Watching Tuesday night’s State of the Union, one might think that President Joe Biden is currently enjoying a positive job approval and an electorate that thinks the country is on the right track.
Neither is true.
The speech he delivered was a typical political hybrid — part foreign policy and part domestic policy. What made this SOTU different is the seriousness of the moment — the crisis in Ukraine — and the interconnectedness of domestic energy policies with our ability to deal effectively with this threat to our national security.
Biden began with Ukraine. He had the opportunity to use his first State of the Union to rally support for the Ukrainian cause both here at home and abroad. He praised the courage and will of the Ukrainian people fighting for their hard-won freedom. He said some of the right things for our allies in this crisis and to reassure the people of this country.
But this president chose not to challenge Russian leader Vladimir Putin directly. He did not tell Putin, his generals and his oligarchs that their actions constituted war crimes and that one day, there would be a reckoning for those who supported the targeted killing of innocent civilians.
He did not tell Putin, “We will hold you personally responsible for the life of President Zelensky and his family. The world will hold you personally responsible for the death of a 6-year-old girl in Mariupol, killed by your merciless shelling. Count on it.”
Nor did he announce the end to U.S. oil imports from Russia, fearing even higher prices at the pump. Biden said none of that. His words condemning Russia’s invasion into Ukraine may have been adequate but were hardly inspiring.
Banning Russian planes from our airspace was a good move, yet the speech seemed to reflect the soft edges of diplomatic rhetoric rather than the verbal toughness of a wartime leader.
For Biden, Tuesday night was a missed opportunity to lead, to express moral outrage and to warn Putin, his allies and enablers that there will be a high price to pay for supporting his irrational ambition.
But almost every State of the Union goes beyond foreign policy, even in times of international crisis. Biden’s SOTU was no different. This speech was also a chance for Biden to change the direction of his domestic policies that clearly are not working and reset his struggling administration by embracing new directions on the economy, on inflation, on energy and education.
Biden decided to stay the course. So, his first State of the Union was like most, a boring catalog of “accomplishments” and a laundry list, in this case, of progressive proposals for the future.
There was no reset. No acknowledgment that “mistakes were made.” No willingness to consider more centrist policies that might actually facilitate unity and bipartisanship. No change in energy policies fueling inflation and Putin’s war machine.
Just a repackaging of his failed “Build Back Better” legislation with the same flat rhetoric that didn’t work the first time and won’t move the polls now. It was a speech written solely for his party’s base; ticking every liberal box from voting rights and choice to immigration and the obligatory “tax the rich” rhetoric that underpins the progressive agenda.
The only surprise was the decision to put more emphasis than expected on economic issues and less emphasis on climate, the issue that drives Democratic Party progressives today.
While Biden’s Democratic support has eroded, by refusing to reconsider the liberal policies that voters have clearly rejected, the message Biden sent to independents was clear: “You and your concerns don’t matter” — a total misreading of the electorate that will likely have serious consequences for his party this fall.
Biden’s call for funding the police and a “Buy America” campaign was the closest he came to any kind of reset. Yet, after honoring the two New York City police officers killed recently, he returned to the usual progressive talking points, focused on putting restrictions on law enforcement and calling for more gun control.
With his poll numbers on the economy hitting record lows, Biden claimed to have “a better plan to fight inflation.” Ignoring the impact of his administration’s energy and economic policies on inflation, Biden took aim at business, demanding, “Lower your costs, not your wages.”
He talked about a new national effort to create a made-in-America economy, but it appears that American-made applies to computer chips, not American-produced energy — an obvious solution to help reduce inflation and strike another blow to the Russian economy.
Easing his restrictions on domestic energy production would be an olive branch to Republicans, a unifying move, but that would mean acknowledging that his energy policies have been one of the biggest drivers of inflation.
Biden’s State of the Union failed on many levels. CNN’s after-the-speech survey found that Biden’s “very positive” rating was only 41 percent, a 10-point drop from last year’s speech, despite a significant oversample of Democrats.
For perspective, Donald Trump’s first official SOTU (2018) got a 48 percent “very positive” rating. Barack Obama’s 2010 SOTU got the same, at 48 percent “very positive.” George W. Bush, embroiled in a serious foreign policy crisis much as Biden is today, delivered his 2002 SOTU and got a 74 percent “very positive” response.
In terms of inflation, while 47 percent said the president did enough to address inflation in his speech, 53 percent said he didn’t do enough. And this was with a Democrat-heavy sample. Independents by a wide 34-to-66 percent margin said he did not do enough to take on the issue of inflation.
Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ effective rebuttal offered a clear contrast in the two parties’ approach to governing and issues. Her emphasis, for example, on parents’ role in education and the need to address children’s learning loss due to COVID-19 is exactly the kind of issue that will connect with independents and suburban moms.
So will the idea she expressed so well that a less intrusive, less expensive government is the answer to the country’s ills, not the progressive policies that have brought us to the point where 64 percent of people think we are on the wrong track.
Biden missed the opportunity to take on Putin directly and to take the country in a new direction. He swung and missed.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and serves as an election analyst for CBS News.