Biden’s State of the Union Speech

Most people liked it more than I did.

In recent years, I’ve tended to skip Presidential addresses and simply read the transcript the next morning. Given the crisis in Ukraine and the shift in the US COVID strategy, though, I watched it live and was dismayed at the stumbling delivery. A President who is clearly very much in command came across to me as addled and lost, constantly slurring words and losing his place.

It seems that mine was a minority view.

CNN (“Speech watchers have mostly positive reaction of Biden’s State of the Union, CNN poll shows“):

A 71% majority of Americans who watched President Joe Biden‘s State of the Union address had a positive reaction to the speech, according to a CNN Poll conducted by SSRS, with a more modest 41% reacting very positively.

That’s a less enthusiastic reception than Biden received for his joint address to Congress last April, when 78% had a positive reaction and 51% reacted very positively. Both Donald Trump and Barack Obama also saw higher enthusiasm for their speeches during their second years in office: 48% of those who tuned in for Trump’s 2018 State of the Union were very positive, as were an identical 48% of those who watched Obama’s 2010 address. Biden’s 41% on that metric matches the previous low in CNN’s speech reaction polls dating back to 1998.

Good marks are typical for presidential addresses to Congress, as such speeches tend to attract generally friendly audiences. That’s true this year as well: The pool of people who watched Biden speak was about 11 percentage points more Democratic than the general public.

State of the Union addresses rarely have major, lasting impact on presidents’ approval numbers, but there are signs that Tuesday’s speech buoyed viewers’ opinions of Biden. Those who watched the speech say that Biden’s policy proposals would move the country in the right direction (67%) rather than the wrong direction (33%). In a survey conducted before the speech, those same people were closer to evenly split (52% right direction, 48% wrong direction).

The few OTB commenters who weighed in so far were enthusiastic as well.

  • @Jax: “I honestly don’t know how right wingers can watch Biden right now and call him sleepy or exhibiting any signs of dementia. That is not what I see at all.”
  • @MarkedMan: “I thought Biden’s SOTU was a master class.”
  • @JohnSF: “Heard a fair bit of President Biden’s speech on BBC radio; very good, IMO.”

The NYT did a live “highlights” blog on the speech. Here are some of their reactions:

Katie Rogers:

I said at the start that I was curious how Biden would address all he needed to in the time he had. Now I come away thinking that Biden plopped a clear message about Ukraine atop a laundry list of domestic policy goals, some without follow-ups or clear explanations. I was struck by how personal some of his agenda seemed to him, and somewhat surprised at how freely Republicans yelled at him and jeered him. He appears resolved and confident, but he is leading a divided country, and we saw that, outburst by outburst.

Carl Hulse:

This was a pretty traditional State of the Union speech. Biden tried to touch on all of his priorities and goals. It will probably be remembered most for coming during the beginning of the Ukraine conflict. His team probably thinks he accomplished what he needed to do.

Astead Herndon:

Biden’s off-the-cuff speaking style sometimes worries Democrats, but he has stepped up in big speech moments on the campaign trail and in office. The good reviews — and, presumably, sighs of relief — are already rolling in from Democrats.

In terms of the content itself, which is what I would have focused on instead of delivery had I stuck to my usual practice of just reading the transcript, the speech was pretty good.

The opener hit all the right notes:

Last year, Covid-19 kept us apart. This year, we are finally together again.

Tonight, we meet as Democrats, Republicans and Independents. But most importantly, as Americans.

With a duty to one another, to America, to the American people, to the Constitution.

And an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.

Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated.

The boorish actions by a handful of Republicans in attendance were in stark contrast to this message of a united front.

His remarks on the Ukraine crisis struck the right tone as well, quietly highlighting his own leadership, giving praise to our partners and allies—and the Ukrainians themselves—demonstrating that our united actions are working, and yet emphasizing that we’re not going to go to war over Ukraine.

I found the section on the American Rescue Plan over the top in its description of the state of the economy at the time, which was actually pretty damn good. But Presidents naturally take credit for their programs.

This was followed by a strong agenda that Americans should be able to rally around:

Invest in America. Educate Americans. Grow the work force. Build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down.

Because we know that when the middle class grows, the poor have a ladder up, and the wealthy do very well.

America used to have the best roads, bridges and airports on earth.

Now our infrastructure is ranked 13th in the world.

We won’t be able to compete for the jobs of the 21st century if we don’t fix it.

That’s why it was so important to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — and I thank my Republican colleagues who joined to invest and rebuild America, the single biggest investment in history.

This was a bipartisan effort, and I want to thank the members of both parties who worked to make it happen.

We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks.

We’re now talking about an infrastructure decade.

It is going to transform America, to put us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with the rest of the world — particularly China.

This was followed by a section the could have been delivered by Donald Trump: a vision of creating manufacturing jobs here in America, buying American, and the like. It’s classic mercantilism, thankfully without the xenophobia that Trump added to the mix.

