If you were in search of the key takeaway from Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech, all you had to do was look at his face.
Or Kamala Harris’ face. Or Nancy Pelosi’s face. Or, for that matter, the faces of most people in the House chamber.
You could see their faces because the great majority of them — Democrats and Republicans alike — were mask free. We were tipped to this prospect when Pelosi announced the day before that masks would no longer be required on the House floor after new guidelines from the CDC.
For Biden, this night would be an attempt to reset his presidency, and no less than that. Did he succeed? Let’s just say it’s far too early to tell, but if Biden didn’t, it wasn’t for lack of trying to make people believe he’s the same old Uncle Joe they had elected a little more than a year ago.
You can be sure he didn’t convince everyone. We’ll start with Colorado’s own Rep. Lauren Boebert, who drew national attention — and disgust — by heckling Biden in what will be forever remembered as her you-lie moment. As Biden was speaking of troops who had been exposed to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan and the possibility that a resulting cancer may well have “put them in a flag-draped coffin,” Boebert yelled out, “You put them in — 13 of them!”
She was referring to 13 U.S. service members who had died in a suicide-bomb attack during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Biden was talking of a cancer that he would note — just after Boebert’s heckling and after some Democrats were finished booing her — may have caused the death of his son Beau, who had been exposed to burn pits while serving in Iraq and Kosovo.
Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said Boebert’s heckling was an insult to those who had lost loved ones fighting America’s wars and showed what he called Boebert’s “depravity.”
At least she was quiet, I think, when Biden was speaking in support of Ukraine.
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He began his hour-long speech with the crisis, which is the rare issue where bipartisanship rules. Everywhere you looked in the room, there was blue and there was yellow — blue and yellow outfits, blue and yellow ribbons. Blue and yellow, as everyone must know by now, are the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Among Jill Biden’s guests was Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, who got a roaring ovation when she was introduced. She was waving a small blue-and-yellow flag.
And as long as Biden was on the topic of Ukraine, he was met with bipartisan applause, even the occasional bipartisan standing ovation, especially whenever he hit Vladimir Putin for his unprovoked deadly assault on Ukraine or when he praised the courage of Ukrainian soldiers and citizens in fighting off the Russian behemoth.
“He badly miscalculated,” Biden said of Putin. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine, and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.”
While some Republicans have been sniping at Biden for an alleged lack of leadership, there was none of that seen in the House chamber.
You’re not going to get much dissent when Biden says, as he did, “Let each of us here tonight in this chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world. Please rise if you are able and show that yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people.”
Of course they rose. With Putin’s unwitting assistance, Biden has been instrumental in bringing along some previously reluctant Europeans allies to a massive sanctions policy against Russia. America has retaken the lead in a newly unified NATO. Switzerland, that bastion of neutrality, is sending arms to Ukraine. In Germany, they have reworked the basis of their post-World War II foreign policy by sending military aid to Ukraine.
Biden didn’t have to claim credit for any of this. It takes no great rhetorical feat to contrast his performance with that of Trump, who called Putin a “genius” as the war in Ukraine began and who, days later when he was forced to praise Ukraine’s bravery, still refused to demand, or even ask, that Putin pull back his troops.
What Biden didn’t say is what happens if Ukraine falls, and Putin — despite the sanctions, despite the great cost to his oligarchs, despite all the many costs ordinary Russians would suffer — looks to the next piece of the former Soviet Union to attack. The danger is still there, just as the Russian troops are still there in Ukraine closing in on Kyiv and bombing other cities.
And then, for Biden, came the rest of the agenda, for which, in most cases, only half the room rose.
In State of the Union speeches, the impulse is to at least mention every possible issue. Biden spent a lot of time on inflation, which is the worst it has been in 40 years. He said he would solve the problem with a renewed focus on, yes, buying American and, yes, building American and “lowering costs, not wages.” This is the issue that may well determine what happens in the November midterm elections, and it’s an issue, as most economists and anyone old enough to remember “Whip Inflation Now!” would tell you, that is difficult to resolve.
Biden didn’t have much luck trying to reframe some of the more popular pieces of his stalled, multitrillion-dollar, safety-net package. Republicans were unmoved by, say, expanded child tax credits and their effect on child poverty. Also unmoved was Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, and although I didn’t hear from her, presumably Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
And there was only brief discussion of critical issues — especially critical to progressives — like immigration reform, climate change and abortion rights. This is what comes when a president’s approval ratings are deeply underwater. In fact, a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll had Biden’s approval-disapproval ratings at a startling 37%-to-55%.
It’s no wonder Biden was looking for common ground. If you want to understand how bad things are for Biden right now, he looked for — and got — bipartisan support and a standing ovation when he took on the progressive notion of defunding police, which Republicans regularly try to attach to Biden.
“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police,” he said. “Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training, resources and training they need to protect their communities.”
But for Biden, it’s not one thing, it’s a lot of things. There’s COVID exhaustion. There are real economic gains, but they’ve been offset by inflation. Biden’s pre-Ukraine foreign policy was marred by the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. And while Biden had some early successes in Congress, he clearly overpromised on his Build Back Better program, which isn’t going anywhere.
And so, we get a night with no masks required. When Biden got to COVID and to the recent decline in cases, he made it all quite clear where he was heading.
“Let’s use this moment to reset,” Biden said. “Let’s stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is — a God-awful disease.
“Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we really are — fellow Americans. We can’t change how divided we’ve been. But we can change how we move forward — on COVID-19 and other issues we must face together.”
It is a nice thought — and we can have a discussion some other time on whether the rush to de-mask, including kids going to school, is a bit premature — but we don’t know what will happen next with inflation, what will happen next in Ukraine, what will happen next with COVID.
What we do know is that when you’re polling around 40%, it will take more than one speech to pull America together. The question, I guess, is this: How many more approval points does Biden need before anyone can even begin to call it a reset?
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.