Biden’s State of the Union Did Something New

The president took a tired form and found a way to make it fresh.

A photo illustration of a podium in front of a blue outline of the United States, on a red background
The Atlantic

Listening to Joe Biden give his first official State of the Union address on Tuesday night, I thought: This is strong. It is clear; it’s the right message in the right language. It reflects the speaker in an honest way. And it also brings something new to this tired form.

But each of those judgments rests on assumptions about speeches in general and State of the Union addresses in particular. So let me lay out my reasoning and then get to the details of the speech.

What makes a speech “good”? Or “effective”? Or viewed as “eloquent”? Or perhaps eventually as “memorable” or “historic”?

These are trickier assessments than they might seem, and can take time to settle in. The value and effect of a speech depend on some circumstances that a speaker can control, or at least be aware of: the message, the audience, the expected length of the speech, the expected tone, from jokey to statesmanlike. But they also depend on aspects of timing and fortune beyond anyone’s control. Winston Churchill’s “we shall fight on the beaches” pledge to Parliament in 1940 is remembered in a particular way because of how the next five years of combat turned out. As are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy,” John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner,” and Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

By contrast, George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” declaration one month into the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is remembered in a different way, because of what happened afterward.

(I know how it feels to be involved in a statement that history has made look foolish. While working for Jimmy Carter in the White House, I was the writer on the trip where he gave a New Year’s Eve toast, in Tehran, to the shah of Iran as an “island of stability” in the turbulent sea of the Middle East. That was the official U.S. outlook at the time, which I did my best to express. Within little more than a year, the shah was out, and the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini was under way.)

Why many different kinds of speeches can be “good,” and what makes them that way

Some speeches are meant to excite or inspire. Political-rally speeches are in this category, the more so the closer they come to Election Day. Speeches to inspire the whole nation should obviously not be partisan. For instance, JFK in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon … not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skill.” Speeches to energize the base can be partisan as hell, because voters are about to choose one side or the other. For instance, FDR just before Election Day in 1936: “[My opponents] are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”

Some speeches are meant to console or commemorate. Robert F . Kennedy’s most moving speech may have been his unscripted statement of grief and resolve, at a street corner rally before a largely Black crowd in Indianapolis, when sharing the news that Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated, in April 1968. This was two months before Kennedy himself was shot dead. Ronald Reagan gave his State of the Union address in 1986 a few days after the space shuttle Challenger exploded, and he began with a tribute to the seven dead astronauts. I believe that Barack Obama’s most powerful address was his eulogy in 2015 for the slain parishioners at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Some speeches are meant to explain. The example all aspire to is FDR’s first Fireside Chat in 1933, on the reasons behind the banking crisis. (He began, “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.”)

Some speeches are meant to motivate, organize, and instruct in the short run. After the “Bloody Sunday” marches in Selma, Alabama, Lyndon B. Johnson gave his most powerful speech, in urging Congress to pass what became the Voting Rights Act of 1965: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”

Some speeches are meant for reflection and guidance in the long term. Lincoln’s second inaugural in 1865. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. George Washington’s farewell address in 1796, and Dwight Eisenhower’s in 1961. The commencement address by George Marshall at Harvard in 1947, the Nobel Prize lecture by William Faulkner in 1950, the “Moral Equivalent of War” speech by William James at Stanford in 1906. Having told my embarrassing “island of stability” story, I’ll add that I think a different speech I was involved in, Jimmy Carter’s commencement address at Notre Dame in 1977, on the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, stands up well: “I understand fully the limits of moral suasion … But I also believe that it is a mistake to undervalue the power of words and of the ideas that words embody … In the life of the human spirit, words are action, much more so than many of us may realize who live in countries where freedom of expression is taken for granted.”

Some speeches are meant to get the speaker out of an immediate bind. Bill Clinton’s career is packed with examples, from the town meetings in New Hampshire that made him the “comeback kid” in 1992; to his State of the Union address in 1995 after his party had lost 54 House seats in the midterms, delivered with Newt Gingrich seated behind him as speaker; to his State of the Union in 1999, while being impeached. This last speech was about economics and domestic-reform measures and it did not mention his legal problems. After introductory formalities it began, “Tonight, I stand before you to report that America has created the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history”, and it never looked back.

