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With Joe Biden’s approval rating in freefall, his State of the Union address offered a much-needed chance for a show of leadership amid the Ukraine–Russia turmoil. By Bruce Wolpe.

Joe Biden’s fragile state of affairs

US President Joe Biden after delivering his first State of the Union address this week.
US President Joe Biden after delivering his first State of the Union address this week.
Credit: Saul Loeb / AFP

Summit County Colorado. It is difficult to imagine a harder environment for Wednesday’s State of the Union address by President Joe Biden. A vicious Russian invasion of a sovereign, independent country that not even the strongest nations in the world can stop, provoking a return to the Cold War and the prospect of a wider war across Europe for the first time since World War II – this time with nuclear weapons. At home, an America beset with inflation and Covid-19 and as bitterly divided as it has ever been in a political sense.

Biden wanted his address to be about America first, but that was not to be.

Vladimir Putin had delivered his state of the union to the Russian people a week earlier. What he expressed showed a deeply angry man at the height of his power.

“It is now that radicals and nationalists, including and primarily those in Ukraine, are taking credit for having gained independence. As we can see, this is absolutely wrong,” Putin said. “The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders and the CPSU leadership, mistakes committed at different times in state-building and in economic and ethnic policies. The collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.”

Two days later, Putin felt impelled to remind the world he has nuclear weapons to buttress his manifest destiny:

“Today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states,” he said. “In this context, there should be no doubt for anyone that any potential aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences should it directly attack our country.”

This was not the frame Biden wanted or anticipated when the drafting of his speech began in earnest in December. Biden’s political landscape is treacherous. The country voted for normal in November 2020: a normal president in the Oval Office and a country returning to normal in daily life. But that is not at all the lived experience today of most Americans.

Almost three-quarters of America believes the country is on the wrong track. Inflation is rampant, with petrol prices a fuse of resentment. The United States economy is growing at close to 6 per cent, with big jobs and wages growth, but half the country believes they are in a recession or worse. Voters are not getting the good news of what Biden wants to do on childcare, education, healthcare, prescription drug prices, affordable housing and aggressive gains against climate change because there are not votes in the senate to pass the Biden agenda. Voting rights are being lynched in the senate, too.

As he took the podium in the house chamber, Biden’s approval was below 40 per cent, and well below 50 per cent on his handling of the economy and the pandemic, losing ground with independents, unenthused Democrats, particularly among Black and Hispanic voters, and voters preferring Republicans in charge in congress.

If a president’s party controls the White House, the house and the senate, and cannot pass its campaign platform, the president is grievously wounded. Biden is at the lowest ebb of any president in modern times bar Donald Trump.

Republicans are pushing the emotive buttons of wage-stealing inflation, rampant crime, uncontrolled immigration and wild government spending. They are thrilled at the chance to wedge the Democrats on this battlefield in the November midterm elections. As former Obama counsellor David Axelrod wrote, the state of the union is “stressed”.

But in the days leading to this address, Biden’s steady and resolute management of the Russia–Ukraine crisis began to earn him a measure of respect. With his historic appointment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, the message to all Democrats, and especially Black supporters, was: “I committed to this, I did this, and I can deliver for you. Stay with me.”

The president’s speechwriters always strive for the key word that will capture the state of the union on the night. The most common word is “strong”. Reagan 1986: “The state of our union is stronger than a year ago and growing stronger each day.” Clinton 1996: “The state of the union is strong. Our economy is the healthiest it has been in three decades.” Bush 2002, several months after 9/11: “As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilised world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.” Obama 2015: “America, for all that we have endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this: The shadow of crisis has passed, and the state of the union is strong.” And Trump in his last such address to congress: “I say to the people of our great country, and to the members of congress before me: The state of our union is stronger than ever before.” All but Trump were elected to a second term.

The most powerful and enduring part of Biden’s speech this week was on Russia and Ukraine. The president crystallised the mood of unity and support that suffused the US from all corners of the earth after 9/11. That is what Ukraine is receiving right now. With his punishing remarks on Putin, the oligarchs, and the Russian economy, and their brutal attempt to crush Ukraine, Biden brought home a collective resolve to leave Russia defeated and weaker and the world united and stronger.

The only words on China were on economic competition – not the strategic future of Asia. No mention of AUKUS, China’s ambitions, Taiwan, or the threats posed by the Russia–China entente forged when Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing last month.

Biden has not yet got the traditional bump in the polls that a foreign crisis can confer as Americans rally around their leader. This speech may deliver some vindication and give Biden more political capital.

Biden went on the offence, defending his party’s agenda and asserting they were still united behind him on it. He gave a staunch defence of his initiatives and what they mean to working families and the support they need to take care of their children, their parents, education, healthcare. He wants to attack inflation by lowering costs, not wages. While Biden did not discard any of the big-ticket programs he believes are urgently needed, he did not win over any Republicans and he did not win over the two Democratic senators whose resistance may prove to be the difference between a great and a mediocre president.   

The real surprise, however, was his attack on Big Tech. As he delivered the speech, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen sat in the gallery. Not since Teddy Roosevelt has a president so prominently attacked such a major industry in America, and the reception from the floor showed how much Democrats and Republicans want to bring Big Tech to account for its values and practices. Biden gave a green light to the Justice Department and to congress to implement new rules for Big Tech on how they treat their users and how they moderate their platforms.

Biden was determined to speak to the strength of the country based on what he has accomplished, and the strength of the country derived from the resilience of the American people. This is why he could conclude by saying: “The state of the union is strong because you, the American people, are strong.” He pledged that the country would be stronger next year.

Covid-19, the plague that has claimed 950,000 American lives, did not take centre stage. By content and tone, Biden could reassure the country, as spring approaches, that the US is nearer to normal than at any time in the past two years. If this is the experience over the next six months, Biden can bank more political capital.

It was a fine speech, but it was not enough to hold the house in November. Democrats hold it by only five seats. The normal midterm election swing is 24 seats against the party that holds the White House.  Thirty-one Democrats in the chamber on Wednesday are retiring at the end of the year. Republicans are not just smelling blood; they are ready to carve up the institution.

This was speaker Nancy Pelosi’s last State of the Union at the dais, and she looked like a queen warrior. She will go out fighting for every last inch of the Biden agenda that can be secured. But maybe, just maybe, the Democrats can hold the senate with the benefit of Republican–Trumpist extremism.

It was a good night for the president – but Biden did not rescue a presidency at risk.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 5, 2022 as "The vote for normal".

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Bruce Wolpe is a former adviser to Democrats in congress and former chief-of-staff to prime minister Julia Gillard. He is senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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