This section was clearly intended to be a climactic moment:

So, we have a choice.

One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer.

I think I have a better idea to fight inflation.

Lower your cost, not your wages.

That means make more cars and semiconductors in America.

More infrastructure and innovation in America.

More goods moving faster and cheaper in America.

More jobs where you can earn a good living in America.

Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America.

Economists call it “increasing the productive capacity of our economy.”

I call it building a better America.

My plan to fight inflation will lower your costs and lower the deficit.

It fell flat for me on delivery and may be worse as written. The combination of the pandemic-driven shocks to the supply chain and the strategic competition with China has highlighted the dangers of reliance on imports in key sectors. But the notion that we’re going to somehow manufacture everything in America, pay much higher wages, and yet simultaneously bring down costs is absurd. Ditto spending massive amounts of money on pet projects while bringing down deficits.

More frustratingly, this was followed by haranguing corporations, including pharmaceutical companies, as greedy profiteers who don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Which will surely encourage more investment in creating good jobs right here in America.

The speech drug on and on, as has been the trend for many years now, with a long laundry list of programs and platitudes, very few of which will ever be implemented. The weird bit about burn pits that inexplicably had Speaker Pelosi jumping for joy. Ending opioid addiction. Funding the police! Curing cancer! A DARPA but for health. Saving democracy!

FILED UNDER: Joe Biden, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Which will surely encourage more investment in creating good jobs right here in America.

    Because the “Let the corporations write the laws” policy of Republicans since Reagan did so much to prevent jobs leaving the country?

    17
  2. MarkedMan says:

    I haven’t regularly watched the SOTU in years, simply because it has become a check box list of mentions of things that matter to important constituents and the second half of Biden’s speech fell squarely into that category, so I turned it off after just a few minutes of that.

    On another thread I talked about my positive reaction to his Ukraine responses, but I also though his decision to go into campaign mode was smart and effective. Contrary to James, I felt he mostly embraced the corporations. He invited the head of Intel and introduced him. Lauded Ford. But he has clearly ceded the drug companies to the Republicans. He has judged, correctly IMO, that if he is going to reform drug pricing he will have to fight the drug companies. They will attack him and the Dems relentlessly and so Biden appears to embracing that. He is going to chain the drug companies to the Republicans and get whatever political benefit he can from that.

    6
  3. Jax says:

    I did notice a few slips here and there, especially once he’d hit the hour mark….but he’d also already been talking for a full hour! As my daughter said, for a guy who has a stutter, he sounded pretty damn good to me. Definitely not a dementia-ridden old man they have to wheel out on a dolly. 😛

    10
  4. Thomas Hilton says:

    …constantly slurrying words…

    I think you meant slurring words. Which I would normally let pass, except that the context is you criticizing him for getting words wrong.

    I don’t think his delivery was great, but the man has a stutter. And I doubt he’s getting much sleep right now. And yes, he’s 78 years old. I’m prepared to cut him a little slack.

    22
  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    Most people liked it more than I did.

    And the sun rises in the east.

    That Biden isn’t as eloquent as Obama, Clinton, Reagan or for that matter either of the Bush’s shouldn’t be a surprise. The man is a life long stutterer and the need to suppress that results in other tics. Even in his 40’s and 50’s a Biden speech was a rambling disjointed affair and this speaking abilities haven’t improved with age.

    The truth is the State of the Union speech is long past its sell date and now we’re subjected not only to the opposing major political party’s response, but a litany whiny subgroups. In the future the president should simply submit a report to Congress. Unfortunately it won’t happen and the internet will again be awash in ‘serious’ commentary.

    @Jax:

    The dementia ridden old man spoke at CPAC over the weekend. 🙂

    11
  6. Jax says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I didn’t even listen to the rebuttal speeches.

    Bulwark has a nice compare/contrast piece up, comparing Trump’s speech at CPAC to Biden’s SOTU.

    2
  7. JohnSF says:

    repeating this from Forum thread:
    Heard a fair bit of President Biden’s speech on BBC radio; very good, IMO.

    Question for you Americans – and this isn’t mockery, by the way, just my British tin ear for foreign accents – does his accent sound a bit reminiscent to you of Harvey Keitel as Winston Wolf?
    Or is it just me?

    But as a speech, it worked.
    As far as I’m concerned, the odd stumble made it seem less “artificial”, a bit less “Mayor of Springfield”.
    A master rhetorician he is not, but the message came across.

    2
  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Republican’s have become “The Jerry Springer Caucus.”

    Remembering Doug as I read this…the man vehemently disliked the SOTU.

    2
  9. Andy says:

    I can’t remember the last time I watched a SOTU. I don’t even read the transcripts anymore. They’ve become another stupid DC “tradition” that serves no real purpose and has no real effect on anything anymore.

    I did read this morning that some members of the progressive “squad” had “rebuttals” to the SOTU and wondered why the eff they would do that.