Some speeches are meant to be enjoyed purely in the moment, like a play or concert. Some are meant to be reread or studied on the page. Some are dignified by quotations and fancy language. Some are best when plainspoken and spare. Some fall into categories even beyond the ones I’ve named.

Here is the point of this long setup. It is as hard to define a “good” or “bad” speech as a good or bad song. It all depends—on who the speaker is, what the circumstances are, and what is the register in which the speaker sounds most convincing and authentic. Let’s apply those standards to this speech.

What Biden was trying to do, and how he did it

The questions about a speech like this are: Does it sound natural to the speaker? (A speechwriter’s skill is not so much the ability to “write” as the ear for the way the speaker would like to put things.) Does it make use of the times and circumstances? And does it tell us anything new?

By those standards I thought Biden’s speech was a real success, and one that might have been underappreciated because of the plainness that was in fact its main virtue.

The language. Some speakers sound natural when uttering phrases that seem headed straight for the Famous Quote books. Churchill. FDR. John Kennedy. A handful of others.

But most people seem puffed-up and strained when reaching for a fancy phrase. They can sound like high-school actors, overemoting, “To be, or not to be.” Nearly all of us are better in the mode Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower brought to the presidency, at their best: eloquence through plainness.

Early in his career, Biden favored fancy speechmaking. In his maturity he has embraced, as he should, his simpler and authentic-sounding “listen, folks” style.

In this speech, as I’ll note below, Biden sounded like himself, rather than like a person intent on Speaking for the Ages. Even his cadence showed it. He gave the whole speech at a rapid clip, even when this meant talking over applause lines. Perhaps in part this was to deal with the lifelong stuttering challenge that John Hendrickson has so powerfully and beautifully described. But to me it came across as a person intent on delivering a message, rather than hoping to be admired while delivering it.

Even the fit-and-finish details of the speech suggested a man on a mission. State of the Union addresses are notorious for their unsubtle, groaning-hinges transitions. “Turning now to affairs overseas,” or “We cannot be strong abroad unless we are strong at home.” The transitions in this speech are notable for not existing. Biden just made a point, then made the next one.

The substance. Joe Biden sat through dozens of State of the Union addresses as a senator, and sat on-camera through eight of them as vice president. Everything about this ritual is familiar to him.

So were the three main topics of his discourse: dealing with the Ukraine emergency, dealing with the economy, and dealing with the pandemic. Coordinating with other countries was part of his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, and comes naturally to his dealmaking nature. Ordinary-American economic issues were part of his identity as Scranton Joe. And the pandemic was the emergency he inherited on arrival. His treatment of them sounded like a briefing from a person in the middle of running multiple response teams, conveying which emergencies they were dealing with on which fronts. I’m always thinking of aviation-world analogies, and this reminded me of an experienced controller giving a rundown on where a skyful of airplanes were headed, and what his team needed to focus on next.

The backstage view. Being president is impossible. John Dickerson made the case in this cover story four years ago. I have written about it as well. To “succeed” in the job, a person needs a broader range of skills than any real human being has ever possessed. Public eloquence. Private persuasive power. IQ. EQ. Stamina. Luck. A generous imagination, but also cold-bloodedness. A thousand traits more. The question is not whether any president will “fail.” It is in which particular way, and how the world will judge the over/under.

Joe Biden was not explicitly making the case for himself, in handling the complexities of his role. (Although of course every speech, by every president, is implicitly an advertisement for the incumbent’s fitness.) But having heard nearly as many of these State of the Union speeches as Biden himself has, I thought this one amounted to a look at what a president’s job is. State of the Union speeches have rightly been mocked, including by me, as to-do lists. To me, this speech came across as a realistic view into the to-do urgency that makes up a president’s day.

