Joe Biden’s State of the Union was the weirdest, most fraught since 1998, when Bill Clinton’s speech was overshadowed by the just-revealed news about a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. (Clinton touted a $200 billion budget surplus at that address, a reminder of what a different age it was.)
On Tuesday night, President Biden addressed the nation as war in Europe grows more intense, and as America begins to sheath its weapons in the COVID fight, including by ending mask and vaccine mandates. Hegel said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. But in the juxtapositions or these weird outlier State of the Union addresses, it was the other way around: Clinton’s Lewinsky farce and Biden’s Putin-and-Pandemic tragedy.
Anyone who is not hopelessly anti-Biden will have to admit that the president has conducted himself with aplomb during the Ukraine crisis—rallying the world, not shooting too soon on sanctions, projecting the right tone of moral outrage, skirting the insane demands to bomb Russian convoys. Biden’s State of the Union address made it clear that this was Putin’s war, saying the bare-chested dictator had “sought to shake the foundations of the free world thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated.”
Putin may have started the war, but it’s very much Biden’s to finish, whether U.S. armed forces fire shots or not.
The relationship of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill—wary at first, close by the end—was central to victory in World War II and cementing the sometimes-rickety alliance of peoples separated by a common language. Now, Biden, the wizened pol, finds himself joined at the hip with a comedian turned Churchill, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The slight and agile actor played a Ukrainian president on television and now rallies his nation as a 21st-century blitz sends his fellow citizens into the subways for safety. Imagine, say, Julia Louis-Dreyfus was suddenly transported from Veep to the real-life situation room. (Actually, she might do pretty well.) We don’t know if Zelenskyy will be able to remain president of his beleaguered nation. We don’t know if he’ll survive, but as long as he breathes, his relationship with Biden is pivotal. The degree to which the unlikely duo can coordinate message and strategy will have elements of Casablanca, Yalta, Tehran, and other Roosevelt-Churchill meetings—except they will be over Zoom.
With its neck-snapping pivot from war to domestic policy, Biden’s speech was a reminder that his agenda—already far more impressive than critics give him credit for— nevertheless remains incomplete. Biden wants to find a way to break off parts of the ill-fated Build Back Better bill, but he also wants to press his executive authority in areas like antitrust (long a concern of this magazine).
That Biden chose to put a prominent Facebook whistleblower in the honored “box” with the First Lady must constitute one of the all-time presidential disses of a company. It was lightyears from Democrats doing the #leanin to kiss Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. How would you like to be Nick Clegg, the former British deputy prime minister, and now Facebook public policy czar, spinning that one? Biden also had the president of Intel there to honor their announcement of a $20 billion semiconductor plant the company is building in Ohio. Of course, had America enacted a stricter antitrust regime under previous presidencies, we would have slowed the industry’s consolidation long before the COVID-induced turmoil. Indeed, that chip-making capacity might already be in the U.S. instead of in Taiwan.
Biden is proving the most formidable antitrust president in a generation, and he gave it some muscle Tuesday night, linking concentration to inflation: “When corporations don’t have to compete, their profits go up, your prices go up, and small businesses and family farmers and ranchers go under.”
The State of the Union address can help presidents. It’s their best opportunity all year to command the nation’s attention for a sustained hour instead of in a soundbite. But the address is losing its oomph. Being carried by the broadcast networks and cable channels still matters, but it’s a diminishing audience. Last year, only 27 million viewers caught Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress, by far the lowest in the history of such addresses.
Still, presidents have come to know its power. Woodrow Wilson delivered the first in-person address to Congress since Thomas Jefferson. (The constitution only demands a report, not a talk.) The pinched political science professor knew its power. The master of power, Lyndon Johnson, was the first president to move it into prime time. Since then, it’s given birth to a cavalcade of slogans, some better than others. LBJ had announced a war on poverty, Nixon a war on crime. The address, a laundry list that rarely really soars, has been big on “new’s”: Truman’s New Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Nixon’s New Federalism, Ford’s New Realism. Carter had a New Foundation.
Biden mercifully ignored that kind of label. Instead, the speechwriters had to chuck much of the address and got to deliver the best kind: a declaration of war of sorts—but without the American body counts—and a statement of resolve. The Ukrainian flags in the chamber underscored the unified moment.
“The State of the Union is strong—because you, the American people, are strong,” Biden reported. He’s right. The economy is booming. Business start-ups are incredible. Unemployment is low. But inflation and a lingering pandemic sour the mood. Biden is doing the right thing by taking action on both fronts. He’s pressing vaccinations while acknowledging COVID-19 is a grim but manageable problem and not a crisis: “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.” Transitioning to an uneasy peace with COVID, seeing the world through the war in Europe, slaying inflation. It’s a helluva lift for a 79-year-old man. Tuesday night, it seemed, he was up to it.