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There’s a certain amount of political theater within any State of the Union address: They’re formulaic affairs with scripted applause lines, made-for-the-camera special guests, and a requisite checklist of policy goals or interest groups that need a shoutout.
But they’re also a rebranding exercise for a sitting president. Despite having a “bully pulpit” to command the nation’s attention, the president has relatively few opportunities to grip the attention of the entire nation when the country is not in the midst of an acute crisis. Former President Donald Trump experienced the downside of using every day in power as an opportunity for gratuitous self-aggrandizement—his perpetually underwater approval rating suggests he never won any converts to his cause, and the 2020 election demonstrated that he actually lost many supporters along the way.
The SOTU address is, however, a moment for presidents to lay out their agendas without the filter of the media, the spin from the opposition party’s “response” (usually an even more theatrical and substance-free event), or social media commentary for anyone watching the event live. Outside of an address during a major crisis, the SOTU is the best uninterrupted opportunity presidents have to shape public perceptions of their administration and the country as a whole.
As such, an SOTU address is also often seen as an electoral barometer. Is the president running again or not? Is he able to change the dominant narrative?
Changing the narrative is something President Biden and the Democratic Party ought to be better at than they are. The “messaging war” between the two parties tends to favor the Republicans, whose ability to march in formation and repeat simple slogans ad nauseam often garners more press and better public traction than the Democrats’ policy wonkishness and nuanced analyses.
Ever since the Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, it’s been clear the party was going to spend the next two years trying to besmirch and undercut anything and everything that Biden, his administration, his family, his allies, or his friends do, even if it crashes the global economy. Not coincidentally, the chaotic energy of today’s GOP feeds a false narrative that serves Republicans, as an insurgent political movement with no actual policy agenda except to stop the Democrats: The country is coming off the wheels, cities are crime-infested hellholes governed by elite socialists, everyone is unemployed, and the tax man is coming to take away most of Joe America’s meager paycheck.
That kind of relentless mudslinging does add up, but it can and needs to be counteracted with another, better story.
Biden’s address was the first chapter of that story. Admittedly, Biden is not the gifted communicator Barack Obama is, nor the perpetual salesman that Trump is. He occasionally rushed, and he stumbled through his stutter a couple of times. To put it gently, Biden is past his prime.
But he was also in full “happy warrior” mode: Rather than ignoring the frequent heckling from the likes of Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and others in the GOP’s growing fascist wing, he pushed back, got in their face, and shut them down with demands to “call my office!” For an 80-year-old, he demonstrated more spunk that most of either caucus in the Senate, and he amply counterpunched the Republican noisemakers from the House.
Biden’s defenders would say his accomplishments speak for themselves, but the fact is, they don’t. Average Americans don’t read monthly job reports or try to divine the Federal Reserve’s future policy shifts on interest rates. Most don’t even read a daily newspaper anymore.
So it was incumbent for Biden to lean into the relative successes of his administration so far. And on the grand scheme of things, almost all the economic measures we tally are trending upward: record low unemployment, new job creation, business starts, GDP growth, even average wages rising a bit.
But as the adage goes, when you’re unemployed, the unemployment rate is 100%. Our perception of events is filtered through our own eyes, and we tend to see what we want to, which also tends to reinforce our political beliefs.
And it’s true that life in the United States today is not all roses and bonbons. While job creation has been net positive since Biden took office, the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us continues to grow, as does the rate of violent crime. Every Black man who is killed by a police officer is a reminder to the entire nation that we live in a society poisoned by four centuries of white supremacy and violent oppression of minority groups. (To wit, police killed more people in 2022 than in any year in the past decade—averaging 100 killings per month, according to Mapping Police Violence.)
To Biden’s credit, he didn’t avoid these subjects. The parents of Tyre Nichols were two of his guests at SOTU, and Biden used the platform to talk about “the talk” that Black and Brown parents give their children about how to interact with police.
Biden could easily have devoted an entire speech to police reform—and later, he might—but as such, the subject was sandwiched between COVID-19 and an assault weapons ban. Climate change warranted a brief mention—underwhelming for what is likely going to be the defining crisis of coming decades, but if you blinked, you probably missed it. An average viewer’s takeaways from the speech would likely be Biden’s constant refrain to “finish the job” (on police reform, on infrastructure investments, on America), his final paean to bipartisanship, and his warning of the dangers of extremism.
That’s the unavoidable drawback of a 90-minute speech crammed with a list of policy wins, a year’s worth of agenda items to come, obligatory applause lines, and namechecking of allies and guests. Instead, the State of the Union address serves more as an opening play in a longer political process, which, in this case, is Biden’s almost-inevitable re-election campaign.
Is running again a good idea? Given his achievements so far, he’d be a fool not to, and the Democratic Party certainly doesn’t want a bruising primary battle undercutting a largely successful incumbency. And voters made their peace with Biden’s age in 2020. No one who voted for him was unaware he’d enter and leave as the oldest president on record. He won anyway, and the odds are in his favor to win again.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are a chaotic mess, with the 2024 primary season looking to be even more unruly than 2016’s was. The GOP is being yanked around by its most extreme faction and suffers from weak leadership, and Trump’s wannabe-heir, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has been leaning in hard on banning books, censoring educators, punishing one of the state’s marquee employers, and going all-out to criminalize LGTBQ people, especially trans youth.
As another saying goes, when your enemy is making a critical mistake, don’t interfere. (Barack Obama’s “proceed, governor,” line to Mitt Romney in the 2012 debates comes to mind.) Even if Trump doesn’t win the nomination again, he’ll likely do the GOP a lot of parting damage as he’s pushed offstage.
The national media’s coverage of the 2024 race will be predictable: They’ll devolve into the horse-race narrative, rely on false equivalencies to compare Republican scandals and crimes with Biden’s verbal gaffes, or otherwise try to make the race into something fun and exciting, instead of a serious referendum—again—on whether the U.S. is going to remain a democracy.
Voters recognized the seriousness of that decision during the 2022 midterm elections, and the early signs going into the next cycle are that Joe Biden recognizes that, too. It may seem exhausting that yet another election is going to hinge on such existential questions. But at a time when wars overseas are being fought over issues of democracy and self-determination, it’s a good reminder that our choices matter. And the fact that we still have a choice matters most of all.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.