Having written just last week that President Biden shouldn’t run for re-election, after his State of the Union address I’m strongly tempted to change my mind. But I can’t do that unless he can continue to act, look, and sound as he did Tuesday night—vigorous, cheerful, upbeat, empathetic, confident and politically shrewd. I agree with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that Biden’s State of the Union address was “perhaps the best speech of his presidency.”
He did follow up with feisty speeches in key electoral states Wisconsin and Florida this week, evidently part of a tour to bolster his prospects for a 2024 presidential re-election run. In the State of the Union and the road trip states, he certainly didn’t come across as the doddering old man seen by his many critics or someone mired in “woke fantasies,” as charged by Arkansas Gov. Sandra Huckabee Sanders in her GOP response to Biden.
Some Democrats—especially on university campuses and in some newsrooms—certainly are “woke,” eager to intimidate those they disagree with into silence. But Joe Biden isn’t one of them. Instead, he came across as a populist intent on making drug companies lower their prices, corporations and billionaires pay more taxes. He wants to spend more on health care, child care, and education and to insure workers have “good paying union jobs” through investments in infrastructure and clean energy and “built-in-America” manufacturing.
It was a speech aimed at middle America and especially at blue collar workers “who feel left behind and treated as invisible,” living in places that have been forgotten.” That is, the speech was aimed squarely at workers who used to form the base of the Democratic party but have migrated to the GOP.
Democrats won’t win back white working-class voters alienated by liberal elites, whose politics are grounded in racial resentment or who are enthralled by in-your-face pugilists like Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or Sarah Huckabee Sanders. But a chunk of them might be attracted by programs designed to benefit them economically, especially if they deliver results. The same applies for Black and Latino voters who also are voting Republican, but not to the degree as whites.
Biden and Democrats have a steep hill to climb, as polls show, because most voters don’t believe Biden has accomplished much of anything—despite the litany of achievements he touted. Biden is trying to correct this with repetition and travel, but his party is not assisting with so-far lame communications.
If his campaign gets up to speed, Biden could repeat the pattern of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose approval ratings were also underwater after two years and still won re-election. Of course, neither of them was 82 when seeking re-election, so Biden has to continue to look and sound as vigorous and agile as he did Tuesday night, when he was able to dexterously spar and toy with Republicans on the House floor.
He smiled and said he’d attend ribbon-cuttings with Republicans who voted against his infrastructure package but were claiming credit for bringing projects home. And when several booed and yelled when he said “some Republicans” wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, he laughed again and said he was glad the House GOP was on board with his no-cut policy.
This, plus assailing Republicans for passing three debt-ceiling increases despite huge Trump deficits—while demanding steep spending cuts from him—contrasted with appeals to bipartisanship, always popular with voters. In fact, the public generally favors much of what Biden stands for, and opposes Republican policies—including abortion, taxing the rich, immigration, gun safety, climate change, and regulating prescription-drug prices.
And Republicans continue to misbehave—as witness frequent shouting during Biden’s speech, which House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried in vain to discourage. All this should bode well for Biden as he prepares to run for re-election. If, that is, he can repeat his Tuesday performance on the stump, and if baited Republicans keep coming off as extreme.
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Democratic presidents typically adjust this way after the mid-terms, and Biden’s courting of the white workers reminds me of Clinton’s swerve. The question is whether this maneuver is believable, despite Biden’s Scranton cred — and whether the Congress can pass much of substance to ratify the rhetoric. It’s also a test whether the Progressive Caucus really wants to go in this direction, aside from passing union-friendly legislation.