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State of the Union 2023: Ironic, confusing and stumbling toward MAGA

President Biden’s State of the Union speech was designed to set the stage for the 2024 presidential election. Of course, the speech was targeted at American voters looking for a vision for the country and at our global allies and enemies with a vision for the world, laced with assurances and warnings. 

But Tuesday’s speech was principally designed for the nation’s political establishment, framing Biden’s campaign structure and style for a second term. The intended audience was the Democratic Party establishment, the media, and especially his principal opponents, both Democrats and the Republican frontrunners. It was designed to confront his national disapproval ratings of around 52 percent (as well as the 64 percent of Democrats who hope he doesn’t run), to consolidate financial and political support, and to caution potential rivals such as Vice President Kamala Harris, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, or Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg — all relatively weak — and the truly mortal danger of Michelle Obama, who appears to be edging slowly into the race and was given an exceptional gift with Biden’s move to advance the South Carolina primary to the front of the line. On the Republican side, his principal targets likely were Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. 

Biden’s goal was to appear to be fully in charge — strong and visionary, confident and competent — to convey that the economy is in great shape, that he has a strong and successful foreign policy strategy, and that he is ready and determined to lead the country for four more years. The context is that he is at great risk and one major stumble could end his political career. His position is precarious and subject to losing a lot of ground if America enters a recession caused by inflation and Fed action; if America suffers foreign policy embarrassment or defeat with China, Russia, Europe, Iran, North Korea, Mexico-Latin America; or if more serious scandal erupts from investigations into his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings or the classified documents found in Biden’s home and office.

So, how did he do? In a word, awful. It was probably one of the weakest, most incoherent State of the Union messages in history. His domestic rivals saw an unconvincing and highly vulnerable target. America’s global allies and enemies likely saw a president who is obviously impaired and, in turn, a vulnerable America.

It needs to be said. The president could not complete a single written paragraph without slurring most of the punch line. It is sad, and worrisome.

The speech itself made a floundering attempt at bipartisanship at the start — only to throw it all away with the false accusation that Republicans plan to eliminate Social Security and Medicare. After a strong reaction from Republicans, he was forced to publicly back away from the accusation — perhaps the first time in history that a president retracted a false charge in the middle of his own speech.

Even more strange, he talked about “Buy American,” building plants in the U.S. and demanding American content in manufacturing to recapture American strength and offset lost jobs, and the lost pride and self-worth of employment. This was strange because the “Buy America,” “create jobs at home,” “rebuild America” is pure Trump — the very “Make America Great Again” that Biden blisteringly criticized in last year’s State of the Union address. So, once again, Joe Biden is plagiarizing — this time, Donald Trump. 

The jobs pitch was additionally ironic because, ignoring the fact that Biden’s COVID policies put millions out of work and his extended payments to workers displaced by COVID continue to encourage many not to work at all and have led to one of the lowest labor force participation rates in history, his “record low unemployment rate” is not because of job creation, but because many Americans are still cashing government checks and no longer interested in looking for work.

The same can be said for the portions of the speech decrying the fentanyl crisis; his call for defending the southern border; and his support for police. All represent full adoption of Republican positions. No wonder House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) could not hold back expressions indicating he was either appalled or amused.

Of course, Biden applauded his infrastructure bill. But in an administration that uses semantics to claim that “up” actually means “down” and has Buttigieg claiming that “infrastructure” is social justice, rather than highways and bridges, Biden finally got to the point when he slyly acknowledged that infrastructure is actually, still, political “pork” — and that he would distribute it broadly, even to Republicans who voted against his programs. That was a refreshing, but astonishing, moment of honesty. 

Of course, the president tipped his hat to “soaking the rich” and greater regulation of industry, while, ironically, calling for more investment in small business and oil drilling in America — he still fails to understand that his policies are “soaking the poor” through inflation, discouraging American energy production, and killing private investment sources for small, job-creating businesses.

He devoted a fraction of his time to foreign policy and, rather than laying out any approach to dealing with the growing potential for nuclear conflict with Russia or the rising military aggression from China, he simply resorted to chest-pounding for cheap applause. That risks leaving our enemies with the impression of a weak leader providing a series of green lights for aggression over the next year.

In short, this was a weak speech full of irony, confusion and contradiction, i.e., danger for America.

Grady Means is a writer ( and former corporate strategy consultant. He served in the White House as a policy assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Follow him on Twitter @gradymeans1. 

Tags 2024 presidential election biden state of the union Democrats Hunter Biden MAGA Michelle Obama Pete Buttigieg political divisions

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