What to Watch for the State of the Union
President Biden's speech will be his biggest audience and best opportunity to start a political comeback
With the backdrop of a war in Ukraine and a historic Supreme Court nomination, President Joe Biden will deliver his first official State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Biden addressed Congress around this time last year, but it is not until the second year of a presidency when the President typically fulfills their constitutional requirement to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
With all of the radical changes in politics, media, and technology, it’s fair to ask how much the State of the Union address still matters.
It does. And perhaps it matters more for President Biden in this moment than it has for any President in recent memory.
Despite declining ratings in an increasingly fragmented media environment, the State of the Union remains the President's best messaging opportunity in front of their biggest audience. For the last six months, Biden has been buffeted by a series of crises and unforeseen events that damaged his political standing and eroded the public’s perception of his leadership capacity. Any political comeback must begin at the dais on Tuesday night.
What is the State of the Union?
For all of the pageantry and prose the President and his staff spend weeks working on, the press always obsesses over one specific and largely inconsequential line in the speech — “The State of our Union is X.” While the speech will always say that the State of the Union is strong, the context matters in difficult times. No one wants to give their version of Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise” Speech nor do they want to seem out of touch with what the American people are feeling. How do you balance optimism with realism? Exceptionalism with empathy?
During the 2010 State of the Union, Barack Obama was in a similar political position as President Biden is today. Obama’s legislative agenda was on the ropes. His approval ratings were down and the country was slowly recovering from trauma.
This is how Obama navigated that dynamic:
Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it's time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.
The national mood is even more complicated now. According to Gallup, only 17 percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S., but 85 percent are satisfied with the trajectory of their personal lives.
This finding suggests the typical right direction/wrong direction dynamic driving political analysis for so long is more complicated than is generally assumed. For example, you could be pleased with President Biden and someone for whom the economy is working, but deeply disturbed by what you see on the news about Russia, the growing anti-vaccine movement, and a radicalized Republican Party crushing on Putin.
The confusion doesn’t stop there. While people are satisfied with their personal lives, they are feeling the effects of inflation. A recent Fox News poll found that 50 percent of Americans say they have less money in their pockets than last year.
I do not envy the Biden speechwriters as they put together a speech that takes this complicated set of factors into consideration. Ultimately, I expect the President to articulate that he is proud of the year’s progress, realistic and empathetic about the pain people are feeling, and patriotically confident about the nation’s ability to address the remaining challenges.
How Does Ukraine Change Things?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine fundamentally changed the context in which Biden will be giving the speech. Much to the chagrin of my friends and fellow Worldos, foreign policy is usually de-emphasized in the speech. Traditionally, the speech is 40 minutes or so on domestic policy followed by a very rapid tour around the world, touching on as many issues and places as quickly as possible. There is a political logic to this approach. The economy is always everyone’s top issue and foreign policy is usually far down the list. That will not be the case tonight. What the President says about the response to Russia will likely dominate the coverage of the speech.
In the run-up to and aftermath of the invasion, the President and his team have done an excellent job communicating. He has been strong and omnipresent. The global effort to isolate Russia is a direct result of Biden’s leadership and relationships. Carrying that message forward in front of upwards of 20 million viewers will be beneficial.
There is, however, an opportunity cost. Prior to the Russian invasion, I imagine that the Biden White House’s goal for the speech was to show the American public that he was focused on addressing inflation. The increased costs of groceries, gas, and other items are the biggest issues in politics.
A Navigator Research poll from early February found that 40 percent of voters selected inflation as an issue Biden and Congress should be focused on, but only 20 percent of voters selected it as an issue that Biden and Congress are most focused on. The Biden Administration has done a lot to address inflation and his legislative agenda would do a lot more, but the public is largely unaware of his progress and goals. The State of the Union was an opportunity to inform them en masse. With the focus on Russia, Biden’s ability to convey his message will be reduced.
But just to give a sense of how quickly the political environment has shifted, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released yesterday shows:
When given a list of nine issues to choose from, the same number of Americans now say Russia and Ukraine should be Biden’s top priority (23 percent) as say “inflation” (23 percent).
The poll makes it clear that people are paying close attention to what is happening in Ukraine and that Biden has won the argument about whether stopping Russia is in the U.S.’ s interest.
I am going to briefly re-enter the prediction business to foretell how the speech will play out. Biden will give an excellent speech that is well-received by the public and the pundits. The post-speech flash polls will be overwhelmingly favorable. There will be a renewed sense of momentum. Some reporters will even write stories about the President’s “comeback.” And then, a week or so later, a new poll will not show a dramatic gain in the President’s approval. The same pundits touting the comeback will immediately pivot and declare the speech a failure.
Those folks will simply be revealing themselves to be ignorant of how modern politics works.
Presidential approval is a lagging indicator. The political goal of the speech is to strengthen a number of attributes and character traits that will serve as the foundation for winning back the voters Biden has lost in the last year. I will be watching to see if the speech improves public perception of Biden as a “strong leader” and someone who “fights for people like me.” Biden won in 2020 because the public overwhelmingly believed he had the experience and strength to handle the crisis Trump fumbled and, as the son of Scranton, would be an advocate for middle and working-class people. Those impressions have eroded amidst the neverending run of crises and the rise in inflation. This speech is an opportunity to begin the path back.