President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., listen. (Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

When Democratic President Bill Clinton delivered his 1995 State of the Union address at the beginning of his third year in office, right after Republicans took control of Congress and his approval rating was languishing in the 40s, he pledged to cut spending: “We propose to cut $130 billion in spending by shrinking departments, extending our freeze on domestic spending, cutting 60 public housing programs down to three, getting rid of over 100 programs we do not need.”

When Democratic President Barack Obama delivered his 2011 State of the Union address at the beginning of his third year in office, right after Republicans took control of the House and his approval rating was languishing in the 40s, he pledged to cut spending: “I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. Now, this would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President.”

When Democratic President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union address at the beginning of his third year in office, right after Republicans took control of the House and his approval rating was languishing in the 40s, he did not pledge to cut spending.

Sure, Biden nodded toward the center—praising bipartisanship, offering more border security, delivering an ode to former President George W. Bush for his work to combat HIV/AIDS. But the president did not act like a worried politician looking to make an ideological pivot. A quintessentially confident Biden delivered this address, proudly defending his record and conceding nothing. He even managed to lock in a key concession from Republicans.

After Biden pointed to unnamed Republicans who “want Medicare and Social Security to sunset” (a reference to Senator Rick Scott’s plan to sunset every federal law and program every five years), Republicans interrupted with howls. Unrattled, Biden seized the opportunity. “As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They’re not to be touched.” Republicans applauded, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy from behind the podium. Surely Biden was aware that McCarthy had already said he would leave Social Security and Medicare out of budget negotiations, but his deft ad-lib made it look like he extracted the concession from the entire GOP conference.

We can’t definitively say whether Biden’s defiance is politically wise until the 2024 election. Say what you will about the strategic retreats on spending offered by Clinton and Obama, but they got themselves handily re-elected. And despite his unwillingness to offer concessions before negotiations, Biden may end up walking a path similar to his Democratic predecessors. It’s extremely hard to envision a budget agreement with the Republican-controlled House that doesn’t trim spending.

But in the short run, Biden’s easygoing confidence is precisely what he needs to keep the naysayers at bay. Thanks to a better-than-expected midterm performance, Biden avoided drawing an early primary challenge. However, murmurs of concern about his advanced age among Democrats are everywhere. You can feel the Democratic panic every time a poll crops up with Biden trailing Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis. Following this month’s ABC/Washington Post poll showing Donald Trump beating Biden by three points, Julián Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who ran against Biden for the Democratic nomination in 2020, posted on Twitter, “this poll undermines Biden’s central argument for re-nomination.” A desperate and disjointed State of the Union address could have shaken the Democratic base and ignited a wave of ageist calls for a new nominee.

That’s not what happened. Biden didn’t just give a solid speech. He demonstrated agility, went off script, and ran circles around his hecklers. It echoed Ronald Reagan’s masterful moment during the second 1984 general election presidential debate when the 73-year-old president was questioned about his stamina. The Gipper cheekily responded, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

And that’s not all. Biden laid out a vision that can resonate with the progressive base and apolitical swing voters. “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism,” declared Biden, “It’s extortion. It’s exploitation.”

After detailing his administration’s efforts to curtail surprise medical bills, combat nursing home fraud, cut shipping costs, and allow hearing aids to be sold over the counter, Biden promoted legislation to prevent hidden surcharges on bills known as “junk fees.” He cited examples of unnecessary fees that hit middle-class travelers, concertgoers, and telecommunications customers. And he did so without getting bogged down in wonky legalese.

Channeling his inner Scranton, Biden said, “The idea that cable, internet, and cell phone companies can charge you $200 or more if you decide to switch to another provider—give me a break,” and “Americans are tired of being played for suckers.”

At the same time, he didn’t give an inch in the culture war, as he called for the codification of national abortion rights and legal protections for “LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people.” He claimed a commonsense position on criminal justice and police reform: “Just as every police officer when they pin on that badge in the morning has a right to be able to go home at night, so does everybody else out there. Our children have a right to come home safely.” Biden got to where he is because he has a decades-long record of navigating treacherous political terrain and forging an economically and racially diverse coalition. He did it again last night.

Thirty-nine years ago, after his debate quip, Reagan said, “I might add that it was Seneca or it was Cicero, I don’t know which, that said, ‘If it was not for the elders correcting the mistakes of the young, there would be no state.’” Yesterday, the elder once again showed the young how it’s done.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.