A promise kept: How Biden can come away with a win this SOTU
Even for presidents, things don’t always go according to plan.
When President Biden switched the State of the Union speech to this Tuesday, he might have hoped for good news.
That has — partly — been swept off the table by his failure to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s hard to ignore the sound of explosions, the photos of black smoke rising above an airport, or the sight of terrified parents and children huddling together in a Ukrainian subway station.
On Tuesday night President Biden doesn’t have to imitate FDR, who in 1942 talked only about Pearl Harbor and the consequences. But Biden must lead with Ukraine.
And it won’t be enough for him to tick off a list of sanctions or predict how history will judge Vladimir Putin. He must explain what he has done, and why. That means using not just statistics but the stories that move listeners — and make them understand.
Biden has good speechwriters. The possibility of Russian invasion was not exactly a surprise. He should have no trouble with that.
Ironically, the president’s failure to persuade Putin gives him a chance to persuade Americans. Especially voters.
He needs that. With an approval rating in the low 40s, Biden is poised to become the third Democratic president in a row to control the House of Representatives on Inauguration Day, lose it in the midterms and face two years of a crippled presidency.
As someone who was in the 1994 White House during Bill Clinton’s disastrous mid-term, I have some idea of what that means. It’s not ordained that a terrible mid-term leaves presidents unable to recover, but it’s hard to win an election without support from some people on the other side. About 9 percent of Republicans voted for Barack Obama in 2010; about the same number of Democrats voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Despite its glitz and huge audience — 26.9 million for last year’s unofficial one — it’s customary to scoff at the SOTU. Critics deride the speech as a “laundry list” for its usual way of compressing complex issues in a paragraph each. The boost they give presidents usually evaporates fast.
But not always. The key to a Biden turnaround depends on answering another question: Why is his approval rate so low? Wasn’t he the one who pledged to “work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as those who did”?
On Tuesday Biden should speak directly to those who didn’t vote for him. The fact is, when it comes to what Republicans want, his record is surprisingly good.
What exactly do they like? A Pew Research poll has some answers. Among major issues for Republicans are four: improving the economy (82 percent); lowering health care costs (53 percent), reducing crime (65 percent), and reducing the deficit (63 percent).
The administration rarely points out this bipartisan appeal.
Take one Biden accomplishment: expanding the Child Tax Credit, which last year removed almost half of America’s poor children from poverty. Supporters marketed it almost entirely as a moral issue (“We have a moral obscenity of child poverty in this country,” said New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker.)
But it took a National Academy of Sciences report to make clear why Republicans should embrace it, too. The law would shrink the deficit, reduce crime, and create $1.50 of economic growth for every $1 spent.
Just this once, why not cast aside the fiction of nonpartisanship? Why not directly address Republicans? Why not use Biden accomplishments to point out how he has kept his promise to them?
And while he’s at it, why not at least mention another development the administration apparently thinks too controversial to mention? Death rates in partisan Republican counties seem to total between three and six times those in Democratic ones.
Of course President Biden has avoided mentioning those results. Presidential advisers would be nutty to urge anything else.
But most people likely to watch the State of the Union know Biden’s experience with tragedy within his family. Can’t his writers create a section for tomorrow night where the president could passionately urge vaccination for all Americans — including those who hate his guts? I think they could. And Biden is just the kind of person who could movingly convey it.
Will such rhetorical steps by themselves reverse Biden’s steep decline in the polls? Certainly not. No single paragraph, no matter how eloquent or well-meant, would do that. But this is a State of the Union. Its success shouldn’t just depend on statistics about job growth and inflation.
To win over those who didn’t vote for him will depend on whether Biden moves them — whether with stories of people in our neighborhoods, or in a subway station 6,000 miles away.
He hasn’t done that yet.
Tuesday night is a good time to start.
Robert “Bob” Lehrman is a former White House speechwriter and author of seven books, including “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion,” with co-author Eric Schnure. He teaches speechwriting at American University and writes frequently about political events.