Biden’s eminently forgettable speech
Once again, last night, our nation’s president performed his constitutionally mandated obligation to deliver his report on the state of our union. Tens of millions of people tuned in. With another election right around the bend, President Biden repeated his soon-to-be slogan “finish the job” like some incantation. He was feisty, defiant and energetic.
And amid it all, eloquence didn’t stand a chance.
Clocking in at 72 minutes, the speech was a slow slog, zigzagging from the nation’s obligations to the LGBTQ community one moment to opposition to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine the very next. The speech lurched and droned, stitching anecdotes, grand plans and minor boasts together with thin patriotism, partisan jabs and appeals to unity in roughly equal measure.
Headlines will likely focus less on anything Biden said and more on the Democratic president giving as good as he got from heckling Republicans.
How did it come to this?
The problem has little to do with the elderly president himself — his inability to distinguish poetry from talking points; his hurried, fumbling delivery; his shouty emphatics. Nor does it have much to do with the political position in which he finds himself — his approval ratings stuck in the low 40s, Republicans now in control of the House and supermajorities of the American public convinced that the nation is going in the wrong direction.
The problem, really, is with the State of the Union itself.
The clapping – the endless, interminable clapping – doesn’t help. And neither does the stuffy setting and tired rituals that define this antiquated ceremony.
More fundamentally, it’s hard for the litany of presidential promises to penetrate the national conversation or excite the masses. In this extended era of polarization and gridlock, the annual address feels like one longwinded bait and switch. Year after year, presidents hold forth on the many things they would like to accomplish on their own and that they wish Congress would do on their behalf. Thereafter, reliably, very little happens.
Even in its composition, the state of the union disappoints. Before the president enters the people’s house, his speech is the subject of a barrage of lobbying by every organized interest (domestic and foreign) seeking mentions of their favorite government benefits, commitments and programs. Ronald Reagan’s chief speechwriter Anthony Dolan put the problem this way: ”It’s a difficult, difficult speech to do because you have all the competing claims of the nation’s business, and at the same time, the stylistic demands of coherence and grace.”
Coherence and grace, alas, are usually left on the cutting floor. Instead, the State of the Union spits out policy proposals like some overstuffed, tee-shirt gun firing wildly into the rafters.
Just the first 40 minutes of last night’s speech included shoutouts to new computer chips, bridges, fiber optic cable, caps on overpriced insulin costs, lower annual health care premiums, 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, minimum corporate taxes, extension of the Medicare trust fund, hearing aids without prescriptions, lower shipping costs, lower credit card late fees, paid family medical leave, child tax credits, affordable housing and homecare services for the elderly.
After a while, it’s hard just to listen.
Biden’s speech, to be sure, had moments of poignancy: the sight of the mother of Tyre Nichols rising, mouthing “yes” when the speech turned to the need for police accountability; the recounting of a parent of a child struggling with cancer admitting that “If she goes, I can’t stay.”
But the bulk of Biden’s speech, like the speeches of so many presidents before him, was eminently forgettable. The prose was strained, the narrative arc fractured, the lessons tired holdovers from previous stump speeches.
Biden may have succeeded in pushing back against the impression that he is too old, too tired to run this country. And his speech may pay political dividends in the weeks and months ahead. But years hence, it’s hard to imagine any schoolchildren reading this speech, lingering on its passages, finding inspiration or even learning very much about the state of our union in this troubled, uncertain time.
William Howell is the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago, where he is the director of the Center for Effective Government in the Harris School of Public Policy and the chair of the Department of Political Science. He is the author, most recently, of “The American Presidency: An Institutional Approach to Executive Politics” (Princeton University Press, 2023).
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