Opinion

Biden bungles his State of the Union message

You've probably already forgotten it…

It's common for slightly cynical pundits to remark that no one remembers a State of the Union speech 48 hours after it ends. In the case of the State of the Union President Joe Biden delivered Tuesday night to a joint session of Congress, I suspect the afterglow will last barely more than 24.

The 2022 State of the Union was a mediocre speech poorly delivered. To say so isn't entirely fair: The elderly Biden's halting manner of speaking, marked by malapropisms and smudged syllables, hasn't been the kind of political liability professional word-slingers like myself always presume it to be. Yet last night was filled with even more flubs than usual, with the lowlight coming early on when the president predicted (no doubt accurately) that Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine would ensure the Russian president never wins "the hearts and souls of the Iranian people."

It's also somewhat churlish to criticize any State of the Union for rhetorical mediocrity. The annual address has long been little more than a laundry list of legislative priorities tied together with bromides and pedestrian civic flattery. (Is the state of the American union ever anything other than "strong" or some slight variation of it?)

Still, last night's speech was unusual for opening with an extended section about Russia's invasion of Ukraine that could have — and probably should have — stood alone as a primetime Oval Office address to the nation. Instead, the administration opted to combine something resembling George W. Bush's gravely resolute speech to Congress on September 20, 2001, with a standard-issue State of the Union. The result was a substantive mishmash that at once pulled down the foreign policy message and made the litany of domestic policies that followed sound even more trivial than usual. That Biden repeatedly resorted to "folks" to accomplish transitions throughout the latter half of the speech only added to its disjointedness.

Probably the most politically significant part of the speech came in the middle, when Biden explicitly rejected the activist-driven imperative to "defund the police." That was the president's depersonalized Sister Souljah moment, and it was smart. Not only is crime surging around the country, but the slogan is extremely unpopular, with polls showing Black and Hispanic Democrats more likely than white members of the party to favor increasing funding for police.

Equally important, though less potent, was Biden's response to inflation, the issue that has risen to the top of voter concerns in recent months. On the plus side, the president at least used the term and acknowledged its reality. Up until now, he's been hesitant to discuss it. That's understandable, given inflation's political toxicity, how little any president can do to fight it, and how painful and slow any serious effort to combat it can be.

Yet Biden and his advisers apparently decided the president needed to sound like he would slay the beast of rising prices by … defending economic nationalism. Most economists would call that a non sequitur and perhaps even an outright contradiction. (Won't pulling out of international supply chains and discouraging international trade tend to drive prices even higher?) Yet calls to "buy American" poll well, so the administration is apparently gambling that inflation will take care of itself as the COVID-19 pandemic finally recedes, and in the meantime, the nationalist message just might do the trick of insulating the president from popular anger. 

As for the rest of the speech, it largely consisted of bones thrown to various factions in the Democratic Party. Most of them will go nowhere, given the narrow divides in Congress and the dysfunctional legislative dynamics of a midterm-election year. Such box-checking was no doubt politically necessary, especially given Biden's low approval ratings, but it's an intra-Democratic imperative that likely lulled the rest of the country to sleep.

Will Biden see a bounce in his approval coming out of the speech? Maybe. Just don't expect it to last much longer than a day.

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