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Biden powers through State of the Union address to prove he’s up for round two as president

Biden powers through State of the Union address to prove he’s up for round two as president
During his State of the Union address in the Capital on 7 March 2024, US President Joe Biden, while not brilliant, was cogent, energetic, coherent, plain-speaking, and – perhaps crucially for his political chances – on point in challenging his Republican tormentors. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Thursday night’s State of the Union speech by US President Joe Biden was an effort to convince voters that he was not a gaffe-prone, asleep-at-the-switch president. His performance showed there is still some fight left in the guy as he took it to Republicans – but there are many mountains to climb.

It’s gloves off. It is time for the knuckle dusters and gut punches in a presidential and general election campaign that is now (nearly) officially under way. We say, “nearly”, because the country’s primary elections are not yet completed, let alone the national political party nominating conventions, and lightning could still strike – although it now is extremely unlikely. 

The plain fact is Republicans have made their choice to renominate the former president, Donald Trump, in the aftermath of his overwhelming success during the Super Tuesday primary voting on 5 March. Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, beaten at those polls in every contest save in Vermont, suspended her campaign, but she declined to offer an endorsement of her rival. 

Just before the voting, Trump received a gift from the Supreme Court that had ruled individual states cannot bar challenger Trump from appearing on their respective ballots (in the US,voting is under the control of individual states, not an IEC-style body) for the November election; this, despite charges Trump that incited an insurrection at the Capitol Building on 6 January 2021, and was thus ineligible to be a candidate, in accord with Section 3 of the 14th Amendment to the country’s constitution. 

Among Democrats, meanwhile, the incumbent president, Joe Biden, has been clearing the decks of his party’s primaries. Although, here, a protest vote over US policies in the Near East has meant a discernible percentage of voters in several states have chosen to vote “uncommitted” rather than for the president.

Then, on Thursday evening, the incumbent president delivered his best punch yet in the constitutionally required “state of the union” message. For many years, this report was delivered as a written letter to Congress. But for a century now, it has been a moment for presidents to set out their successes, their challenges, and their promises and hopes. Now it is a widely viewed event, broadcast live on television and live-streamed to millions at home – and abroad. 

On Thursday night, Biden delivered his state of the union speech before both houses of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, military leaders, the cabinet (minus one designated survivor sitting elsewhere in the event of an unimaginable disaster), and invited guests who were symbolic of the various key points of the speech. This speech has effectively become Biden’s first avowed campaign speech for the present electoral cycle. 

Pro-Gaza ceasefire demonstrators in downtown Washington DC had forced the presidential motorcade to take a detour from the White House to the Capitol Building, although there was no attempt by protestors to enter the Capitol (unlike a certain insurrection effort on 6 January 2021).

Biden’s foremost task was to demonstrate he was in charge and fully alert. Further, he would have to show he would not stumble, utter helpings of a garbled word salad or drift off into gauzy non sequiturs (unlike another politician now vying for the presidency). Let’s be honest: Joe Biden is never going to be compared favourably to Pericles, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt or Barack Obama, as an orator who moves hearts and minds. Not surprisingly, yet again, he was not the equal of those individuals in rhetorical skill. 

But he was cogent, energetic, coherent, plain-speaking, and – perhaps crucially for his political chances – on point in challenging his Republican tormentors to support legislation on aid to Ukraine, on border security and on improvements in medical cost restrictions as well as middle-class financial benefits and higher taxes on the ultra-rich and big corporations, among other matters. He set out an agenda for a broad array of semi-populist proposals to improve the circumstances of middle- and working-class Americans as well as support for women’s reproductive rights. 

In this speech, there was Biden’s argument that aid to Ukraine would be a defining moment for America’s role in the world in the future (including a shout-out to Sweden’s prime minister, representing Nato’s newest member in attendance), as well as plans to build a temporary harbour to deliver aid to Gaza (a modern “mulberry” for those who know the history of the Normandy invasion in World War 2). This was in tandem with an insistence of a need for a broader solution in the Near East. He was unrelenting in touting the growing success of the administration’s enacted economic policies and measures, even as he admitted there had been some difficult times in the immediate aftermath of the Covid pandemic and the economic shutdown.

In what may well represent a way of simultaneously embracing and minimising the age issue that now seems to hover perpetually over the president, he argued it is not the age of the man, the politician, or the president, but the potency and currency of his ideas. 

Response

In his address, President Joe Biden strongly criticised his opponent, former president Donald Trump, without mentioning him by name. (Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Summing up the president’s speech, the Washington Post said: “In a speech befitting the political moment of an election year, President Biden loaded up on criticism of former president Donald Trump — without saying his name once. He dinged the Republican presidential front-runner for his cosiness with Russia, the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol and Trump’s failure in his ‘duty to care’ during the pandemic. He also enthusiastically mixed it up several times with Republicans in the chamber, and at times he seemed to encourage the call-and-response with them.”