What follows is an abbreviated version of an approach I’ve tried before, of annotating the SOTU transcript. You can read the whole official speech from the White House if you prefer. I’ve used the version that was on Biden’s TelePrompter, and I’m leaving out more than half of it, indicated by an ellipsis (…) in interests of space. Comments are in bold, with the words or lines they’re referring to in italics. Here we go.

Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President, our First Lady and Second Gentleman. Members of Congress and the Cabinet. Justices of the Supreme Court. My fellow Americans. Of course, this is the first time that a president has begun with this salutation. As was true throughout the speech, Biden under- rather than oversold the moment.

… Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated.

He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. An attempted “line,” which Biden sensibly moved right past rather than waiting for a response.

He met the Ukrainian people. What I am referring to as plain-style eloquence.

From President Zelenskyy to every Ukrainian, their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, inspires the world.

Groups of citizens blocking tanks with their bodies. Everyone from students to retirees, teachers turned soldiers, defending their homeland. This will not be studied for rhyme, or emphasis in delivery. But it is very powerful.

In this struggle, as President Zelenskyy said in his speech to the European Parliament, “Light will win over darkness.” The Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States is here tonight.

Let each of us here tonight in this Chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world.

Please rise if you are able and show that, Yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people. One of the performance-art aspects of SOTUs is which part of the chamber will cheer which lines. This was a graceful and appropriate way for Biden to induce a standing ovation from all.

Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson: When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. As a matter of sentence rhythm, this is not the way Churchill, Kennedy, et al. would have phrased it. But, once more, powerful in its intent. They keep moving.   

American diplomacy matters. American resolve matters. This could not be plainer. Nor truer, at the moment.

… [Putin] thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready. Here is what we did. See above.

We prepared extensively and carefully… I spent countless hours unifying our European allies. We shared with the world in advance what we knew Putin was planning and precisely how he would try to falsely justify his aggression. “I am going to tell you about the actual work of being president.”

We countered Russia’s lies with truth.   

And now that he has acted, the free world is holding him accountable.

Along with twenty-seven members of the European Union including France, Germany, Italy, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and many others, even Switzerland. Even Switzerland!!!!

We are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine. Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever. I do not think we have heard these words before in a SOTU …

Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: No more. Nor this word.

The U.S. Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs. I believe the camera panned to Merrick Garland at this point. Many people thinking, with me, Get busy with these task forces!

We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains. Nor these words. Nice emphasis on your.

And tonight I am announcing that we will join our allies in closing off American air space to all Russian flights—further isolating Russia—and adding an additional squeeze on their economy.

The Ruble has lost 30% of its value. The Russian stock market has lost 40% of its value and trading remains suspended. Russia’s economy is reeling and Putin alone is to blame. Powerful to keep calling him just “Putin.” And around this time Biden ad libs, “He has no idea what is coming,” emphasized that way.

… And we remain clear-eyed. The Ukrainians are fighting back with pure courage. But the next few days weeks, months, will be hard on them. Preparing for grim news in these coming days …

I know the news about what’s happening can seem alarming.

But I want you to know that we are going to be okay. Not fancy, but an important part of the duties of the job. A president’s mission, in a time of crisis, always boils down to recognizing the fear, hardship, and sorrow of today; expressing confidence about tomorrow; and offering a plan to get from now to then. Biden’s whole speech is a demonstration of that formula. This line is the summary version of Step 2.

When the history of this era is written Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger. First part undeniably true. Let’s hope the second part is also …

… In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security. Notable because so many have assumed the opposite.

This is a real test. It’s going to take time. So let us continue to draw inspiration from the iron will of the Ukrainian people. One more time, then I’ll give this theme a rest: This may not count as a Ringing Phrase, but it’s an important concept, and plainly true.

… He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.

We meet tonight in an America that has lived through two of the hardest years this nation has ever faced. This would have been the start of the speech, if not for the news from Ukraine. Again, note that he’s not even pretending to make a transition.

The pandemic has been punishing.

And so many families are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food, gas, housing, and so much more.

