Biden betting on political future on uncertain ground: ANALYSIS
It was a presidency defined by contradictions: galloping inflation alongside record unemployment, promises of international cooperation interrupted by unrest and threats, stagnant politics punctuated by bipartisan breakthroughs – all with wishes for common purpose offset by sharp reminders of divisions.
Tuesday night brought touches of defiance as well as appeasement from President Joe Biden — and a call for unity amid signs pointing to all but, up to and including among Republicans who have at times turned rowdy in response.
He has crafted an unusual State of the Union address that comes at an uncertain time for the president and for the nation.
Just past the midpoint of his first term and just weeks after his 80th birthday, Biden made a broad and forceful plea to do more of what he has done so far, pretty much the way he did. did. He has asked for support to “finish the job” despite deep skepticism about the effectiveness of his actions so far – and no absolute certainty about whether he will seek to pursue him in a second term.
“We are writing the next chapter in great American history – a story of progress and resilience,” the president said. “We’re just getting started.”
The president cited encouraging economic statistics while alluding to the economic hardships facing so many Americans, stating emphatically at one point, “I get it, I get it.” Yet his main prescriptions were to do more of the same, despite the bleaker odds posed by Republicans now controlling the House.
“So many things that we’ve done are only coming to fruition now,” Biden said.
Biden referenced highlights and low points of the tumultuous months behind him: the COVID pandemic, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, skyrocketing gas and grocery prices, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese spy balloon that floated through US airspace last week, black men brutally killed by police officers, fentanyl crises crossing the border and veterans’ health.
Yet the turmoil of the past may just be a taste of what lies ahead. For the first time as president, Biden appeared in a Republican-controlled chamber of the House, with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy standing over the president’s shoulder, both physically and metaphorically.
Biden and McCarthy are set to enter negotiations — although the president is not yet labeling them as such — over the debt ceiling and federal spending, with potentially catastrophic economic fallout. The president singled out McCarthy for his congratulations — an olive branch, perhaps, that could be used to establish a working relationship.
“Mr. President, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden said.
There was no reference to the upcoming presidential campaign. But the speech sketched the outlines of what a re-election campaign could look like, should it materialize in the coming weeks, suggesting he would run as he has before – and, to a lesser extent, as he ruled.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus in this Congress as well,” Biden said.
But there are of course many reasons why common ground will be more difficult to find. When the president baited Republicans by referencing scattered GOP plans to cut Medicare and Social Security, the chamber became unruly. Biden improvised to suggest that the Republican boos meant everyone could actually agree.
“Let’s all agree – and we apparently agree – stand up for the elderly,” he said. “Apparently that’s not going to be a problem.”
The president also made it clear that he needed the federal government to keep its explicit and implicit promises. Two years of legislation set in place at least two years of implementation, Biden says, as he seeks to build on legislative victories on infrastructure, health care, energy and the environment that once seemed unachievable.
The president did not mention his predecessor by name, with his main reference to him coming to recall how the deficit soared under his tenure – drawing more boos from Republicans in the chamber. But of course former President Donald Trump – who, unlike Biden, has already declared his 2024 candidacy – continues to dominate policy discussions.
Republicans kept Trump close to the conversation Tuesday night with their decision to bring in newly elected Arkansas Governor Sarah Sanders — best known nationally as Trump’s White House press secretary — to give the official GOP response. She ripped Biden for what she called a “radical left” agenda that she called “not normal”, “crazy” and “wrong”.
“As you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in waking fantasies than the harsh reality that Americans face every day,” said Sanders, who at 40 is the most the country’s young governor and half Biden’s age. “We are under attack in a leftist culture war that we did not start and never wanted to fight.”
If there’s a good story for Biden to tell about his first two years, there’s plenty of evidence the public hasn’t heard it yet. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll puts Biden’s approval rating at just 42% — well in an area where he’s been walking underwater for nearly a year and a half.
If there’s a potential salvation in numbers for Biden, it’s when Biden is contrasted with Republicans. Biden is only 31% trusted to make the “right decisions for the future of the country,” but McCarthy is only 19% trusted.
The same poll found broad support for Biden’s approach to handling the debt ceiling and skepticism about the legitimacy of the GOP’s investigation into the “militarization” of the federal government.
There’s nothing new about Biden trying optimism on the national stage. Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress took place in a sparse chamber of the House that was at the time fully controlled, albeit tightly, by Democrats, with limited attendance due to the pandemic and with memories of the January 6 insurrection still fresh.
“America is on the move again,” Biden said in April 2021. “After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for takeoff, in my opinion.”
This view did not and could not anticipate all of the challenges ahead. A big question now for Biden is how much lift he can still provide, with pressures only to become more urgent as 2024 approaches.