In a flash poll by CNN of voters who had actually watched the speech – echoing positives expressed by on-air Democratic-leaning commentators – some 62% of those surveyed said Biden’s policies would move the country in the right direction. The trick for the Biden re-election campaign is to hone that initial perception, to broaden such an understanding on the part of voters, and then to drive it home in contrast to some significant, baked-in voter perceptions of his challenger for the Oval Office. 

Immigration and the presumed threat to the nation posed by such movements of people is clearly the key, wedge issue Republicans hope to use in their campaign to oust the incumbent president. Despite a bill hammered out by conservative Republicans together with Democrats that would have significantly strengthened border protection and funded aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, under instruction from Donald Trump, House of Representatives Republicans refused to bring the proposed bill to a hearing, let alone a vote. 

Instead, the Republican position, now, is that there is already sufficient law in place, and that all Biden has to do is snap his fingers and issue an executive order or two, and the flow of immigrants and their ability to enter the US would be stopped dead in their tracks. Never mind that the border/immigration issue has been a crisis point for several decades – including a couple Republican administrations. Whether the incumbent president can neutralise this attack line remains to be seen.

In the traditional opposition party’s response broadcast, the Republicans selected Alabama junior senator, Katie Britt, to deliver that message. Speaking from her Alabama kitchen, complete with homey touches and burnished wood finishes, Britt oozed a faux sincerity and warmth, with her voice nearly breaking and lachrymose eyes about ready to burst into tears as she spoke about the travails of women, families and little children in the blasted economic landscape apparently all around her – and the fault of Joe Biden. Her speech also blamed Biden personally for the border mess, a disastrous retreat from Kabul, Afghanistan and a kitchen-table issues economic morass and the Biden administration for failing to aggressively support the country’s friends like Ukraine and Israel – this without the slightest trace of irony, given Republican recalcitrance in passing aid/border-strengthening legislation. Britt was vociferous on the insidious danger to children and other living things from TikTok. 

In future, we shall see all of these various lines of attack and defence delivered with increasing fierceness – by both parties – for the next seven months, until the electorate has been driven to distraction or exhaustion. DM

Gallery

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  • Steve Davidson says:

    I thought he did very well. The other idiot is getting more and more demented and will hopefully be carted off in an orange straitjacket sooner rather than later. Preferably just before the election so Biden can stay in the White House before handing over to Harris. And we can then relax a bit, Ukraine will turn things around and RatPutin will be heaved out. The Democrats, with helpfully big majorities in both houses will be able to rewrite their constitution so in future a thug like The Traitor Trump aka The Chump can never get anywhere near the levers of power ever again!

  • Pet Bug says:

    Thank goodness we only have 80-odd days until the election!
    Stiff Jack Daniels for the Gringos till November.

    • Smanga Z says:

      Our elections will still leave the anc in power. So no need to “thank god”

      • Hidden Name says:

        That’s pretty unlikely, actually. If they do manage to hold power, it will be with the help of others – which will place them at the mercy of someone else’s agenda. That won’t end well for anyone.

  • Con Tester says:

    The cynic in me says that “one swallow doesn’t make a summer,” as per Aristotle. Biden may have been amped on some chemicals and made other special preparation to meet with suitable verve his moment in the sun.

    But, whatever.

    More broadly, the mere fact that a nation of 320+ million fields the likes of Biden and Trump as its best potential candidates for running the country says hugely more about the US political system and the US voter than it does about those candidates. If those two are the best that the nation can muster then it deserves every millimetre, every milligram, of arseholery that’s guaranteed to come its way.

    And it’s no good arguing that the US political machine runs on money, however superficially true that might be. As in every other constitutional democracy, the preeminent one ultimately runs on the discernment of the voter, so join the dots.

    But given the US’s two monolith camps and its voters’ parochial fickleness, it won’t matter much who runs the place. Minor differences in domestic and foreign policies will spark lots of animosity and hot air, while, for the most part, it’ll be business as usual—just so long as the majority isn’t put out too much.

    • Bruce Danckwerts says:

      I agree with the sentiments of your comment. There is something wrong with US politics if these two candidates are the best that their system can deliver. I believe that the US (and UK, and Zambia and South Africa) ought to adopt the “European” system of proportional representation rather than their first past the post system. Negotiating any form of new legislation in a European parliament must be a slow and often frustrating process because of the need to negotiate and negotiate and negotiate with the other parties who command smaller portions of the electoral vote. I believe this is actually a positive as it means that when consensus is eventually reached, it more accurately represents the aspirations of the country as a whole, not just the 51% who happened to win the last election. Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      The problem with democracy is that 50% of the eligible voters have an IQ lower than average. How informed and competent are their decisions when they tick a box. Then there’s the other half. Who knows what motivates their decisions.
      Regardless, the last few years have seen USA crumble into a monumental mess. Its going to be seriously difficult, if not impossible for them to ever recover. USA is no longer identifiable as its former self. They are a global laughing stock.