I understand. The essence of Biden’s pitch, in times of economic distress. Skipping past the next few paragraphs, which are the pitch for his economic plan …

… And as my Dad used to say, it [economic legislation] gave people a little breathing room.

And unlike the $2 Trillion tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefitted the top 1% of Americans, the American Rescue Plan helped working people—and left no one behind. The “partisan” part of Biden’s argument is: We are trying to help you. The other side wants to enrich them.

And it worked. It created jobs. Lots of jobs.

In fact—our economy created over 6.5 Million new jobs just last year, more jobs created in one year than ever before in the history of America. The New York Times did a pettifogging “fact check” for this claim, saying it was “partially true” because employment figures go back only to 1939. Oh, come on.

Our economy grew at a rate of 5.7% last year, the strongest growth in nearly 40 years, the first step in bringing fundamental change to an economy that hasn’t worked for the working people of this nation for too long. A “phrase,” but Biden rolls right through it.The effect, again, is that he is concentrating on the contents, not the packaging.

For the past 40 years we were told that if we gave tax breaks to those at the very top, the benefits would trickle down to everyone else.

But that trickle-down theory led to weaker economic growth, lower wages, bigger deficits, and the widest gap between those at the top and everyone else in nearly a century. Over the past generation, the Republicans have been careful to use phrases like “death tax” (for “estate tax”) in all of their statements. “Trickle-down” is the one phrase on which Democrats have shown similar consistency and “message discipline.”

Vice President Harris and I ran for office with a new economic vision for America.

Invest in America. Educate Americans. Grow the workforce. Build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down. We will keep hearing this, too.

Because we know that when the middle class grows, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy do very well … I’m condensing the infrastructure section that follows …

This was a bipartisan effort, and I want to thank the members of both parties who worked to make it happen.

We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks.

We’re going to have an infrastructure decade. Write your own caption. Condensing the next part about competing with China …

And we’ll do it all to withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice.

We’ll build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, begin to replace poisonous lead pipes—so every child—and every American—has clean water to drink at home and at school, provide affordable high-speed internet for every American—urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities. Internet access is a huge problem in much of America. Meta-point: Bill Clinton’s 1995 SOTU address, after the Democrats had been nearly wiped out in the midterms, was enormously long, and mostly made of nitty-gritty specifics like this. Pundits made fun of it for its length and boringness. Polls later suggested that the national audience paid attention and cared about these details. I went into this in my book Breaking the News and in this magazine.

4,000 projects have already been announced. And tonight, I’m announcing that this year we will start fixing over 65,000 miles of highway and 1,500 bridges in disrepair.

When we use taxpayer dollars to rebuild America—we are going to Buy American: buy American products to support American jobs Condensing the “Buy American” and Intel-investment parts …

— And Intel is not alone. A “transition”!

There’s something happening in America.

Just look around and you’ll see an amazing story.

The rebirth of the pride that comes from stamping products “Made In America.” The revitalization of American manufacturing. I agree. For more, see this

Companies are choosing to build new factories here, when just a few years ago, they would have built them overseas.

That’s what is happening. Ford is investing $11 billion to build electric vehicles, creating 11,000 jobs across the country. GM is making the largest investment in its history—$7 billion to build electric vehicles, creating 4,000 jobs in Michigan.

All told, we created 369,000 new manufacturing jobs in America just last year. My proposal: Every story about “our inflation-racked economy” needs to have a counterpart story on “our record-fast job growth.” They’re both part of the same reality. More here.

Powered by people I’ve met like JoJo Burgess, from generations of union steelworkers from Pittsburgh, who’s here with us tonight. Ever since Ronald Reagan kicked off this tradition, “guests in the first family’s box” has become the great cliché of SOTU addresses. Biden went lighter on it than usual.

As Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown says, “It’s time to bury the label “Rust Belt.”

