Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Analysis | Biden delivered for nervous Democrats on Thursday. Now they want him to keep it up.

Analysis | Biden delivered for nervous Democrats on Thursday. Now they want him to keep it up.

The annual State of the Union address is always a big moment in the political life of the country, but rarely one that lasts for more than a moment. For President Biden, the challenge ahead will be to turn a high point of his presidency into a sustainable reelection campaign strategy.

Much will depend on Biden himself. His path to reelection against former president Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, will require a combination of style, substance and stamina. One big speech alone cannot erase the questions that have surrounded Biden’s candidacy, whether about his age or his capacity to deal with nagging issues facing the country. At a time when worries were particularly acute among nervous Democrats, Biden forcefully allayed them Thursday night. But for how long?

President Biden and congressional Republicans engaged in a back-and-forth over a stalled bipartisan border bill during the State of the Union on March 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

Never has a State of the Union been so obviously seen by a president as a campaign event rather than a report to the nation. That rankled Republicans and no doubt some traditionalists. Biden wasn’t worrying about either.

Anticipating a circus atmosphere in the House chamber, which is now the custom, the president milked the setting from the moment he was announced onto the floor until he finally left as the lights were being turned down and the chamber was nearly empty. He turned his walk down the aisle into a lingering rope-line moment, showing that he was eager to engage with anyone with an outstretched hand or a thought to share, except that of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) in a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat.

So charged was Biden that when he finally got to the podium, he blew past the traditional introduction that should have been given by House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) — and more applause that would have come with it. Instead of waiting, he plunged directly into a series of contrasts with Trump — or “my predecessor,” as he called him throughout the night.

Highlights of President Biden’s State of the Union Address

The opening moments focused on aid to Ukraine, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, a defense of democracy and support for abortion rights. Those contrasts will have to be echoed repeatedly in the months ahead by him and surrogates for Biden to win. His differences with Trump, and threats to the country’s future that Biden says Trump poses, are at the core of what Biden needs to do to assure that November’s election becomes a choice and not a referendum on him and his presidency.

Recent polling has shown that a considerable part of the electorate is unfamiliar with some of the most outrageous things Trump has said in recent months. That suggests that the current assessment of the state of play in the election — with many giving Trump an advantage — may be premature. There is a campaign to be waged, and now that it is engaged, Biden will be asked by his supporters to take what he did Thursday night and replicate it week after week, until the contrasts and the choice are seared into the minds of voters who have yet to fully check in.

President Biden opened his 2024 State of the Union address with an appeal for bipartisan aid package to Ukraine on March 7. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Biden knew that his first order of business — in the week in which the primary season effectively ended and the general election began — would be to rally his base. After former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ended her candidacy for the Republican nomination, there was much talk about the Biden team’s desire and need to try to attract her voters.

They were not his principal focus Thursday. Given the choice of playing to his base or reaching out to wavering voters disaffected by Trump, the president took the first course, wisely in the estimation even of some Republican strategists. Both in style and substance, Biden tried to send messages to all parts of his fractured base.

Democrats have worried about whether Biden had the fire and sharpness needed to wage what will be a brutal and negative campaign against Trump. They also, like a majority of Americans overall, have had questions about whether his age is enough of a liability to cost him a second term.

That has prompted persistent speculation, both among rank-and-file Democrats and some commentators, about whether Biden would or should step aside before the party’s convention in August in Chicago. Such talk is likely to fade after Thursday’s performance. But for many voters, those questions probably have not been fully answered.

Republican strategists offered both praise and caution for Biden as they looked ahead. Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said Biden showed energy and a readiness to engage, but added:

“The question remains whether he can sustain that kind of energy through the campaign and in face-to-face meetings with Trump. What happens when he doesn’t get days to rehearse in advance and goes without an afternoon nap? Even though it’s likely months away, the stage is set for a record-breaking audience for the first debate!”

Russ Schriefer, a GOP strategist, noted: “While he may have helped himself with the age issue yesterday, today, he is still a day older, and there are 241 days until the election.”

He said that contentious issues still remain to be debated, from border security to the impact of inflation to the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, adding, “Despite attempts to hold Republicans responsible, if Biden was channeling his inner Harry Truman last night, he mustn’t forget, as president, ‘The Buck Stops Here.’ ”

Fact-checking President Biden’s State of the Union address

Democrats saw evidence that, beyond nervous Democrats, Biden’s speech registered positively with other voters. Analysis by Navigator Research, a Democratic firm, showed gains on some of the policy ideas in the speech among voters loosely aligned with either party.

Acknowledging that those who watch State of the Union speeches are more partisan than the country at large, Navigator’s Jefrey Pollock said: “When you got swing voters to watch the president, they responded. The president’s words on the economy, including some of his newer proposals last night, democracy, and abortion were received positively and impacted voters’ feelings of favorability toward him.”

The State of the Union’s setting gives a president significant advantages, and Biden made the most of them. He was ready and eager to engage with rowdier members from the other party, giving him a chance to show that his mental acuity hasn’t declined and that his appetite for political combat remains high. He had a script, both the text of the speech and the performative aspects of how he handled himself.

That won’t always be the case. There are few opportunities for him to command the whole scene; his acceptance speech in Chicago and then the debates, if there are debates, are among the few big moments ahead. Other than that, a long slog awaits him. Over the course of his presidency, his performance has been uneven, his energy level up and down, the fire not always evident — spurring questions about his readiness for combat with Trump and his capacity to weather the burdens of a second term.

As he campaigns, he will also have to govern at a turbulent time in history, trying to shore up support for Ukraine, delicately working through the divisions in his own party over the Israel-Gaza war, seeking to avoid most of the political blame for the crisis on the border (as he sought to do with a strong attack on Republicans for scuttling a bipartisan security and border bill), and working to keep the economy growing and inflation dampening. Both the rigors of the campaign and the demands of the presidency will require full-time commitments.

To all the doubters in his own party and perhaps beyond, Biden used his address to send a defiant reply. Buffeted constantly for months, he came out on offense and remained so. Democrats saw the fighting spirit in Biden that they were looking for. Now the question is whether he can show it again and again and again until the voting has ended.

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