How can President Biden make the most of this moment?
Given Russia’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine, it is more important than ever for the American president to do everything possible to pull the country together and to assert leadership at home and abroad. In fact, his response to that crisis could reinforce the first of two ways I see that President Biden could use the State of the Union address as a turning point.
That first way is, he could say: “All of this fighting between fellow Americans, all of this division, all of this polarization has to stop. It is defeating us as a country. It is weakening us as a people. It is keeping us from being able to build the kind of future that we want to be able to give to our children. What’s holding us back is not economic growth or opportunity. What’s holding us back is ourselves. Our own divisions. And that’s why we have to find a way around it.”
Of course, that’s been part of his message all along. But I think this is about making the point in a way that’s rhetorically more intense and real. “Look folks,” he might say, “I am 79 years old. I have many, many more yesterdays than I do tomorrows. But one of the things I know, and maybe I feel it more intensely today because I am advanced in my age, is that if we don’t stop this, if we don’t get right and come together as a country, we are heading for disaster as a nation.” And to be very stark and blunt and direct about it.
Then, to say to the members of the opposition party, “I know you don’t agree with many things that we talk about. I know there has been a lot of dispute and unfortunate rhetoric and unfortunate action all around us. I’m asking you to stop this. For the sake of our country and our children and our future. I’m asking you to stop it.” I could even imagine President Biden highlighting some Republicans, Liz Cheney being the most notable.
Then he would turn to the Democrats and say, “We have to learn to compromise for the sake of showing the people of our country we can deliver results to help them. We have to learn to come together around those things we can get done. And not allow the things that perhaps we can’t get done right now today to keep us from those that we can get done. I’m asking everyone in this country, whether you’re inside or outside of this room tonight: Stop a minute, look around and think about how much more we have in common than we have that divides us. How much more unites us than there is that drives us apart.”
That would be a big, big statement and a big moment. All of this takes on more urgency given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. President Biden needs to show he can rally the nation behind a decisive response under fast-changing circumstances.
What’s the second way?
The second way is in opposition to the first. The second way would be to use this occasion as sort of the kickoff of the midterm elections, where he’s trying to draw lines of division and differentiation between the Democrats and Republicans, to paint what the Democrats have tried to do or are continuing to try to do on every front as being to the advantage of the country and to paint the Republicans as obstructionists. To call out January 6th for what it was: an attempted coup, a violent insurrection. And essentially try to shame them. And then of course to use that as a way to celebrate the things that have been done, to get more credit for them.
I see either of those two approaches as possible turning points. But it would be hard to do both and have either of them work effectively. I’d imagine he might try to do both. If he does try to do both, my bet is that it won't be seen as a definitive turning point.