Going into Tuesday night, Joe Biden lacked the approval of his country and the confidence of his party. In recent polls, a majority of U.S. voters have disapproved of his performance as president, while nearly 60 percent of Democrats prefer a different nominee in 2024.
Biden’s economy has many objective merits. But real wages have been falling for most of his presidency, and many households are spending down their savings just to pay the bills. Meanwhile, crime rates remain elevated in much of the country, the opioid epidemic continues apace, and the national Zeitgeist seems to be suffering from a spiritual long COVID, with Americans’ social trust, solidarity, and joie de vivre yet to recover from the pandemic.
Add to this the fact that Biden is three years older than Ronald Reagan was at his presidency’s end — and that he will be closer to 90 than 80 at his hypothetical second term’s close — and the case against a Biden 2024 campaign might seem overwhelming.
But the president’s State of the Union address did much to rebut that case, thanks in part to congressional Republicans.
Biden’s speech showcased many of his enduring political gifts. His capacity to project genuine empathy for those in mourning — to convey the sense that he truly feels their pain because it is his own — remains unparalleled. He can still make a meticulously poll-tested talking point sound like a beloved grandpa’s dinner-table musing.
Unlike some Democrats who came of age in the internet era (and/or came to power in safe blue regions), Biden has a nose for majoritarian opinion. At the top of his speech — which is to say, the part that non-political junkies might stumble into watching before clicking away — the president sang paeans to bipartisanship and economic nationalism, effectively claiming ownership of both parties’ messages to the median voter in 2020. The president touted the fulfillment of his campaign promise to reach across the aisle and Donald Trump’s promise to revive America’s industrial base.
“For decades, the middle class has been hollowed out … Too many good-paying manufacturing jobs moved overseas,” Biden said, in words that could have been stripped from Trump’s inaugural. “For too many decades, we imported products and exported jobs. Now, thanks to what you’ve all done, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs.”
The president hit all of the Democratic Party’s perennially crowd-pleasing policies — higher taxes on the wealthy, price controls on prescription drugs, the maintenance of Medicare and Social Security. More craftily, he took ownership of previously non-politicized scourges afflicting the American people like “surprise fees” imposed by airlines, hotels, and ticket vendors.
It added up to a very effective brief for the Democratic dispensation, one that wove the party’s commitment to normalcy, bipartisanship, and other bits of popular pablum with an impassioned call for liberal reform, sung in civic-nationalist key. The difficulty of imagining another Democrat retailing this product more effectively made proposals for an alternative 2024 nominee harder to entertain.
In a telling testament to the efficacy of Biden’s performance, Trump, back at his true calling as a media critic, wrote of the president’s performance on Truth Social, “Look, he worked hard tonight, it’s not a natural thing for him, it never was, and never will be, but you’ve got to give him credit for trying. I disagree with him on most of his policies, but he put into words what he felt, and he ended up the evening far stronger than he began. Give him credit for that.”
All this said, the brute fact of Biden’s extraordinary age asserted itself throughout the address. The president’s skin looked pale and wrinkled in the harsh light, his occasionally slurring speech prompted fears of slipping dentures. It was difficult not to wonder whether this person would be able to physically withstand running the world’s most powerful government and mounting a cross-country presidential campaign (as opposed to the living-room campaign that COVID enabled him to run last time) in two years.
Happily, the GOP’s response to the speech should mitigate Democrats’ 2024 anxieties.
Biden’s age may be a real liability. But on Tuesday night, the Republicans’ liabilities looked more severe. The Democrats have made it clear for some years now that they want to portray the GOP as an agent of chaos, incapable of responsible governance. Upon taking power in January, Kevin McCarthy’s caucus proceeded to air a multiday infomercial in support of that talking point. It took 15 votes for the House’s narrow Republican majority to settle on a leader. And McCarthy only secured his post by rewarding his party’s hostage-takers for their unruliness, allowing them to snatch coveted committee posts away from less disruptive Republicans and promising to coerce Biden into enacting their desired spending cuts by threatening to force a debt default.
On Tuesday night, Republicans aired an advertisement for their extremity in primetime. Even as Biden played the role of kindly, bipartisan grandfather, the House GOP’s right flank treated him with all the respect owed to the figurehead of an occupying power. Conservatives heckled the president repeatedly. The loudest uproar came in response to Biden for saying that “some Republicans” have called for sunsetting Medicare and Social Security, when “Republican Senator Rick Scott has called for sunsetting Medicare and Social Security” would be a bit more precise. But lesser tantrums also followed utterly banal parts of Biden’s address.
For instance, when the president shared the wrenching story of a father who’d lost his 20-year-old daughter to a fentanyl overdose, and lamented that the drug is taking the lives of 70,000 Americans a year, Speaker McCarthy dutifully shook his head in assent with Biden’s sentiment. But one of his rabble-rousers shouted that the opioid epidemic — which is decades old and deepened during Trump’s four years in office — was Biden’s fault.
There may be subjects less conducive to ham-fisted attempts at political point-scoring than a 20-year-old girl’s death. But few readily spring to mind.
The GOP’s display of its abnormality was not limited to its backbenchers’ behavior. Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s response to the president’s address reflected the same basic pathology: the party’s slavish devotion to the small minority of Americans who are compulsively addicted to right-wing infotainment. It is this perpetually aggrieved audience that keeps nominating the kinds of candidates who heckle presidents and foment insurrections. And that audience is much more invested in culture-war esoterica than more banal (but politically resonant) objections to Biden’s record.
Given 15 minutes to convey the GOP’s message to the nation, Sanders decided to reassure Americans that their long national nightmare was over; the state of Arkansas would no longer use “the derogatory term Latinx in our government.” She further described Biden as “the first man to surrender his presidency to a woke mob that can’t even tell you what a woman is.” The governor’s reference to social-media discourse about trans rights will surely resonate with nightly Fox News viewers. But it seems safe to say that a significant percentage of Americans had no idea what she was talking about.
“The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left,” Sanders said. “The choice is between normal or crazy.”
By all appearances, the president would gladly agree. And after last night’s spectacle, Democrats are surely feeling more confident that Biden 2024 will give them ownership of the race’s “normal” lane.