Biden’s State of the Union address won’t help Democrats politically
Facing lagging poll numbers and an international crisis in Eastern Europe, President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Biden’s remarks on Ukraine, policing and COVID-19 were clearly the strongest moments of the night, both stylistically and substantively. On the other hand, Biden’s reframing of his economic plan and his monotonous listing of big spending priorities were major flops.
To be sure, this State of the Union address — like many before it, with a few notable exceptions — likely won’t move the political needle in Biden’s favor, especially given the hyper-partisan nature of our politics as well as the enormity of the crises America faces both at home and abroad.
However, the left-wing rebuke of the speech delivered by Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich) essentially handed Republicans a win for the night and underscores one of the many challenges — moving away from embracing the far-left toward a more centrist and inclusive platform — that Democrats face in the run-up to the midterm elections.
That being said, the opening of Biden’s address on the Russia-Ukraine war was both powerful and unifying. The president touted his administration’s impressive efforts to rally Europe around stronger Russian sanctions and more military aid for Ukraine, forcefully condemned Vladimir Putin and hailed the heroism of the Ukrainian people.
The most inspiring moment of the night was when Biden declared that “we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people,” while introducing the Ukrainian ambassador, who received a thunderous bipartisan applause.
In terms of domestic policy, Biden’s high point was when he spoke about public safety and policing, and insisted that “the answer is not to defund the police,” rather “it’s to fund the police,” which was also met with a round of bipartisan applause.
As crime rates surge in major cities, Biden needed to use the speech to distance himself from the anti-police policies of the far-left in order to inoculate his party against G.O.P. attacks linking Democratic policies to rising crime rates. But though it was clearly important for Biden to vocalize his support for law enforcement, rhetoric is just a first step.
Over the next eight months, Democrats need to pursue a grand bargain with Republicans on criminal justice reform — meaning, on legislation that would fund and strengthen local law enforcement, while also making the policing and criminal justice system fairer for Black Americans, who are disproportionately mistreated.
Absent a concerted Democratic effort to approach criminal justice legislation in a bipartisan manner, Biden’s calls to “fund the police” will ring hollow to voters and the G.O.P. will be able to weaponize the issue against Democrats in the midterms.
In addition to policing, the segment of Biden’s speech about the country “moving forward” back to “normal routines” from the COVID-19 pandemic was also one of the key domestic policy moments, as Biden declared that “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.” Importantly, Biden said “most Americans in most of the country can now be free” from masks and called to “end the shutdown of schools and businesses.”
Across the country — most notably, in San Francisco, where three school board members were recently recalled in part due to the district’s COVID-19 policies — Democratic politicians have faced scrutiny for continuing to keep schools and businesses closed despite evidence that reopening is largely safe, as well as for imposing mask and vaccine mandates.
Thus, Biden’s acknowledgment on Tuesday night of the ‘return to normal’ was significant, as Democrats’ success in the midterms hinges in large part on Americans feeling like the pandemic is permanently under control by November.
To be sure, the success of this moment in Biden’s speech was made possible by the appearance that the night was like every other State of the Union before the pandemic — most in the crowd were maskless, and Biden shook hands as he walked in.
The weakest point of the speech for Biden — which is more substantive, less rhetorical — was the refashioning of his economic agenda, in light of the Build Back Better plan’s failure. Without using the phrase “Build Back Better,” Biden tried, without success, to sell the big-spending proposals in his Build Back Better agenda as anti-inflation and deficit-reducing measures.
Karl Rove aptly noted the problematic nature of this approach in his critique of Biden’s address: “Voters aren’t likely to believe inflation can actually be reduced by massively expanding government spending through social programs.”
Instead of this misguided effort to repackage a failed progressive spending bill — one that most voters either don’t prioritize or outright oppose — Biden should have used the speech to make a sincere commitment to fiscal discipline and prudence while also ruling out any tax increases or new spending initiatives that lack broad bipartisan support.
The end of Biden’s address also suffered stylistically, specifically, when he read off a list of big spending priorities — including a $15 minimum wage, a child tax credit extension and community college grants — in a rushed and seemingly passionless manner.
For all its high and low points, Biden’s address won’t shift public opinion in any meaningful way.
Ultimately, the only way Biden can truly tip the scales in Democrats’ favor before the midterms is by crafting, promoting and advancing centrist legislation — on key issues like the economy and policing — that improves Americans’ quality of life.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”
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