Joe Biden was elected President for many reasons, among them simply that he wasn’t Donald Trump. Compared to his predecessor, Biden was a decent, honest, homespun guy with a strong background in foreign relations, a belief in America’s global leadership in defense of democratic principles, and a commitment to international alliances among nations with largely shared values. That is the Joe Biden who showed up Tuesday night to deliver the first State-of-the-Union (SOTU) speech of his presidency. One imagines with horror how a President Trump would have dumped Ukraine while fawning over the “genius” of Vladimir Putin. Trump said, if reelected, he’d pull out of NATO.
President Biden had labored for months to share intelligence, to rebuild the alliances that Donald Trump had maligned, and to strengthen longstanding bonds with NATO and other multi-national institutions so important to world peace and prosperity. His efforts have paid off with a stunning level of agreement across Europe, including even historically neutral Switzerland and Sweden, on imposing serious sanctions on Vladimir Putin for his bloodthirsty war on democratic Ukraine. More importantly, Germany dramatically changed its positions on a range of critical issues.
The top of Tuesday’s SOTU speech, delivered a little too quickly as if he had not a moment to lose, reflected Biden’s passionate resolve and his unflagging optimism that freedom will prevail. It was greeted enthusiastically on both sides of the aisle. Even so, the high point of the speech could have benefited from an expanded narrative about why Ukraine matters and why we must be prepared to deal with economic fallout here, even as we’re already struggling with inflation at the pump and in the grocery market.
People need to be reminded why they may be asked to pay higher prices for limiting Russia’s access to the financial system and disrupting energy supplies. Today’s younger generations need more history: the Cold War, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the struggles of former Soviet satellites to democratize. Too many forget the price paid by WWII allies who were bystanders as Hitler marched into the Sudetenland, then occupied Czechoslovakia and Poland. Biden should have amplified this when he obliquely stated that “when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos.”
When the President turned his remarks from confronting the rise of global authoritarianism to his domestic agenda, which is where elections are won and lost, he threaded the needle between his progressive flank and his more moderate home base. He rightly cited his Administration’s noteworthy accomplishments, especially the public health response to Covid and the American Rescue Plan to meet pandemic-generated economic needs. He legitimately took credit for the bipartisan and desperately needed infrastructure program, whose community benefits are already being touted back home by hypocritical Republicans who had opposed the bill.
Responding to his depressed approval numbers, even among some Democrats and especially among independents, he robustly restated his moderate-Democratic values, including his opposition to de-funding the police and support for immigration reform. He was upbeat in promoting his “unity agenda” of beating the opioid epidemic, expanding internet privacy protections especially in data collection, strengthening veterans services, and investing in further research into cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. But there’s little evidence that our divided Congress will take action on these no matter how much Republicans might be in agreement one or another issue.
There was a missed opportunity to be Joe from Scranton. He came up short of being our explainer-in-chief, addressing broad concerns about growing inflation. Instead, he ticked off a laundry list of initiatives, causing his speech to lose momentum. It was all too much a reminder of just how stalled his program is and is likely to remain without support from Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
The SOTU gave him a remarkable bump in his favorability ratings but the reset that Democrats and independents are looking for is yet to come.
The deadlock over bills to guarantee voter participation and halt vote subversion is an uncomfortable reminder that our efforts to support democracy abroad are undercut by encroachments on democracy on the home front. No small irony even as his audience in the gated citadel of our democracy hailed his passionate assertion that “we will meet the test” and protect freedom and liberty.
Biden ended on a high note, with a stirring clarion call for the kind of unity that has been in short supply. We need the optimism he projected that we can “Protect freedom and liberty, expand fairness and opportunity.” We want to believe, with the President, that “we will save democracy.”
It will be an uphill battle in Ukraine – and here at home.