Joe Biden’s first State of the Union speech was two separate acts. The first was something of a live diplomatic operation meant to demonstrate bipartisan resolve against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The second act was the speech the White House had been working on before everything went to hell last week.
There was even a clear dividing line. About a quarter of the way through the speech, when Biden pivoted from the Russia-Ukraine war and toward his domestic agenda, a mere mention of “the American Rescue Plan” drew Democratic cheers and Republican jeers.
American politics had resumed.
American politics haven’t been going so well for Joe Biden. His approval ratings are lousy across the board. Inflation is bad, and lots of Americans think the president is to blame. And all signs are pointing toward a midterms wipeout for Democrats.
There have been plenty of “reset” speeches from presidents before. But this State of the Union read as a point-by-point address of the issues blowing up in polling.
Consider, for example, how the Democratic Party—leaders of which in the House lifted their mask mandate just in time for Biden’s speech—has decided in an instant that it’s ready to move on from COVID. Impact Research, Biden’s polling firm, released a memo in mid-February urging Democrats to declare the “crisis” phase of the pandemic over, and to “stop talking about restrictions,” by which people were “worn out.”
In his speech on Tuesday, Biden celebrated how most Americans in the country “can now be mask-free,” because COVID-19 “need no longer control our lives.”
“Let’s use this moment to reset,” Biden said, in one of those moments where the spoken line directly overlaps with the purpose of the speech.
Inflation, similarly, is killing Democrats, and polls have found that voters think Democrats’ spending laws and proposals are worsening the picture. Biden in his speech described “getting prices under control” as his “top priority.”
“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer,” Biden said. “I have a better plan to fight inflation: Lower your costs, not your wages.”
This is a message the White House used often in trying to sell Build Back Better. They did not, at least, sell West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin on it, who was concerned that the bill was so tricked up with gimmicks that it would inevitably worsen the deficit. There was an unusual focus section in the speech, then, that emphasized how some reconstituted version of BBB—“I call it building a better America,” Biden said in his speech—would lower the deficit. Here was a barely disguised plea to a single senator, in the State of the Union, to get on board with the package and give Biden another accomplishment.
Biden also devoted a segment of his speech to crime, another rising concern and one about which Republicans will have much to say for the remainder of the election cycle. Many vulnerable Democrats and their pollsters have wanted party leaders to more firmly message their opposition to “defunding the police,” a position that few Democrats in Congress have ever adopted. But, if it’s what they want to hear the big guy reiterate …
“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “The answer is to fund the police, with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
Also: Biden’s handling of immigration has horrible numbers. To the speech!
“And if we are to advance liberty and justice,” he said, “we need to secure the border and fix the immigration system. We can do both.”
Outside these issues, Biden also listed a “unity agenda for the nation,” stuff that basically no one can dislike: beating the opioid epidemic, “taking on mental health” (the line about banning targeted advertising to children was a crowd-pleaser), “support our veterans,” and ending “cancer as we know it.”
The headlines from this speech will concentrate on the show of bipartisan unity around supporting Ukraine. Or, alternately, on the scattered, weird moments, including when Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert felt that it would be an excellent time to interject in protest as Biden began speaking about his dead son, Beau. Or when the prepared text of “We’ve ordered more of these pills than anyone in the world”—a reference to Pfizer’s COVID pill—came out instead as “I’ve ordered more pills than anyone in the world has.” We make such memories, during the State of the Union.
Few of those memories are ever about specific policy proposals within the speech, which are forgotten by the following morning. But we can look to the speech as a blueprint for Democrats’ messaging ahead of the midterms. They know they’re in a lousy position, and they can’t just ignore the problems that are eating them alive. Addressing them point by point in the State of the Union is a place to start.