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President to deliver ‘State of Joe Biden’ address as he seeks reelection

The week’s prevailing fantasy is Biden stepping aside during big speech

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress on Feb. 7, 2023, as Vice President Kamala Harris and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., listen. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress on Feb. 7, 2023, as Vice President Kamala Harris and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., listen. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On the cusp of the third State of the Union address of his presidency, Joe Biden is confronting subterranean approval ratings, two wars (Gaza and Ukraine) where America’s influence is waning and a resurgent Donald Trump.

The lead stories on the front page of The New York Times for two straight days were dire-for-Biden numbers from the same late February poll. In the Times/Siena College poll, 73 percent of registered voters at least “somewhat agreed” that the 81-year-old Biden is too old to handle the presidency.

The last members of Biden’s generation in Congress will no longer be in leadership positions in 2025. At 83, Nancy Pelosi has already transformed herself into the best-known backbencher in the House. And the 82-year-old Mitch McConnell just announced that he will be stepping down as the Senate minority leader.

Yet through it all, Biden reflects the hubris that powers most presidents — the stubborn belief that he is the Essential Man, especially against Trump. Biden posed a rhetorical question to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in a recent interview, “If you thought you were best positioned to beat someone who, if they won, would change the nature of America, what would you do?”

For many Democrats — and probably even more pundits — the answer to that rhetorical question would be, “Step aside in favor of a younger Democrats who would come across as more vigorous in the battle against Trump.”

This week’s prevailing fantasy is that Biden will add a surprise coda to his State of the Union: “Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Those were the precise words that were scripted for Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address in mid-January 1968. But LBJ, buffeted by the Vietnam War, decided at the last moment that the timing was not right. He kept his withdrawal under wraps until a March 31 television address to the nation on Vietnam.

There is no evidence whatsoever — not a hint, not a glimmer — that Biden will emulate Johnson. And if somehow Biden voluntarily relinquished power, that last-minute decision would present major logistical challenges to the Democrats in choosing an alternate nominee.

For starters, the filing deadline has passed for all major primaries, except New Jersey.

With so much riding on the June 4 primary in the Garden State, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker would either become a kingmaker on the model of South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn in 2020 or else he would decide to again rev up his own presidential ambitions.

With no easy consensus on a non-Biden nominee (Kamala Harris often polls worse than the president), the identity of the Democratic ticket would probably be shrouded in mystery until (echoes of 1968) the Chicago convention in mid-August.

That accelerated timetable would give the Democrats just two months to introduce the victorious nominee to the American people, organize a campaign and frame the issues against Trump before early voting began in many states.

Back in the real world of an inevitable Biden-Trump electoral choice, it is important to understand what the State of the Union can and cannot do for the president. In political terms, Biden’s acceptance speech at the convention is likely to play a much larger role in wooing undecided voters and invigorating wavering Democrats.

Thursday night Biden is likely to stress the booming employment numbers and the receding rate of inflation. But up to now, presidential rhetoric has done little to change voter perceptions on the issue. In the Times poll, only 26 percent of voters rated the economy “excellent” or “good.”

Part of the problem for Biden is that voters have strong feelings about how they are personally doing financially, which severely limits the power of White House framing. Remember that Americans under the age of 60 have almost no experience with inflation, which helps explain why Biden cannot gain traction despite a minuscule 3.7 percent unemployment rate.

It is virtually inevitable that in the State of the Union, Biden will make a few scripted jokes about his age and probably stress the wisdom that comes with a half-century in public life. Biden may even venture a few ad libs playing off Republican reactions to the speech, as he did in 2023.

The risk, of course, is that a verbal stumble (like confusing the leaders of Mexico and Egypt) at such a high-profile moment could be devastating for Biden’s already shaky image. The unavoidable truth is that voters will make their judgments about Biden’s fitness for a second term based on television imagery rather than spin.

But the State of the Union does grant Biden the opportunity to change the narrative on two important issues — the border and Gaza. In both cases, voters have to depend on the media and political argument to reach their own conclusions about what is actually occurring.

Rather than treating the border as another topic to check off in a laundry-list State of the Union, Biden should hammer home that Republicans, at Trump’s behest, scuttled a rare compromise on immigration that would have tightened enforcement at the Rio Grande.

The speech also gives Biden a chance to express his personal anguish at the civilian carnage in Gaza and the brutality of Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault on Israel. This is the moment for Biden to make clear his distress at the unwillingness by both Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire.

If the president were totally candid, he might begin Thursday’s speech by announcing, “The state of Joe Biden is not good, but there is potential to get much better by November.”

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