many voters’ top concern. “My top priority is getting prices under control,” he said, promising to “lower your costs, not your wages.” But the White House has only so many levers to pull. He proposed policies to reduce prescription-drug costs, energy costs, and child-care costs, but didn’t have many concrete ideas for slowing steep increases in the price of other consumer goods.

By contrast, Biden’s call for legislation to make voting easier and protect the electoral system—his central focus just a few weeks ago—was relegated to a short mention toward the end of the speech.

If Biden was reaching for the moderate, congenial tone of his presidential campaign, there were reminders that the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s departure had both taken place within the past 14 months. Biden took a few swipes at his predecessor, some more veiled than others. Speaking about Ukraine, he said, “While it shouldn’t have taken something so terrible for people around the world to see what’s at stake, now everyone sees it clearly”—a reminder that Trump courted Putin and attempted to blackmail Ukraine. “We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks; we’re going to have an infrastructure decade,” Biden quipped, a callback to a running Trump-administration joke. When he criticized Trump-era tax cuts, a smattering of Republicans booed. Publicity-seeking GOP Representatives Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene also heckled the president at moments.

Even when he obliquely mentioned the insurrection, though, Biden looked for a rosy view. Every recent president, with one notable exception, has declared the state of the union to be “strong.” Biden followed suit, adding, “We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today.” The midterm elections this November will provide a test of how much voters are willing to believe that—and decide whether Biden’s presidency is stronger a year from now than it is today.