  • Chris Lee says:

    Just looked like an angry old man to me – and no way will he make it intact through another term. They really need to rethink this.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Statistically Biden was bound to sound lucid on occasion. Brook’s bias very evident too.
    But really, are these two chumps the best America has to offer…and the thought of Harris…my word!.

  • bigbad jon says:

    An octogenarian on drugs yelling clichés, incapable of debating with Trump. What a joke the USA has become.

  • Troy Marshall says:

    The Democrat nominee : makes a speech and there’s celebration if no signs of cognitive decline
    The Republican nominee : insults and racial tinged populism
    … and I thought we in South Africa had it bad

  • Thinker and Doer says:

    Thank you very much for an interesting and informative take on the current state of the US electoral race. I hope that President Biden can continue to campaign with energy and put across a positive programme effectively. I particularly enjoyed the summation of the Republican rebuttal to the speech, especially the highlighting of the “insidious danger to children and other living things” from tick tock”.

  • Vas K says:

    I don’t understand what the US presidential election fuss is all about. It’s a lose-lose situation. Two loonies facing each other. How in the nation of well over 300 million you can end up with two evil clowns like these is just beyond comprehension. The scary thing is that one of them will exercise significant powers. Of course the US voters will be very proud that they are making a difference in the “greatest democracy in the world”.

  • Agf Agf says:

    Oh please do me a favour!! He is an old man suffering from senile dementia totally incapable of a rational thought. He can barely put two words together or find his way on or off the stage. I feel sorry for him. He belongs in frail care. If the democrats lose they only have themselves to blame. They had RFK Jr. lined up and waiting. A relatively young fit and eloquent man. What a waste.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    Biden for all his flaws is still a decent human being. It amazes me that the USA voters can even countenance the 🍊 orange alternative. Couldn’t happen here – hang on … how many candidates did the ANC’s integrity committee reject? Four and the rest are squeaky clean…

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      On the last American elections I waited patiently for Biden to win.
      I hated trump for calling African leaders stupid and for declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel in the mist of an illegal occupation.
      Biden came to power, his intervention in Ukraine was my best moment because I always support what is right, it is how I learned of Bucha,Melitopol to name a few.
      Then the funding faltered, the Hamas October 7 happened, I was excited that with a man like Biden in charge Hamas will be history, the Palestinians will finally have a free state because I trusted him to be honest with Israel about the root of the problems.
      I was wrong the man contradicted himself 360 degrees on the second invasion and occupation of Palestine by Israel.
      The last throw is when he feeds the Palestinians and on the same token give Israel bombs to kill them.
      Only hope now is his dementia and his persistent coughing will teach him to value life and start to appreciate that his bombs are doing more cough in Gaza, Rafah and west bank.
      As for Israel they have gone out of any bounds of humanity.
      The fact that there is pro Israel supporters shows how sick the world is.
      Gaza has proved that the Hamas terror attack was a lesson they learned from the best.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      “US President Joe Biden, while not brilliant, was cogent, energetic, coherent, plain-speaking,”

      Just me or does that seem to be damning him with faint praise?

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      @Trevor Pope, apologies I placed my comment as a response to yours somehow. Wasn’t meant to be.

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    I’m always curious about the apparent lack of interest Biden fans have in his families remarkable ability to generate very substantial incomes from the most unlikely of sources. The millions of dollars that his son was paid in directors fees from a Ukranian energy firm while having no relevant qualifications or for the role and being an olympic grade crack head and chaser of prostitutes being one notable example of many.

    • Rodney Weidemann says:

      You mean, as opposed to Trump, a serial sexual abuser who nepotistically brought half his family into senior government positions when he was elected?

  • Middle aged Mike says:

    No Rodney Weidemann, not as opposed to Trump, just in and of itself. A family that has collectively pulled in 10s of millions of dollars of income from China, Russia, Ukraine and various other places largely for intangible services like consulting which ebbed and flowed with Biden’s periods in office would surely be worthy of at least as much law enforcement attention as the unsavoury Mr Trump has received don’t you think? The money that his son pulled in while he was Obama’s point man on Ukraine alone seems like it would be worth looking into with a bit more enthusiasm. The talented younger Biden’s laptop contained chapter and verse on hundreds of payments which given his lifestyle at the time seem at least as suspicious as those made to our very own Duduzane Zuma by the Guptas. He was until not very long ago selling his paintings via anonymous auctions for amounts of up to half a million dollars. That doesn’t smell even a teensy weensy bit.

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