Biden's big audition at State of the Union

US Vice President Kamala Harris, from left, President Joe Biden, and House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana, during a State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Thursday, March 7, 2024. Election-year politics will increase the focus on Biden's remarks and lawmakers' reactions, as he's stumping to the nation just months before voters will decide control of the House, Senate, and White House. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Biden delivers his State of the Union on Thursday night. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Biden arrived at the Capitol on Thursday night facing a tough assignment — a high-stakes State of the Union speech.

He responded by throwing a punch — and then several more.

The fiery performance, leavened by some humor at the close, aimed to rebut one of the main lines of Republican attack on Biden — the effort to portray the 81-year-old president as doddering and weak.

That’s an attack that has registered with many Americans.

More than 6 in 10 American adults, including about a third of Democrats, lacked confidence that Biden has the mental capacity to serve effectively as president, according to a poll for the Associated Press released earlier this week.

That finding isn’t quite as dire as it might look — former President Trump is 77, and the share of Americans who lack confidence in his mental capacity to serve is only slightly smaller: 57%.

Still, worries about Biden’s capacity to deal with a turbulent world provide a major reason — perhaps the major reason — why he narrowly trails the former president in most current polls.

The speech, which drew warm reviews from Biden’s fellow Democrats, demonstrated that the president and his team believe the best way to reassure Americans that he’s strong enough to do the job is to go on the attack.

Hitting hard at 'my predecessor'

The result was a deeply political State of the Union address, especially in its beginning and ending sections, replete with more than a dozen references to “my predecessor” — his GOP opponent in the presidential race, whom he didn’t name but repeatedly excoriated.

An earlier version of Biden, who often called for working across the aisle, and who ran in 2020 as a bipartisan conciliator, might have deemed the tone excessively partisan.

The current version has clearly decided that’s a nicety he can no longer afford.

Delivering big speeches has never been Biden’s strong suit, and, as he often does, he flubbed a few of the lines from his prepared text. But he clearly set out to make the most of the opportunity provided by the largest audience he’s likely to have at least until this summer’s Democratic National Convention.

In his opening passage, Biden likened the current moment and Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine to what President Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted at the outset of World War II. He demanded that the Republican-controlled House approve a Senate-passed bill to aid Ukraine, hitting a fault line that divides the GOP.

He then accused Trump of “bowing down” to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a charge that brought scattered boos from the Republican side of the aisle and gave Biden the first of several opportunities to respond to hecklers.

The charge served a double purpose for Biden — reminding voters of Trump’s long-standing, never explained deference to an American adversary, and countering Republican accusations of weakness by leveling the same charge against the former president.

“My message to President Putin is clear,” Biden declared. “We will not bow down. I will not bow down.”

A glimpse of the campaign ahead

From there, Biden rolled out a series of attacks on Trump and his allies that likely will form the centerpiece of his campaign.

Some in Congress and in progressive groups have pressed for Biden to pursue a more aggressive form of economic populism. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and others on the party’s left have argued that a populist campaign can stir Democratic voters who so far have showed a lack of enthusiasm for Biden’s reelection.

The speech included some passages that headed in that direction. Biden called for higher minimum tax rates on large corporations and the wealthiest Americans, and he picked a fight with pharmaceutical companies, pressing Congress to allow the government more authority to limit the prices of some drugs.

But those economic themes didn’t appear until well into the nearly 70-minute speech.

Instead, Biden gave precedence to a different set of issues, beginning with the accusation that Trump and his supporters pose a threat to democracy.

“My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6,” he said, reminding his audience of the 2021 attack on the Capitol, which supporters of Trump undertook in an effort to block the formal count of electoral votes finalizing Biden's 2020 victory.

“This is a moment to speak the truth and bury the lies. And here’s the simplest truth: You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden declared.

He followed that by hitting the recent ruling by the all-Republican Alabama Supreme Court that declared frozen embryos created by in vitro fertilization to be children, protected by state law — a ruling that threatened to close down IVF clinics in the state.

“What freedoms will you take away next?” he demanded of Republicans.

And while Sanders and his allies have argued that Biden should talk more about the economic stress many Americans face, the president clearly has sided with advisors who believe his best approach to economic anxiety is to try to improve the public mood by emphasizing the good news about economic conditions.

Biden cited near-record-low levels of unemployment; wages that have increased faster than inflation for most workers over the last year, especially those on the bottom third of the income ladder; a rapid drop in inflation; and overall growth that has been stronger than that in any of the other major developed economies.

A small but crucial target audience

Those themes aim to win over a very small slice of the vast American electorate.

Some 150 million people will vote in November's presidential election, but the lion’s share already have made up their minds.

Biden’s speech, the visits to swing states that his campaign has already started to roll out, and the tens of millions of dollars in advertising that will soon start barraging the country all aim at a narrow swath of voters who are up for grabs in a few key states — mostly Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — that likely will decide the election.

Many of those voters are Democrats who are uncertain whether they care enough about Biden’s reelection to cast a ballot in 2024. Others are centrists who have problems with both parties but are open to persuasion.

Some in that latter group voted for former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in Republican presidential primaries over the last two months.

Haley’s voters — as opposed to the candidate herself — tended to be moderate Republicans and independents. Many voted for Biden in 2020, although some were former Trump voters who have turned against the GOP or are flirting with doing so.

As polls have showed throughout the campaign, Haley voters were far more likely than other Republican primary voters to put a premium on foreign policy and to strongly support Ukraine. Most of them also see Trump as a threat to democracy. And although Haley opposes abortion, many of her voters support abortion rights, exit polls have shown.

When Haley suspended her campaign on Wednesday, Biden released a statement saying that “Donald Trump made it clear he doesn’t want Nikki Haley’s supporters. I want to be clear: There is a place for them in my campaign.”

The issues he stressed in Thursday night’s speech fit an effort to reach out to that small, potentially crucial voting bloc.

No one speech is ever enough to turn around a campaign. Whether this one accomplished the more realistic task of opening the way for some voters to give him a fresh look won’t be known for weeks.

But at minimum, Biden’s vigorous delivery gave Democrats something to cheer about after weeks of anxiety over poor polls.

With the primary season effectively over, the incumbent has now made clear the themes he intends to emphasize and the path he hopes will lead him to victory. If he’s to achieve a comeback, this was the necessary first step.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.