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WASHINGTON — In his inaugural address a little more than a year ago, President Biden said there was “much to repair” and “much to restore” in the wake of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency — a job he believed his decades in Washington had perfectly prepared him for. But as he delivers his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden’s healing agenda has been imperiled by conflicts both domestic and foreign.
Biden will have to balance frank acknowledgment of domestic concerns — inflation foremost among them — with the burgeoning crisis in Ukraine.
“From a political point of view, this is an opportunity to try to reach out and really recapture America, especially Americans who are worried about where we are as a nation,” former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta told the Wall Street Journal.
The need to recapture Americans’ sense of promise is urgent, a new poll conducted by Yahoo News and YouGov shows. Sixty-one percent of respondents said they believed the country was on the wrong track; only 41 percent approved of the job Biden is doing. And as the pandemic grinds on, views of his coronavirus response have soured, with only 44 percent of respondents approving.
The war in Ukraine largely supplanted the pandemic in the news last week.
Biden has positioned himself as the leader of the international response to the invasion of Ukraine Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, but according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll, only 34 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the crisis. Another poll, conducted by Quinnipiac, found that 57 percent of respondents believed Biden had not been tough enough with Putin.
If there is a hero in the conflict so far, it is not Biden but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose youth and media savvy, not to mention personal courage, make him perfectly suited for the moment.
Ukraine had not been on the docket for Biden’s speechwriters, who have been working on the speech for weeks. The invasion forced them to charge course, White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged during a Monday briefing. “There’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago,” she said. A veteran of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who came of age in the twilight of the Cold War, Biden will articulate the dangers a resurgent Russia poses to world peace.
The State of the Union address will come almost exactly six months after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which conservatives argue emboldened Putin to attack Ukraine. Since then, Biden has faced a number of crises both foreign and domestic, especially the Delta and Omicron waves of the coronavirus that sickened hundreds of thousands of Americans and continued to disrupt the global supply chain. Those disruptions, in turn, exerted inflationary pressures in supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere.
The can-do competence of the days when an obviously pleased Biden declared vaccination benchmarks had been easily met has been replaced by a siege mentality, fostered by the several overlapping crises that have assailed the White House in recent months. “No president in my memory has had so many crises dumped onto him in the first year as Biden has, and the speech has to be equal to that,” Bob Shrum, director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times.
Biden promised to end the pandemic, only to be frustrated by successive waves of the coronavirus, which turned what was to be a “summer of freedom” into an anxious slog, followed by a fall and winter rife with culture wars over masks and vaccines. Now the Omicron surge is seemingly over, but Biden is unlikely to strike a triumphant note again, only to see victory undone by a new variant of the coronavirus.
Late last week, the attending physician of the Capitol said that masks were no longer necessary in the complex, a move that reflected revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If members of Congress are unmasked as they listen to the president’s address, the image could project that Washington — and the nation — are returning to a state of normalcy.
Just how Biden will treat the new guidance on Tuesday evening is unclear. “He will certainly not be wearing a mask when he's speaking,” Psaki said — but whether the president wears a mask as he approaches the podium, walking past rows of legislators, will also be significant. If he does, Republicans are likely to attack him as overly cautious. But given how assiduous Biden has been about masking — including outdoors — he could well keep his face covered ahead of the speech.
When he delivers the State of the Union on Tuesday, Biden will have to acknowledge the anxiety of Americans who increasingly say that inflation, not the pandemic, is their top concern. “The president will absolutely use the word ‘inflation’ tomorrow,” Psaki said, effectively acknowledging that the days when the White House dismissed inflationary pressures as “transitory” are long gone.
Low unemployment, the return of domestic manufacturing and signs of macroeconomic health will surely receive mention from the president on Tuesday. His administration is fond of touting statistics, but officials have sometimes done so in a way that can seem insensitive, as when Democrats celebrated a two-cent drop in gas prices last year. Frequent invocations of the more than a dozen Nobel Prize laureates who support his economic agenda can also make it seem as if Biden was catering to elite opinion, as opposed to the ordinary Americans whom he promised to champion.
“You simply cannot jawbone Americans into believing that things are better than they feel,” Democratic strategist David Axelrod, who served as a top White House adviser in the Obama administration, wrote in a New York Times essay about the forthcoming State of the Union address.
The pointed title of Axelrod’s essay: “Mr. President, It’s Time for a Little Humility,” was a reminder that much of what Biden had proposed — expansion of voting rights, police reform, meaningful climate change legislation, the ambitious social agenda known as Build Back Better — has not come to pass.
The early comparisons to transformational Democratic presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt have been relegated to the realm of misguided punditry. Now the goal is to avoid the fate of one-term presidents like Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
Tuesday night will require Biden to be gracious and hopeful, realistic but upbeat — even as political frustrations mount. “Biden needs to give the best speech of his life,” a former senior Republican congressional staffer told the Hill.
Public speaking is not a forte of Biden’s, who has struggled with a stutter since childhood. As he speaks on Tuesday, he will be looking out at the very same Republicans who — determined to reclaim Congress in 2022 and the White House two years after that — smothered his multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better bill last year, with help from centrist Democratic senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Biden will seemingly not use Tuesday’s speech to revive Build Back Better, instead holding up discrete items from that proposal as popular measures that can be enacted on their own, without a months-long debate. “He will lay out specific, practical measures that would reduce costs for families right now, including prescription drug costs and health care premiums, child care and pre-k costs, and energy costs,” a White House preview of the president’s speech said. Those are, in fact, the constituent parts of the doomed Built Back Better bill, but the White House has calculated that a low-key piecemeal approach may yield better results than the dramatic back-and-forth that dominated headlines for much of the summer and fall.
Above all, Biden will need to communicate the tenacity that has marked his Washington career. During the Democratic primary, he was dismissed as an aging candidate unsuited to the demands of the party’s progressive base. “I really like Joe Biden, but he shouldn’t run for president,” liberal columnist Sally Kohn wrote in USA Today as the Democratic field started to come into focus in 2019. His candidacy faced uncertain prospects in early 2020 but was rescued in part by Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina elder statesman who helped move that state’s influential African American voting bloc towards Biden.
It was in South Carolina that Biden vowed to nominate an African-American woman to the Supreme Court — a promise he fulfilled last Friday by selecting D.C. Circuit Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill the seat being vacated by Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring.
Jackson’s nomination came on a day that perfectly encapsulated the waves of promise and peril that continue to buffet Washington daily, much as when Trump was president. The CDC was dropping its mask guidance, while Putin was pushing toward Ukraine. Trump was preparing to speak at a conservative conference in Florida, ahead of an expected 2024 run.
Biden announced Jackson’s nomination that same afternoon. If she is confirmed, she will make history as the first African American woman to sit on the Supreme Court. A photograph released by the White House that afternoon showed Biden and Jackson in the Oval Office, captured in a moment of what appeared to be contented calm. As they surely knew, the calm was not going to last.