On Tuesday night, in his second State of the Union speech to Congress, Joe Biden delivered an impressive performance. For an hour and 13 minutes, he boasted about the many bills he’s signed into law; about how he has “created” 12 million jobs; about reducing the deficit by $1.7?trillion, raising employment to record highs and wrestling back the inflation monster. It was arguably his best speech since he became president – he sounded lucid, energetic, confident, even cocky.
Most of his claims were hocus-pocus, of course. Presidents don’t really “create” jobs, at least not outside the public sector, and the US deficit is still astronomically high. But none of that really matters – at least, not in Washington. What counts is the illusion of success. And ever since the mid-term elections in November, when Biden’s party kept the Senate and only narrowly lost the House of Representatives, the president and his team have been able to spin the idea that they are winning. Never mind that a majority of Americans continue to think Biden is doing a bad job, that four in 10 feel worse off since he entered the White House, or that 66 per cent say their country is on the “wrong track” – Joe and co feel that, after two difficult years, their political fortunes are turning upwards.
Biden appeared more comfortable than he did in last year’s State of the Union, perhaps because he clearly relishes not having a Democratic majority in Congress. As he learned as vice president under Barack Obama, a Republican House is a great excuse for not fixing America. When talking about bringing down drug prices for long-suffering Americans, Biden adroitly turned to the Republican side of the chamber and said “Big Pharma is still going to do very well, I promise” – thus skilfully aligning his opponents with the most rapacious forces in America. Joe’s on your side, folks.
Even Donald Trump grudgingly admitted that Biden’s speech wasn’t bad. “Look, he worked hard tonight,” said the 45th president of the 46th, “he ended the evening far stronger than he began. Give him credit for that.” But one semi-good speech won’t make Americans suddenly feel enthused about their commander-in-chief. Biden brushed over what many voters consider his administration’s biggest failing: the migrant crisis on the southern border. According to the immigration control campaigners FAIR, some six million people have illegally crossed into the US since he took office. Team Biden has artfully adapted elements of Trump’s economic populism but seems unable to act directly on immigration for fear of offending politically correct shibboleths.
Some commentators expected that Biden would use the State of the Union address to drop his biggest hint yet that he is going to run again. He did not. He did, however, use the phrase “finish the job” some 12 times. His speech writers were keen to signal that Biden is going nowhere. But is that what most Americans want to hear? The polls suggest not. Even among Democratic voters, a majority would rather someone other than Biden stood for president in 2024. Biden likes to speak vauntingly about the importance of democracy: “With democracy, everything is possible,” he told Congress. “Without it, nothing is.” Yet Biden’s presidency suggests that the American democratic system is not giving voters what they want. Few have ever believed that Biden can be a brilliant president. He won in 2020 not because of who he was but who he wasn’t – i.e. the highly divisive and exhausting Donald Trump. Fast forward to 2024, and it seems quite likely that nothing will change and America will face the same unpopular choice at the ballot. People talk about Florida governor Ron DeSantis beating Trump in the primaries, but Trump still commands a substantial and hardcore section of the Republicans’ electoral base and will be very difficult to defeat. Biden excites almost nobody, but he’s beaten Trump before and at the moment he’s doing just about enough to convince voters that he’s not an abject failure.
In 2020, the comedian Bo Burnham summed up the mood of many Americans when he sang: “They’re really gonna to make me vote for Joe Biden.” Put that on repeat next year.