It’s time. Yes. And the line we are waiting for here is “This revived part of America is the Chrome Belt.” Or “It’s America’s Newest Frontier.” “It’s the Freshwater Belt.” “It’s the Real America and the Next America.” Or something to complete the thought. Counterargument: proposing any specific name might start a little argument on whether the new name is silly—see: “Washington Commanders”—and Biden is better off just moving straight ahead.

But with all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills. Transition!

Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel.

I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control. Going to condense this next part …

One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer.  

I have a better plan to fight inflation.

Lower your costs, not your wages … Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America …

Economists call it “increasing the productive capacity of our economy.”

I call it building a better America. Replacing the “Build Back Better” of his currently stalled legislation.

My plan to fight inflation will lower your costs and lower the deficit. One person’s opinion (mine): It is politically necessary for him to mention the deficit, but Biden kept the discussion relatively under control. More on this theme below.

— First—cut the cost of prescription drugs. Just look at insulin. One in ten Americans has diabetes. In Virginia, I met a 13-year-old boy named Joshua Davis. This young man is the instant national favorite as guest-in-the-first-family’s-box …  

Imagine what it’s like to look at your child who needs insulin and have no idea how you’re going to pay for it.  

What it does to your dignity, your ability to look your child in the eye, to be the parent you expect to be. This is the kind of line that would sound fake from many politicians but that Biden has made authentic to him.

Joshua is here with us tonight. Yesterday was his birthday. Happy birthday, buddy Similar point about this different phrase. The one in the previous paragraph sounds Biden-esque because we all know the stories about his father being laid off. This one has an average-person approachability that would seem faux-chummy from, say, Ted Cruz, but fits the impression we already have of Biden..

Drug companies will still do very well. And while we’re at it, let Medicare negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs, like the VA already does. Editorial note: Amen! …

Second—cut energy costs for families an average of $500 a year by combatting climate change.  

Let’s provide investments and tax credits to weatherize your homes and businesses to be energy efficient and you get a tax credit; double America’s clean energy production in solar, wind, and so much more; lower the price of electric vehicles, saving you another $80 a month because you’ll never have to pay at the gas pump again. The kind of detail, again, that could be called “boring” on pundit panels but that Bill Clinton built his reelection campaign on. Same for the following few paragraphs.

Third—cut the cost of child care. Many families pay up to $14,000 a year for child care per child …
My plan doesn’t stop there. It also includes home and long-term care. More affordable housing. And Pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old …  

So that’s my plan. It will grow the economy and lower costs for families.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s get this done. And while you’re at it, confirm my nominees to the Federal Reserve, which plays a critical role in fighting inflation.  

My plan will not only lower costs to give families a fair shot, it will lower the deficit.

The previous Administration not only ballooned the deficit with tax cuts for the very wealthy and corporations, it undermined the watchdogs whose job was to keep pandemic relief funds from being wasted. See previous remarks on mentioning-but-not-belaboring the deficit.

But in my administration, the watchdogs have been welcomed back.

We’re going after the criminals who stole billions in relief money meant for small businesses and millions of Americans. See FDR on blunt language against well-heeled crooks.

And tonight, I’m announcing that the Justice Department will name a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud.

By the end of this year, the deficit will be down to less than half what it was before I took office.  

The only president ever to cut the deficit by more than one trillion dollars in a single year. For decades, Democrats have pointed out that deficit trends have been much lower under their administrations than under the GOP. But they have been abashed about making that argument. Maybe Biden, who has seen it all, is going to try.

Lowering your costs also means demanding more competition. Shorthand introduction follows to “modern anti-trust theory.” In my view this is really important; glad it is getting some airtime in the speech. For more, see Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Tim Wu, Lina Khan, and others.

I’m a capitalist, but capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism.

It’s exploitation—and it drives up prices.

When corporations don’t have to compete, their profits go up, your prices go up, and small businesses and family farmers and ranchers go under …

And as Wall Street firms take over more nursing homes, quality in those homes has gone down and costs have gone up. The kind of specific that Bill Clinton used to effect.

That ends on my watch.

Medicare is going to set higher standards for nursing homes and make sure your loved ones get the care they deserve and expect.

