What Biden’s State of the Union Speech Was For

Few presidents have come into a State of the Union address needing a second wind as badly as Joe Biden did last night.

Joe Biden and the Capitol
The Atlantic; Saul Loeb / Getty; Win McNamee / Getty

President Joe Biden sought to repair Americans’ faith in his leadership with a forceful State of the Union address last night that portrayed him as a resolute champion of financially squeezed families at home and freedom abroad.

Repeatedly through the speech, Biden rejected stark political choices. Vigorous at points, meandering at others, the speech was neither a full-scale course correction, like Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that “the era of big government is over,” nor a stubborn reaffirmation of the strategies Biden employed during his trying first year in office. The president at times gave each faction in his party reasons to cheer, but did not align entirely with either liberals or centrists.

Instead, the address showed Biden and his advisers trying to define a distinctive political space centered on providing kitchen-table assistance to average families, encouraging greater national unity, and reasserting America’s role as the leader of the small-d democratic world against challenges from aggressive autocracies symbolized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The speech was the performance of a president who remains confident in his political compass, even as the steep and persistent decline in his job-approval ratings since last summer has caused many people in both parties to question it. Throughout, Biden underscored his determination to combine positions often considered incompatible.

Toward Republicans, Biden was alternately conciliatory (proposing “a unity agenda” and praising their involvement in the bipartisan infrastructure bill) and confrontational (denouncing Donald Trump’s tax cuts and the surge of red-state laws rolling back civil rights and liberties). He pointedly renounced one of the most polarizing battle cries of his own party’s liberal vanguard, calling to “fund the police” rather than “defund the police,” while reasserting his commitment to criminal-justice reform and gun control, both enduring priorities for the left.

On the economy, Biden both celebrated the past year’s gains in jobs and growth and acknowledged that for many Americans, inflation is overshadowing those advances. He cheered big domestic investments from such giant American corporations as Intel, General Motors, and Ford, but also promised tougher antitrust enforcement and a crackdown on companies that evade federal taxes. He praised international diplomatic and military cooperation but offered an unabashedly nationalistic economic vision centered on promoting more domestic manufacturing and supply-chain self-sufficiency.

Likewise, Biden took credit for reducing the federal deficit, even as he proposed sweeping new spending programs. Rushing to the head of a rapidly moving parade, he celebrated America’s reopening after the latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but also outlined steps he’s taking to prepare for another potential resurgence. And seeming to acknowledge the inevitable, he never mentioned the massive Build Back Better legislation that Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has single-handedly derailed. But he reiterated his support for almost all of its central provisions.

Few presidents have come into a State of the Union address needing a second wind as badly as Biden did last night. A flurry of national polls released just before the speech showed his job-approval rating sinking to 40 percent or lower, the equivalent of a blinking red light on a car dashboard. In surveys by ABC/Washington Post, NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, and Suffolk University/USA Today, only about 30 percent of independent voters said they approved of his performance, about as low a point as even Donald Trump ever reached among independents. Those surveys, and other recent polls by CBS and Fox News, have all shown Biden posting especially weak numbers among two key Democratic constituencies: Hispanics and young adults. Those are all scary results for Democrats; in midterm elections, about 85 percent of the voters who disapprove of a president’s performance vote against his party’s House and Senate candidates.

Perhaps most ominous for Biden, the recent Suffolk, ABC/Washington Post, and Fox polls all found that only about one-third of Americans now view him as a strong leader, with about three-fifths rejecting that description.

“He comes across as an old man who’s not all there all the time, and that’s not what you want in the White House,” the Republican pollster Glen Bolger argues. “People are saying we traded in a bully for someone who just doesn’t have his act together.” Most voters, Bolger adds, “don’t have faith in him to show the leadership to get us out of these problems.”

Privately, some Democratic pollsters largely agree that the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, his stalled legislative agenda, growing inflation, and the continued turmoil from the pandemic have created an impression that Biden is reacting to events rather than controlling them. Sarah Longwell, the executive director of the Republican Accountability Project, an organization of Never Trump Republicans, has regularly conducted focus groups among voters since 2020. “What comes up a lot is you don’t see him,” she says of the reactions to Biden in recent months. “You have to be more visible; people have to see your hands on the wheel, have to see you are trying on the things they care about.”

