President Joe Biden is expected to soon announce he’s running for re-election, and he’s got his campaign slogan: Finish the Job. In his 73-minute State of the Union speech, he repeated the phrase multiple times as he made the case for what he’s done, and what he intends to do for the next two, or four years.
He spoke with a verve and a vigor that the public rarely gets to see. Energized by the familiar setting and cognizant of the challenge he faces in persuading a skeptical public to set aside their pessimism, he brought his A-game as he took the stage with a Republican Speaker behind him and a divided Congress before him.
By any objective measure, he has gotten more done in two years than any president since FDR. Can he credibly take credit for those accomplishments—from blockbuster job creation to staying cool in confronting China and steering NATO in a proxy war against Russia—and reset the expectations for himself as he likely seeks a second term?
In the days leading up to the State of the Union, a Chinese balloon floating across U.S. air space captured public attention and threatened to hijack the speech. The huge balloon with a payload of electronics the size of a regional jet crystallized the threat posed by China’s increasing economic and military assertiveness.
Republicans saw an opportunity to bash a Democratic president as weak for allowing the balloon to linger for days.
Biden didn’t let the episode or the GOP’s overblown rhetoric throw him off course. He was going to talk to the American people about what mattered to them, mainly the economy, a bottom-up, middle-out approach that he calls “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
As for the balloon, he leaned into it, confident that he had handled the incident responsibly, and by catching the Chinese red-handed lying and spying, he had projected strength both personally and politically in the most important U.S. bilateral relationship of this century.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy set a welcome respectful tone. It was a big night for him too, a job he had sought for a decade, and he told his conference to behave. Several didn’t, heckling Biden at times and yelling “It’s your fault” when he talked about the destruction caused by illegal Fentanyl.
Biden didn’t seem to mind, and sections of the speech were perhaps written to elicit the bad behavior. It’s the kind of give-and-take Biden excels in, and he turned the GOP’s objection to being characterized as wanting to cut Social Security and Medicare into improv theater.
“I enjoy conversion,” the president laughed as Republicans acted shocked (shocked!) that anyone on their side would cut these sacred programs. “I’m not saying it's a majority of you,” Biden said. “I’m politely not naming them, but it’s been proposed by some of you.”
As Republicans kept howling their dismay, Biden declared victory. “We all agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now. We’ve got unanimity. Let’s stand up for seniors.” McCarthy leapt to his feet.
In a speech that couldn’t be more Bidenesque, the president laid out the same values and vision that inspired him to run and that animate his apparent determination to seek a second term. “We’ve been sent here to finish the job!” he declared with a flourish, a barely veiled appeal to voters to stay the course and re-elect him for a second term.
Cloaked in the optimism of America’s history of triumph over adversity, he cited the record number of jobs created in his first two years—12 million, more than any other president ever—the easing of COVID restrictions, and the lessening of its threat. “And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”
Bipartisanship is the coin of the realm in Biden’s world, and while his rhetoric is workmanlike, nothing too soaring, it’s authentic. It’s been his brand over five decades in public service. McCarthy is reading the same polls that say voters want the two sides to work together—or at least appear to work together.
“My economic plan is investing in places and people that have been forgotten,” Biden said. “Too many people have been left behind. Maybe that’s you watching from home. I get that,” he said, remembering how his dad lay in bed at night worrying. He talked about the high cost of prescription drugs and how the drug companies are overcharging on insulin, and how he and the Democrats brought the cost down for seniors to $35 a month starting last month, and asked why his friends on the Republican side won’t help make this happen for everybody.
From there, he went into other kitchen table issues—resort fees at hotels that are not even resorts, cable companies charging you more if you change providers, and airlines that charge families extra fees to sit together. “Americans are tired of being played for suckers,” he exclaimed.
Forget the high-minded rhetoric about fighting for the soul of the country, this was red-meat for everyday Americans, the ones he needs to convince he’s a strong and capable leader not only for today but for a lot of tomorrows.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll found six out of 10 Americans think Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his presidency, while 36 percent say he has accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount.” Over half the voters know little or nothing about Biden’s legislative achievements, or the record number of jobs created in his first two years, more than any other president ever.
Democrats are always looking for the next JFK or Barack Obama, but the lack of energy around Biden’s likely bid for a second term is notable because he has been uniquely successful in overcoming extreme polarization and delivering results.
With voters knowing little about what he’s accomplished, the White House sees the next two years as the “implementation phase” of his presidency, as historic legislation on climate and infrastructure becomes visible, and voters can see and feel how government has bettered their lives.
Only 37 percent of Dems want him to run for re-election with 52 percent opposed, according to an AP-NORC poll. He fares even worse among younger Democrats with just 23 percent, or one in four, wanting him to run for a second term.
Biden often says, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.” His spirited presentation Tuesday night, combined with the friendly jousting across the aisle, puts him in good stead for the fight ahead as voters weigh his considerable attributes against the immutable factor of age.