President Biden delivered an energetic State of the Union, signalling his reelection bid. Addressing domestic and international challenges, he urged support for Ukraine, criticised Donald Trump’s Russia stance, and emphasised democratic values.

P resident Joe Biden delivered his third annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress yesterday. Traditionally, the speech has outlined the state of the nation and announced the government’s policy agenda for the next 12 months. In a move away from tradition, Biden delivered a rousing partisan speech.

Unsurprisingly, the message, delivered in an election year, and so recently after Super Tuesday, when many key states hold presidential primaries, was a clear commencement of Biden’s campaign for re-election to the White House. It presented an ideal opportunity for Biden to promote his successes, address the concerns of American voters and to state his intentions for 2024.

Despite his latest job approval rating standing at just 38.1%, Biden delivered an energetic speech to a packed House whose audience contained not just the members of Congress but also Biden’s cabinet, the Supreme Court justices and special guests.

Biden opened his speech stating that his purpose was “to both wake up this Congress, and alert the American people” at what he said was “an unprecedented moment” in the history of the United States.

Not since the civil war, he added, has “freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today”. But he added that challenges to democracy and freedom were not just at home, but also overseas.

Biden warned Israel that “it had a fundamental responsibility to protect innocent victims in Gaza” and reiterated his call for six-week long ceasefire. He also formally announced that the US would be building a temporary pier in Gaza to receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine and temporary shelters. He did reassure Americans that “no US boots would be on the ground”.

This must surely have sat well with some of the dissenting voices within his own party. Democrats unhappy with his supportive policy toward Israel had expressed a protest vote in the recent Super Tuesday primaries.

He also told Americans that if the US stepped away from supporting Ukraine, it would allow Russia to advance further into Europe. “But Ukraine can stop Putin if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons it needs to defend itself.”

The president also reassured Nato members that the alliance was stronger than ever and, referencing Sweden’s recent joining of the alliance, welcomed the Swedish prime minister in the audience.

Biden warned of the potential danger to American democratic institutions – a thinly veiled warning about the potential re-election of his likely opponent former president Donald Trump. Although he never mentioned Trump by name, there were numerous references to his predecessor.

Just as he did last year, Biden offered his hand in partnership with his ideological rivals but railed against those who continued to challenge the legitimacy of his election as they “posed the gravest threat to our democracy since the Civil War” and that the insurrectionists of January 6 “placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy”.

“My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth of January 6th.” In a further attack on Trump, Biden stated that Trump’s recent supportive comments on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was his predecessor “bowing down to a Russian leader. It’s outrageous. It’s dangerous. It’s unacceptable”.

Further criticism of Trump came in the shape of the former president’s intention to overturn the US Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision that had protected abortion rights for American women. Biden called on Congress to ensure that IVF treatment was guaranteed across the nation.

He warned Republicans that failing to do so could lead to a backlash at the next election. “Those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women in America. They found out though when reproductive freedom was on the ballot and won in 2022, 2023, and they will find out again, in 2024.”

The United States’ southern border, an area that has been the subject of much criticism from the Republican party, also featured significantly. He hailed November’s bipartisan Senate bill that would have allowed his administration to secure the border but criticised Donald Trump and Republicans for not supporting it.

Biden counters criticism

The Biden White House has been criticised for not publicising its successes loudly enough in the past. This State of the Union address offered an opportunity for the president to counter some of that criticism.

And he took that opportunity, citing his economic successes as “the greatest comeback story never told”. The US was, he said, “building an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, not the top down, investing in all of America, in all Americans to make sure everyone has a fair shot and we leave no one behind!”

For some inside the Biden administration the address was an opportunity for Biden to reset the campaign and push forward. Representative Robert Garcia of California suggested it was “important to remind folks what he’s done”.

Representative Annie Kuster of New Hampshire said that the address would affect not just Biden’s future but that of the entire Democratic party. It was, Kuster said: “The moment to show Democrats are leading and succeeding.”

Initial reactions were that Biden’s message was fiery, with one commentator asking where Sleepy Joe Biden had gone. It was, USA columnist Rex Huppke said: “One of the strongest election-year State of the Union speeches’ that he had witnessed.”

Jenna Ben-Yehuda, the executive vice president of the think tank the Atlantic Council, called it “a pep talk for US global leadership — a reminder that freedom and democracy are American values and that the mantle of global leadership remains ours if we are bold enough to seize it”.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak said that Biden had delivered “an energetic speech that was a far cry from some of his more subdued efforts that have concerned supporters”.

Has Biden been effective at conveying his message? Yes, but it depends on whether Americans want to listen to it. Only time and the polls in November will tell.

PMP Magazine


▪ This piece was originally published in The Conversation and re-published in PMP Magazine on 9 March 2024. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Flickr/White House. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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