We’ll also cut costs and keep the economy going strong by giving workers a fair shot, provide more training and apprenticeships, hire them based on their skills not degrees. Shorthand reference to another very important reform and concept.

Let’s pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and paid leave.  

Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and extend the Child Tax Credit, so no one has to raise a family in poverty.

Let’s increase Pell Grants and increase our historic support of HBCUs, and invest in what Jill—our First Lady, who teaches full-time—calls America’s best-kept secret: community colleges. Amen to all of this. See more here.

And let’s pass the PRO Act when a majority of workers want to form a union—they shouldn’t be stopped.  

When we invest in our workers, when we build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out together, we can do something we haven’t done in a long time: build a better America.

For more than two years, COVID-19 has impacted every decision in our lives and the life of the nation. This is what I mean about not even pretending to have a transition. And that’s fine—the organizing theme of this speech is Let’s keep moving.

And I know you’re tired, frustrated, and exhausted.

But I also know this.

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. Condensing what follows. We’re all tired, frustrated, and exhausted …

Here are four common sense steps as we move forward safely. Condensing this, too, but it has the virtue of specificity. …

And we’re launching the “Test to Treat” initiative so people can get tested at a pharmacy, and if they’re positive, receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost. Leaving this in, because it is specific and will be new to most people …

Even if you already ordered free tests tonight, I am announcing that you can order more from starting next week. Personal note: We ordered, received, and have used these tests.

… We have lost so much to COVID-19. Time with one another. And worst of all, so much loss of life.

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. Doing his best to deflect the culture war on vaccines, masks, disease itself. There’s no point in trying to rebut the opposing views; the best strategy, on the politics and the substance, is to move on like this.

Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we really are: Fellow Americans.  

We can’t change how divided we’ve been. But we can change how we move forward—on COVID-19 and other issues we must face together. Another “transition.”

I recently visited the New York City Police Department days after the funerals of Officer Wilbert Mora and his partner, Officer Jason Rivera…. Condensing “fund the police” argument to skip to its conclusion …

We should all agree: The answer is not to Defund the police. The answer is to FUND the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.

I ask Democrats and Republicans alike: Pass my budget and keep our neighborhoods safe. Condensing gun-violence section that follows …

Repeal the liability shield that makes gun manufacturers the only industry in America that can’t be sued.

These laws don’t infringe on the Second Amendment. They save lives.

The most fundamental right in America is the right to vote—and to have it counted. And it’s under assault. “Transition.” The sentence that follows is of great democratic importance, and in a way is what Biden is talking about rather than talking about the January 6 attacks. (To which he devoted a whole, powerful speech on January 6 of this year.)

In state after state, new laws have been passed, not only to suppress the vote, but to subvert entire elections.

We cannot let this happen.

Tonight, I call on the Senate to: Pass the Freedom to Vote Act. Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. And while you’re at it, pass the Disclose Act so Americans can know who is funding our elections.

Tonight, I’d like to honor someone who has dedicated his life to serve this country: Justice Stephen Breyer—an Army veteran, Constitutional scholar, and retiring Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Justice Breyer, thank you for your service. Anyone who saw the speech saw Breyer’s gracious response here. SCOTUS justices are supposed to sit stone-faced during the speech, the one notorious exception being Samuel Alito shaking his head No, no when Barack Obama criticized the Citizens United ruling. Breyer set a more becoming example.

One of the most serious constitutional responsibilities a President has is nominating someone to serve on the United States Supreme Court.

And I did that 4 days ago, when I nominated Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. One of our nation’s top legal minds, who will continue Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence.

A former top litigator in private practice. A former federal public defender. And from a family of public school educators and police officers. A consensus builder. Since she’s been nominated, she’s received a broad range of support—from the Fraternal Order of Police to former judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans.

And if we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure the Border and fix the immigration system. Transition? We don’t need no stinking transitions! Condensing what follows, so I don’t need to mention the attempted chant by Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert of “Build the wall” …

That’s why immigration reform is supported by everyone from labor unions to religious leaders to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Let’s get it done once and for all.