    The weird bit about burn pits that inexplicably had Speaker Pelosi jumping for joy.

    Burn pits have long been a huge issue for Afghanistan and Iraqi vets. It actually is nice to see action on this.

    3
  10. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    That Biden isn’t as eloquent as Obama, Clinton, Reagan or for that matter either of the Bush’s shouldn’t be a surprise. The man is a life long stutterer and the need to suppress that results in other tics. Even in his 40’s and 50’s a Biden speech was a rambling disjointed affair and this speaking abilities haven’t improved with age.

    I never thought Clinton or Obama was a great speaker — it always came off too polished and void of emotions. Obama has weird pauses. It always baffled me that people thought they were so good.

    Last night’s speech felt genuine. There was passion and fire and, yes, the stutter crept in from time to time. You could tell during the last chunk that he just felt compelled by tradition and his speech writers to do the laundry list and that even he was getting bored, and then he pulled it together with a rousing ending.

    Sure, he mangled the word “Ukrainians” once and came up with “Iranians” or “Uranians”, and he created a topological nightmare by calling Delaware “the United States” when he was trying to say that more corporations are incorporated in Delaware than any other state in our country. The dude’s got a stutter.

    The stutter made him flub a few of the capstone lines — which sounded addled and lost to James Joyner, but had me actually a little emotionally invested hoping he could pull off the next one.

    Perhaps not perfection, but he was genuine. I didn’t immediately think “this man is lying to me” as I have for a lot of other politician’s speeches. And as Biden speeches go… it was great. Could have used a Corn Pop story.

    4
  11. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    I can’t remember the last time I watched a SOTU. […] They’ve become another stupid DC “tradition” that serves no real purpose and has no real effect on anything anymore.

    It was the clearest, most forceful and straightforward explanation of the US position on Ukraine given to the American people, and direct from the president.

    But, generally, yeah, most SOTUs are useless.

    1
  12. MarkedMan says:

    @Gustopher:

    It always baffled me that people thought they were so good.

    I learned early on that different people have different reactions to a speaker. I would listen to Reagan and look at his mannerisms and my immediate reaction was, “this is a tremendously shallow person with no real knowledge or understanding of the dangerous things he is playing with, but instead is literally acting a part”, and Reagan was, at best, a competent B level actor. Yet I was definitely in the minority.

    1
  13. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Perhaps not perfection, but he was genuine. I didn’t immediately think “this man is lying to me” as I have for a lot of other politician’s speeches. And as Biden speeches go… it was great.

    The thing is, even when I was a hardcore Republican, I tended to like Biden precisely because he seems genuine and like a normal dude. Maybe my expectations were just unreasonably high. My wife thought it was typical Biden but I’ve been paying attention to him since—what, 1984?–and this is the worst I’ve seen him. He has a well-known penchant for gaffes but it seemed like every sentence. Maybe he just stumbled out of the gate and I was more attuned to it.

    @Andy: Oh, I’m aware of burn pits, believe me. We used them in Desert Storm and also had the oil fires that created what amounted to a multi-day eclipse. I think blaming his son’s loss on them is irrational but I get needing something to cling to to deal with such a huge trauma. I found Pelosi’s euphoria odd, though.

    1
  14. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    He has a well-known penchant for gaffes but it seemed like every sentence.

    I think you are misusing the word “gaffe” — Biden’s gaffes are separate from his verbal stumbles. When he destroyed the Obama administration’s wishy-washy neutrality on marriage equality, that was a gaffe. When he proudly recounts his support for racist policies in his youth, that is a gaffe. When he proclaimed that the Uranians are a proud and strong people, that was a stumble.

    Since the Russia thread is bogged down on the word “irrational”, I think this one should be bogged down on the word “gaffe”.

    —-
    For the record, if there are beings living on Uranus, they may well be a proud and strong people.

  15. Scott says:

    @Gustopher: Heh, Heh. He said Uranus.

    1
  16. just nutha says:

    Certainly Biden is right about growing the middle class, but the rich can do well without the middle class growing and the poor having ladders (and what ever happened to “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” anyway?), so how will the rich benefit from Biden’s agenda? You can’t see “it’s the right thing to do” anymore. IGMFY is the new American ethos.

    1
  17. senyordave says:

    @Scott: Calm down, Beavis

    1
  18. Kathy says:

    @Scott:
    @senyordave:

    The Futurama prophecy is for a change in name for Uranus in 2620.

  19. John430 says:

    2014 Obama/Biden: Russia invades Ukraine
    2017 Trump
    2018 Trump
    2019 Trump
    2020 Trump
    2022 Biden: Russia invades Ukraine
    Clearly, this is all Trump’s fault

    1
  20. Ken_L says:

    Could the president give his state of the union speech at the annual prayer breakfast, to be followed later by the White House Press Rabble’s annual dinner? At least that way three of Washington’s most pointless, annoying rituals could be done and dusted in one day.

    2