It’s State of the Union time. Will Biden screw up?

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It’s State of the Union time. Will Biden screw up?

Opinion piece, Elections 2024

Jackie Calmes

March 6, 2024

Wishful thinkers in both parties, as well as pundits, pondered Thursday a State of the Union address in which President Biden looks serenely into the TV cameras and concludes with an LBJ-esque shocker: an announcement that he will neither seek nor accept his . parties for a second term.

That wouldn’t happen, and it shouldn’t. Here in reality, the way to view Biden’s speech is the antithesis of Lyndon


Johnson’s speech on Vietnam with its surprise ending, on another evening in March, more than half a century ago, amid the tumult of 1968. The current president is writing a very different ending to his term.

Biden, unlike the beleaguered Johnson, will not be pressured to retire. He is stubbornly committed to the belief that, to borrow from his rivals’ blister, he alone can beat Donald Trump. (Forget that Biden once joked that probably 50 Democrats could win.) And he deserves the chance to prove it, age be damned.

Maybe he’s selfish, like some Democrats in private. I also have my doubts. I wish he was younger. But that’s not true. He is a candidate and has earned a second term.

The biggest surprise is that he shows no doubts, Biden biographer Evan Osnos wrote this week in the New Yorker, after interviewing him for the first time since 2020.

That version of Biden, determined, steadfast and confident, can be attractive, and he also seems less old. Think back to last year’s speech when he joked from the pulpit in the well of the House of Representatives while raucous Republicans unwittingly became his opponents and harassed Liar! repeatedly.

The big challenge for the president, however, is not just maintaining a compelling personality for higher-ups


of one hour, for one of the largest audiences you will get all year. And the content of the speech should make the case for why he should get another four years, why he instead doesn’t make good on his 2020 speech about becoming a transitional president and passes the torch to a younger Democrat after a good run.

Biden must do more than just talk about his considerable achievements, a legacy that rivals Johnson’s, even if Biden does not have the large Democratic majorities in Congress that LBJ enjoyed. The president must look alive! But more than that: his message must inspire voters. He has to make them want to stay with old Joe.

So far, Biden has not delivered such a message. Since 2020, he has alternated between themes: restoring the country’s soul after Trump, protecting democracy, reviving the economy and the middle class after a pandemic-era recession, rebuilding America’s alliances, and countering of the post-Dobbs attacks on reproductive rights. He needs a future-oriented theme that encompasses everything. It doesn’t have to be as simple as MAGA, but something that fits on a bumper sticker would be nice.

This year’s State of the Union address is his chance for a reset, in prime time. Biden must tell a story that showcases his achievements, that provides a clear contrast to Trump’s dark, dictatorial vision, and that has something to offer younger and better-spoken Democratic surrogates every day, all day, from now until November.

You campaign in poetry; You rule in prose, Mario Cuomo once said. Biden has left the governing body behind. But when it comes to the all-important performative part of the presidency, he is not. (Get the surrogates over there, quick!)

The stakes for Biden were underscored by a series of polls on the election

past last

week in which he chased Trump in a duel and in the perception of voters. His job approval rating remains stuck in the high 30s, the lowest at this stage of a presidency since Jimmy Carter. The Democrats in his audience Thursday will be a panicky bunch, desperate for reassurance about both the man and his message.

A New York Times/Siena College poll found that nearly three-quarters of registered voters strongly or somewhat believe that 81-year-old Biden is too old to be an effective president, compared to 42% who said so 77-year-old Trump . An AP/NORC poll showed there are about six

of 10 adults said both Biden and Trump lack the mental capacity to be president. But among independents who could decide elections, 80% expressed doubts about Biden’s abilities, compared with 56% who did so about the unhinged Trump.

Nearly six in 10 adults say the economy is worse than when Biden took office, even though that’s clearly not the case, as figures and economists show. Still, voter perception, whether it’s about the economy, the age of the candidates or something else, is what matters. And the risk for Biden is that his State of the Union appearance could just as easily reinforce negative impressions about him as it can dispel them.

The only certain thing is that Biden will not pull an LBJ and bow out.

Both he and Johnson came from sordid backgrounds, honed their political skills in the Senate and the vice presidency, realized a lifelong ambition to become president and believed they did that job better than anyone. That certainty did not last long for Johnson, as the war abroad and the fighting on the streets took its political toll. But it holds up for Biden and keeps him in the race, as the Osnos piece documented in the New Yorker.

Osnos wrote: I asked Biden if there was ever a moment when he doubted whether he would run again. No, he said. And Biden did this voluntarily: I would ask a rhetorical question: If you thought you were best positioned to defeat someone who, if won, would change the nature of America, what would you do?

If only the rest of us Trump-phobes could be so sure that Biden is indeed best positioned to defeat the former president, failed insurgent and current criminal defendant. But trust is too much to ask; In this State of the Union, I will settle for some reassurance about Joe Biden’s condition.



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