This time, the State of the Union address will matter

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Presidential addresses to Congress have become prime-time television spectacles. Members of the president’s party leap to applaud every sentence while the opposition sits glumly in stony silence.

Often what’s remembered aren’t the words but the images. In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted, “You lie!” when President Obama touted his ObamaCare plan. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tore up President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, calling it a “manifesto of mistruths.” Both moments went viral. Wilson raised $2.7 million from his outburst, and Pelosi captured the Democrats’ anger at Trump’s malicious falsehoods. 

In 1998, President Clinton drew 53 million viewers for his one-hour-sixteen-minute State of the Union address. The Monica Lewinsky scandal had broken days before, and Americans tuned in to see if Clinton was still up to the job.

As Clinton pollster Mark Penn recalled: “If the speech is a hit, he stays as president. If the speech is not a hit, he doesn’t.” Since then, television audiences for presidential addresses have declined. In 2020, 37 million tuned in to Trump’s State of the Union speech, and in 2021 just 27 million heard President Biden’s first address to Congress. Those tuning out are often the opposition, while members of the president’s party and independents are more likely to watch. 2022 will be no different.

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Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address comes at an opportune moment. Since taking office, Biden’s support among Democrats has fallen from 90 percent to 78 percent, while his backing among independents has tumbled from 51 percent to 34 percent. These core constituencies were crucial to Biden’s 2020 victory, and any improvement will be a balm to this beleaguered president.

In their State of the Union addresses, presidents often claim things were a mess until they arrived in the Oval Office. In 1982, President Reagan boasted of falling interest and inflation rates, saying, “If we had not acted as we did, things would be far worse for all Americans than they are today.” A dozen years later, Clinton declared, “We have replaced drift and deadlock with renewal and reform.” In 2010, Obama told Congress that “because of the steps we took, there are about 2 million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed.” In 2018, Trump cited the “tremendous numbers” of 2.4 million additional jobs and a stock market that “has smashed one record after another.”

In each case, the presidential braggadocio fell on deaf ears. Reagan’s 1982 boast that inflation and interest rates had been dramatically reduced did not hide the soaring unemployment that would reach 10.8 percent by November — just in time for Reagan’s party to lose 26 House seats. In 1994, Clinton touted his economic plan, but his signature on the Brady bill, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy allowing gays to serve in the military and Hillary Clinton’s widely panned health care reforms (dubbed “HillaryCare”) gave Republicans the opening they needed.

In 2010, Obama told audiences he was pulling the economy out of a ditch — an unfortunate metaphor for voters still feeling the pain of the Great Recession. And despite Trump’s boasts, Americans were exhausted by his daily Twitter bombasts. In each case, the midterms became a referendum on the incumbent.  

This year, Biden must resist the temptation to brag too much about his accomplishments. He can rightfully say that millions of Americans have been vaccinated and that the combination of vaccines and therapeutics is gradually putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror. 

Otherwise, he should confine his remarks to accomplishments few Americans know much about. For example, the American Rescue Plan provided crucial loans to small businesses; lowered health insurance premiums, with families making $90,000 seeing a savings of $200 per month; and created a $3,000 tax credit for every child 6 years and older and a $3,600 rebate for every child under age 6.

These are tangible benefits, and Biden should remind viewers he got this done without a single Republican vote. The bipartisan infrastructure bill provides funding for broadband and upgrading the nation’s rails and ports, repairs crumbling bridges and roads, and removes lead pipes so clean drinking water is available for every person. Historians will see this as a major achievement. But Biden’s dilemma is that rebuilding a decades-long neglected infrastructure takes time. 

Americans are not in the mood for Donald Trump-like cheerleading but rather for Harry Truman’s plain speaking. Biden must reassure anxious Americans that he understands their plight and has proposals that make a real difference.

Specifically, Biden should spend most of his time addressing the No. 1 voter priority: inflation. Reminders of the inflationary spiral are present at every gas station and grocery store. Biden must channel his “Middle-Class Joe from Scranton” persona and not only show an understanding of the problem but plainly say how he intends to combat it. The outsourcing of jobs to China is a major reason for the inflationary supply chain backlog, and Biden should make “Made in the USA” his slogan, not Trump’s. 

Naming the 55 major corporations that maximize profits without paying any federal taxes is an economic scandal that requires action. Finally, Biden should hammer the pharmaceutical companies for their excessive drug prices, especially the “outrageously expensive” cost of insulin that ranges from $375 to $1,000 per month. In each case, Biden should rally his fellow Democrats and challenge Republicans to offer their proposals.

Today, the outlook for Democrats in the 2022 midterms is bleak. Republicans have cast the upcoming congressional elections as a referendum on Biden — a relatively easy task. What Biden must do is frame the upcoming contest as a choice. As he is fond of saying, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.”

By setting the terms of the debate, Biden can improve his job performance and chart his presidency on a different course. Like in 1998, this State of the Union address really matters.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Build Back Better Act Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joe Wilson Mark Penn Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Presidency of Joe Biden State of the Union

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