As he was in the midst of his third try for the White House in March 2020, standing in a gaggle of youthful candidates, Joe Biden proclaimed that he would serve strictly as a transitional figure atop the Democratic Party. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he said in response to questions about his seeking to become the oldest president in American history. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.” Well, that was then and this is now. Consistent with what we learned long ago about career politicians and their famously, shall we say, flexible ambitions, this octogenarian who has been a fixture in the DC Swamp for no less than half a century – he was first sworn in as a senator in 1973 – now appears to have no intention of stepping aside. And he will employ the annual ritual known as the State of the Union (SOTU) Address this evening (Feb. 7) to prepare the way for his announcement – expected in the days or weeks following this speech – that he will seek a second term, after which he would be 86 years old.
Indeed, like four years ago, youth will not be served in the Democrats’ bid to retain the White House. While Biden, like most every president, has appeared intent on serving two terms since he entered the Oval Office – saying in recent months that he “intended” to run again – the lack of an expected rout of Democrats in midterm elections likely convinced him once and for all to seek four more years. And he will follow presidential form in using the supposedly non-partisan SOTU to offer up high praise for his own record while conveniently ignoring or downplaying the most pressing concerns of the citizenry.
State of the Union – Pure Partisanship
Will Biden give short shrift to the metastasizing border crisis resulting from his reversal of dozens of Trump policies, or will he claim it’s not as horrible as conservatives maintain? Will he use fuzzy math to assert that soaring prices and inflation, still high but not at peak like several months ago, are now under control, or actually the fault of Republicans – and, of course, Trump? Will he discount the common belief that the economy is bound for some form of recession given the explosion of rapid-fire interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve and assert that it is actually thriving, as he has repeatedly declared in recent months?
This 46th president is unlikely even to mention our unconscionable national debt soaring past $31 trillion as he brags on the trillions spent on Build Back Better boondoggles, which could easily have been far worse if not for a single recalcitrant Democratic senator from West Virginia who stood athwart today’s dominant progressive movement and yelled stop. But expect Biden to recite the complete laundry list of goodies in the dishonestly titled Inflation Reduction Act, the massive Democrat infrastructure bill – supported by 19 Senate Republicans – and the CHIPS Act (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022). He will take credit for the latest surprisingly robust jobs report. Beyond all else, he is likely to argue, without evidence, that he has saved the soul of a splintered nation brought low by his reviled predecessor.
In this first SOTU for Biden without the comfort of Democratic majorities controlling both chambers of Congress, the Republican response, from Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, should draw more attention than in the last two years, when the GOP was a powerless minority crying out in the wilderness. Sanders is a rising star thought to be on the list of possible running mates for Trump, for whom she famously served as press secretary. And with the GOP controlling the House, her job will be to lay out the party’s legislative agenda – though it will likely go nowhere with Democrats controlling the Senate – and, more importantly, foreshadow the message and tone for the election campaign ahead in 2024.
For all his transparent shortcomings, Biden can still pull off the most significant performance art for a national politician: reading a teleprompter. It is the mother’s milk of politicians long past their prime. And while the State of the Union address is one of those political events that can appear critical at the time but forgotten within days as it is overtaken by events in real time, it does take on added weight with the incumbent president facing re-election the following year. “This speech is undoubtedly being seen in the White House as part of the reelect effort,” Bush 41 speechwriter Peter Wehner told NPR, “and what that means is this is a kind of speech that begins to lay out the broad contours of a reelection campaign.”
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