Advancing liberty and justice also requires protecting the rights of women. Saving time by skipping transitions. And, of course, a powerful statement in the line that follows. The TV we were watching panned to Amy Coney Barrett on the “under attack” line.

The constitutional right affirmed in Roe v. Wade—standing precedent for half a century—is under attack as never before. Condensing what follows …

While it often appears that we never agree, that isn’t true. I signed 80 bipartisan bills into law last year. From preventing government shutdowns to protecting Asian Americans from still-too-common hate crimes to reforming military justice. Biden’s election-year argument on issues from the economy (jobs versus inflation), controlling the pandemic, managing the alliance (unified against Putin), to managing domestic politics will necessarily be: Actually, we’re doing a good job. This section is part of his presenting that argument.

And soon, we’ll strengthen the Violence Against Women Act that I first wrote three decades ago. It is important for us to show the nation that we can come together and do big things.

So tonight I’m offering a Unity Agenda for the Nation. Four big things we can do together. They are: opioids, mental-health programs—including attention to social media—care for veterans, and a new campaign to “end cancer as we know it.” The detailed description was full of the kinds of specifics that historically voters have cared about. Condensing …

As Frances Haugen, who is here with us tonight, has shown, we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit. A Facebook whistleblower. This is a big callout by Biden.

… Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers. Won’t mention the odious Boebert outburst around this part.

I know.

One of those soldiers was my son Major Beau Biden. The decent members in the chamber were respectful through this part.

We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops. Skipping to anti-cancer program.

… To get there, I call on Congress to fund ARPA-H, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.

It’s based on DARPA—the Defense Department project that led to the Internet, GPS, and so much more.  

ARPA-H will have a singular purpose—to drive breakthroughs in cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and more. So far, none of these diseases is politicized, the way COVID has become. And virtually every family in America is affected by one or more of them. This is the kind of big-tent appeal Biden would like to make. Or, as he put it in the following line:

A unity agenda for the nation.

We can do this.

My fellow Americans—tonight , we have gathered in a sacred space—the citadel of our democracy. Biden briefly paused before starting this paragraph, one of the few such punctuation-points in his delivery. This is clearly the “and now we come to the end of the speech” transition.

In this Capitol, generation after generation, Americans have debated great questions amid great strife, and have done great things. Everyone in the chamber knows what else has happened in the Capitol, 14 months ago, and Biden’s pitch is stronger with this audience for not needing to spell that out.

For the record, I’m leaving in the whole rest of the “in conclusion” section:

We have fought for freedom, expanded liberty, defeated totalitarianism and terror.

And built the strongest, freest, and most prosperous nation the world has ever known.

Now is the hour.

Our moment of responsibility.

Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself.

It is in this moment that our character is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged.

Well, I know this nation.  

We will meet the test.

To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity.

We will save democracy.

As hard as these times have been, I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life.

Because I see the future that is within our grasp.

Because I know there is simply nothing beyond our capacity.

We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity.

The only nation that can be defined by a single word: possibilities.

So on this night, in our 245th year as a nation, I have come to report on the State of the Union.

And my report is this: The State of the Union is strong—because you, the American people, are strong. There it is! Back in Japan I loved the phrase matte mashita from the audience at kabuki performances. It means “We’ve been waiting for it!” and it greets the appearance of familiar characters or scenes. A State of the Union address traditionally requires a sentence saying “The State of the Union is …” Matte mashita! Biden is one of the few to save the big reveal for the very end of the speech. I think this is a nice touch.

We are stronger today than we were a year ago.

And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today.

Now is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time.

And we will, as one people.

One America.

The United States of America.

May God bless you all. May God protect our troops.

This is Biden’s trademark ending for all of his speeches, and it is gracious and heartfelt.

In this speech he told us what his work involves, in his own words. Some people will agree, many others will disagree, and most Americans won’t have registered the speech at all. But I think he used the opportunity as well as he could have.