Political strategists in both parties say that since last summer, Biden has faced what amounts to a three-sided squeeze. With conservative media fanning the flames, Republicans have been stoked to raging opposition. Democratic-base voters, particularly younger people and hard-core liberals who were never enthusiastic about Biden, have grown more disillusioned and frustrated as he’s been unable to steer his legislative agenda past the combined resistance of Senate Republicans and Democrats Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Independent voters, meanwhile, have been disillusioned less by these ideological and partisan considerations than by dissatisfaction over inflation and the pandemic. For any of those groups, in recent months “there is really not much Joe Biden can point to as a win,” says the Republican consultant John Thomas.

The crisis in Ukraine has given Biden his first big opportunity for a reset. He’s drawn widespread praise from foreign-policy experts in both parties for uniting NATO, the European Union, and other Western nations in a surprisingly robust and cohesive response grounded in economic sanctions against Russia and military aid to Ukraine.

In his speech yesterday, Biden advanced from that beachhead by repeatedly stressing the value of alliances and international cooperation. That presented a stark, if implicit, contrast with Trump, who as president frequently feuded with allies while praising Putin (an instinct he’s continued to display even in the past few days). Floyd Ciruli, the director of the University of Denver’s Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research, says the global outrage over Putin’s invasion has triggered a “wave” of support for nations linking arms to support democracy and resist aggression. “At any of these moments in national tragedies or threats, you need the whole wave moving in the right direction” to lift a president, Ciruli told me. “This is a very tough time; we are very polarized, and there is obviously going to be criticism from Republicans. But nonetheless I do think he has a wave, and if he can ride it well in the next few days, it benefits him.”

No equally obvious pivot point is available to Biden on domestic issues. Even with Omicron receding and jobs and wages growing, inflation continues to generate widespread anxiety over the economy and the nation’s overall direction. And although many Democrats still hope to resurrect the domestic economic agenda that Biden touted last night, no one can say with any confidence what, if anything, Manchin will agree to pass through the Senate. (His initial comments after the speech were hardly encouraging.)

Yesterday’s speech offered important clues about how Biden hopes to navigate that difficult landscape. Democratic strategists have been arguing for months over whether Biden should tout the genuine gains in jobs and wages or if doing so would make him seem tone-deaf to the continued economic strain of families hit hardest by inflation. Last night, his answer was to claim credit for the gains—and to link them to the American Rescue Plan Democrats passed early last year—while also promising to combat inflation through tougher antitrust enforcement and proposals to control costs for prescription drugs, utilities (through his agenda to promote clean energy), child care, and health insurance.

The challenge in highlighting those proposals is that all of them (except the antitrust enforcement) are included in the sweeping legislation Manchin has blocked in the Senate. By showcasing those ideas, Biden risks reminding voters that he has been unable to move his agenda through Congress despite Democrats’ control of both the House and the Senate (albeit by historically narrow margins). In other words, by addressing voters’ doubts that he shares their concerns about rising prices, Biden risks exacerbating their doubts that he has the skills and strength to drive his agenda into law.

Biden last night revealed his solution to that conundrum too: He simply presented his plans on prescription drugs, medical and child-care costs, and climate change as aspirational goals without ever mentioning that they are stuck in Congress. That choice points him in the same direction as the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees, which are now focused less on selling what Democrats have actually passed into law than on drawing contrasts with Republicans based on what each side is trying to pass. “As the incumbent party, it’s always stronger to have delivered, than to [just] have a plan for it, but I’d rather have a plan for it than have no answers for it, which is what we’re getting from Republicans,” says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic communications strategist.

Biden previewed other likely campaign themes in his speech. Drawing boos from Republicans, he denounced the tax cuts the party passed under Trump. And, more than he had in one setting before, he took direct aim at the proliferating red-state laws restricting access to voting and abortion and targeting young transgender people.

Republicans in turn showed how much they intend to lean into those same fights by selecting Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to give their response; her sharp remarks centered a succession of GOP culture-war arguments on crime, immigration, masking, abortion, and “parents’ rights.” The widening cultural gulf between the parties was evident in the juxtaposition of Biden telling young transgender people “I will always have your back as your president” and Iowa’s Republican-controlled state legislature preparing to finalize, as soon as this week, legislation backed by Reynolds that would bar transgender girls from competing in high-school or college sports.

Biden still faces all the political and policy challenges he did yesterday; State of the Union addresses have rarely functioned as a true reset for any president, especially because in the modern era they are typically watched by voters who already agree with him. It’s highly unlikely that Biden has climbed out of the political ditch. But the speech showed nervous Democrats that he has a theory of how he will do so. And that’s a start.