ANALYSIS — President Joe Biden did not use his second State of the Union address to announce a reelection bid, but he did not sound like a soon-to-be retiree either. He took a few pointed jabs at Republicans while also vowing to “finish” his goal to “rebuild the backbone of America, the middle class.”
There were several tense exchanges with the GOP side of the House chamber, including a loud one over Biden’s contention that some Republicans are proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But he tried to defuse that moment with a wide smile and a teasing quip. Going any harder after the GOP lawmakers clustered on one side of the House chamber would have been off-brand for 2023 Biden. After all, he recently promised Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., they would treat one another with “respect.” He also needs GOP members to help him avert a first-ever national debt default.
The 80-year-old president told the chamber that “I stand here tonight having served as long as about any one of you have ever served here. But I’ve never been more optimistic about our future, about the future of America — we just have to remember who we are.”
That perhaps overly upbeat assessment — given poll numbers about Americans’ views on everything from their personal finances to the direction of the country, their views about the opposing political party to Biden’s approval rating — is one he steadily turned to more and more often in the weeks leading up to his big speech Tuesday night.
But Biden’s presidency largely has been a tale of two steps forward and three or four backward, with every perceived victory followed by a very loud and pointed “but …”
The economy offers plenty of examples. On one hand, Biden hailed the economy during his address as “the strongest economy in the world.” On the other hand, the average U.S. price of a dozen eggs in December hit $4.25, up from $1.79 per dozen one year prior, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If Biden wants to pass any legislation in the next two years to continue his administration’s efforts to pare the cost of everything from eggs to gasoline to bread and many other everyday consumer items, a purely firebrand speech was simply a nonstarter on Tuesday night.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress,” the president said, referring to a bipartisan infrastructure law and several others that passed with support from both parties.
“The people sent us a clear message: Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere,” he said of the split government after November’s midterm elections. “And that’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America — the middle class, to unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job.”
‘You get crushed’
For most of the address, Biden spoke as if he is a president who very much understands he has an approval problem — but not just with Republicans, many of whom adhere to the “Let’s Go Brandon” school of thinking.
One is Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who used the official GOP response to describe a Washington that “taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country.” Another is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene who called the president a “liar” in the chamber when he said some GOP members want to sunset entitlement programs for older Americans.
For many GOP members in the chamber and watching on TV, Biden’s version of the state of the country is a tough sell.
“Biden can only hope to say something that resonates with the substantial chunk of Democrats who express a lack of enthusiasm for him,” said Marc Hetherington, a University of North Carolina political science professor prior to the speech. “Given that he will still be an 80-year-old man who has been on the political scene for 50 years, no matter what he says, I suspect that it will be nearly impossible to find that thing that inspires Democrats, either.”
On the latter point, here’s why: A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found 62 percent of Americans think Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his first two years in office. Thirty-six percent believe he has gotten “a great deal” or “a good amount” done.
But the bad news in the Post-ABC News survey for Biden did not stop there, with 58 percent of Democrats polled saying they would prefer a different presidential nominee in 2024. That is almost twice as many, 31 percent, in his own party who want him to seek a second term.
On one hand, the president started the new year with — dare we say: “Joe-mentum?” His approval jumped to 44.1 percent in FiveThirtyEight’s metric, which incorporates data from multiple polls. But on the other: It quickly dipped to 42 percent on Saturday, at the height of the Chinese spy balloon saga — and another dip is possible once voters process that foreign policy drama and if the brutal Post-ABC numbers are an accurate barometer of how voters judge POTUS 46.
Before Biden and Sanders spoke, a former senior GOP Senate aide, G. William Hoagland, said the president needed “to be convincing that the country’s situation is strong and ever improving.”
“He has good news to spout about unemployment and inflation,” the Bipartisan Policy Center analyst said. “But he also needs to recognize that not everyone is benefiting, and that more work needs to be done for those left behind or still suffering from the aftermath of the pandemic.”
Biden spent ample time trying to do just that, as his reelection announcement is expected in the coming weeks.
“My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible,” Biden said. “Maybe that’s you, watching at home.
“You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away. I get it,” he added. “That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. “Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back.”
On the one hand, Biden appeared Tuesday to mostly sound both ready to work with the GOP and in touch with the economic plight of many Americans. But on the other hand? Voters just don’t seem to believe him.
“One speech won’t do it,” Hetherington said. “But it can mark a start.”
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett reports and writes the subscription-based CQ Afternoon Briefing newsletter. Parts of this report first appeared there.