Biden must hope he is heckled during his State of the Union address

(Saul Loeb/Associated Press)

Biden must hope he is heckled during his State of the Union address

Doyle McManus

March 4, 2024

President Biden can hope he will be heckled by Republicans when he delivers his State of the Union address on Thursday, just like last year.

This is why.

Biden’s campaign for a second term is in trouble. His job approval rating, normally a reliable indicator of a sitting president’s chances, is below 40%.

So the stakes for the State of the Union address, usually a forgettable event, are unusually high.

The president and his aides have received a tsunami of public advice from other Democrats, including strategists who worked for Presidents Obama and Clinton, on how to improve his prospects.

They say Biden must accomplish three goals: He must address voters’ concerns that, at 81, he is too old to seek a second term. He must tackle the issues on voters’ minds head-on


high prices and immigration. And he should view the election as a binary choice between him and former President Trump, rather than as a referendum on his first term.

For months, Biden has tried to talk his way out of voters’ concerns about his age or worse by responding angrily to questions about it.

It’s crazy to think that if you don’t talk about it, people won’t think he’s old, David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign strategist, said recently. You won’t get a hearing unless you at least tell people: Yes, I understand.

Last week

[Monday, Feb. 26]

Biden took a half-step in that direction, telling television host Seth Meyers that both candidates are old and voters should focus on the differences between them.

“Look at that other guy, he’s about the same age as me,” the president said of the 77-year-old Trump. “It’s about how old your ideas are. Look, I mean, this is a man who wants to take us back. He wants to take us back to Roe

v.(copy: he said “v.” not “vs.”)

Wade, he wants to take us on a whole range of issues.

That was a good start, but probably not enough.

I don’t think they’ve put it to bed, said Doug Sosnik, who helped Bill Clinton to a second term in 1996. It’s still a problem. He needs to lean more forward on it. This isn’t an issue he’s going to win; he just has to get to the point where he doesn’t lose on it.

We’ll have to do it again, a Biden aide acknowledged.

Biden is unlikely to raise the age issue in his State of the Union address. But just by delivering a competent performance, he can refute opponents’ claims that he is unfit for office.

In his speech a year ago, he was handed a small triumph by Republican fanatics, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose bickering and the back-and-forth that followed showed he can still be quick on his feet. The president should hope for more of that kind of help again this year.

On the economy, aides say Biden will talk about the achievements of his first three years, including bipartisan legislation on infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing.

On inflation, which is slowing but still troublesome, he will talk about his effort to lower Medicare prescription prices and his efforts to ban hidden junk fees charged by banks, hotels and other businesses.

And he will repeat his demand for legislation to make the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share, which means higher taxes for corporations and individuals making more than $400,000 a year.

On immigration, he will again ask Congress to pass the bipartisan border bill in the Senate, which has been blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives. He viewed that field last week during his visit to Brownsville, Texas

[Thursday Feb. 29]

, mockingly calling on Trump to join him in support of the bill. With House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) behind him, that part of the speech could set off fireworks.

I’ll also talk about a long list of other issues, including reproductive rights, possibly including the recent ruling by the conservative Alabama Supreme Court that halted in vitro fertilization in the state.

The test of Biden’s success will be whether he can turn a speech that too often results in a laundry list of priorities into a coherent narrative of what he would like in a second term.

You need a compelling, consistent story about where the country is and how you’re going to make it better, Sosnik said. It must look ahead.

That brings us to the third goal: making the 2024 election a choice between two flawed candidates, and not a referendum on Biden’s first three years.

Most presidents can’t win a referendum, and certainly not Biden, given the environment and the mood of the country right now, Axelrod said on the podcast he co-hosts, “Hacks on Tap.” If it is a referendum, it will end badly. If it’s a choice, I think he has a chance to win.

Biden gave a taste of that issue during his appearance with Meyers, when he presented the election as a choice between two old men, only one of whom wants to take us back.

Given the protocol of a State of the Union address, he is unlikely to address Trump by name, as he has often done


in campaign events that called the former president dangerous, a threat to democracy and, in turning one of Trump’s favorite insults toward him, a loser.

His rhetoric will be higher on Thursday, but the underlying goal will still be to make the contrast clear.

One way he can do that is in foreign policy, where he will pressure Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana to put his pending request for military aid to Ukraine to a vote. Biden is likely to remind Congress that defending U.S. allies against Russian President Vladimir Putin is a core national security objective. The comparison with Trump, an unapologetic Putin fan, does not need to be made explicit.

So here’s a television recommendation that’s rarely been made before. This will be a State of the Union address worth watching, even if the president isn’t lucky enough to be heckled again.


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