Before Joe Biden began his State of the Union address, the headline was that only 37% of Democrats wanted Joe Biden to run again in 2024.
Yes, you read that right — barely more than a third of Democrats wanted Biden to go for a second term, according to a recently released Associated Press-Norc Center for Public Affairs Research poll.
Whatever else Biden needed to do with his speech — one that presumably would serve as the launch for his re-election campaign — it was critical that he do something to improve that number.
It’s one thing to have approval ratings stuck in the low 40s — I mean, who doesn’t have negative approval ratings in these ultra-polarized times? — but it’s quite another when a solid majority of your own party is saying, and pretty emphatically, that it may be time for you to go.
That’s all Biden, not exactly the greatest speaker, faced with making what may be remembered as the most critical speech of his last campaign.
And all he did with that speech was to pleasantly surprise many of the millions of viewers — not including, of course, those watching on Fox News — who had decided to tune in.
It wasn’t just that Biden was good. By his standards, and certainly by typically low State of the Union standards, he was more than good. He was loose. He was in high spirits. Despite the polls, he seemed strangely optimistic. If he started with a few Biden-like gaffes, he got better as the evening — and the longish speech — wore on.
I’m guessing you could trace the optimism to Biden and his team’s belief — or was it hope? — that they had a secret weapon. And it wasn’t the latest stunning jobs report. Or the fact that inflation is finally coming down, if still too slowly. Or even that unemployment numbers have hit 50-year lows.
What Biden had was the perfect foil for the evening. We know them as the House crazies. All Biden had to do was bait them, and surely they’d respond. Don’t they always? It was simply a matter of how obnoxious they’d turn out to be on a scale of, as one writer put it, 1-to-Lauren-Boebert.
They yelled. They heckled. They called Biden a liar. They embarrassed themselves. They were definitely in Boebert territory.
And they gave Biden exactly what he needed.
Speaker-for-now Kevin McCarthy had promised that the group who had humiliated him on his tortuous path to the speakership would be something close to civil while Biden spoke. They weren’t, of course.
And in what must be a first, McCarthy could be seen trying to shush the GOP crowd, including his new-found ally, Marjorie Taylor Greene, from his seat behind Biden. The video of Greene screaming that Biden was a liar will be on news clips for days, maybe weeks, to come.
After all, it isn’t Republicans that Biden needs to win over, although he began his speech with some good-natured bipartisan kidding. Biden’s theme was to “finish the job,” not to suggest he’ll pass much new legislation, given the GOP-controlled House.
It’s Democrats that he needs to win back. It’s also independent voters. In a just-released Washington Post-ABC News poll — another poll that had the Biden people reeling — more than 6 in 10 Americans say Biden has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his presidency.
That may be because Biden doesn’t do a particularly good job of selling his successes — even Barack Obama, with all his oratorical gifts, had the same issue — or it may be because the political right is just that good at doomsaying.
Or it might be as simple as the not-as-simple-as-you-might-guess fact that the price of eggs has stayed so high. (If you want to know why, here’s an explainer. Short answer: It’s hard to blame Biden for an outbreak of avian flu.)
The way to win back Democrats was for the crazies, the Trumpists, to remind Democrats who’s on the other team. It was easy for Biden. All he had to do was point out the truth that nearly a quarter of the deficit was built during Trump’s tenure. (“Liar.”) Or the truth that Republicans never challenged Trump, or the nation’s economy, by threatening to vote against the deficit ceiling when the Former Guy was in charge. (“Liar.”) Or the truth that some Republicans — see Florida Sen. Rick Scott — had suggested a five-year sunset of all federal legislation, presumably including Social Security and Medicare. (“Liar.”)
And in an ad lib — do you think he practiced this one? — Biden noted that some in the GOP section were actually cheering when he had lamented that some Republicans wanted to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act. To which Biden retorted, “As a coach of mine used to say, ‘Good luck in your senior year.’”
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As for Social Security and Medicare — which Republicans are now saying they won’t touch — Biden pretended to be surprised, saying “I enjoy conversion.” He also said he was ready to veto any change made to the popular programs, before adding, “But apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”
Yet for Biden, there does remain a problem. And it’s not clear that one speech, even a vigorous one, will change that.
Biden is 80 years old today, the oldest person ever to be president. If he runs in 2024, he’d be — just doing the math here — 82. If he were to remain in office for a full second term, he’d be 86. Being on the wrong side of 70 myself, I’d hate to be accused of ageism, but I have to say that 86 is, uh, up there.
In the story on its poll showing Democratic discontent with Biden, the AP described the issue this way: “Follow-up interviews with poll respondents suggest that many believe the 80-year-old’s age is a liability, with people focused on his coughing, his gait, his gaffes and the possibility that the world’s most stressful job would be better suited for someone younger.”
And then there’s the issue of having to campaign full time while also holding down what is a fairly demanding job, even on days when you don’t have to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon. If Trump were to win the GOP nomination and set up a rematch, it would be 78-year-old Trump vs. 82-year-old Biden.
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You don’t need a poll to know how many people shudder at the thought of that race, apparently including the Koch network, which seems ready to actually work against a weakened Trump in the presidential primaries.
But many Democrats are even more worried about the idea of Biden running against someone like, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is 44, and could look the part of a “change” candidate even if most of his changes — Don’t Say Gay, Don’t Teach History (Especially If It’s About Black People), Don’t Cross the Border Into Texas or I’ll Send Kidnappers from Florida to Fly You to a Posh Liberal Resort — are not exactly forward looking.
Look, I don’t know if the union is all that strong, as Biden predictably maintained Tuesday night. But if the State of the Union speech was, as most expect, Biden’s unofficial campaign kickoff, let’s just say, in anticipation of Super Bowl Sunday, it sailed through the end zone and well beyond.
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.
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