The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s State of the Union address should build on his record

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Jan. 14. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

“My fellow Americans, the state of the union is … better. Much, much better.”

I doubt President Biden will use those exact words in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night — not with inflation still in the headlines — but they encapsulate the truth. Biden has not solved all the problems of the nation or the world in his first year in the White House. But he has done a heck of a lot.

Recall where we were on the day Joe Biden took the oath of office.

The nation was gripped by the covid-19 pandemic, and there was no workable process or plan to get everyone vaccinated. The economy was in crisis; restaurants and hotels were shuttered, and airports were like ghost towns. Schools were closed. Two weeks earlier, a shocking and unprecedented violent assault on the U.S. Capitol was waged by insurrectionists bent on overturning the presidential election and keeping Biden’s predecessor in power. That defeated incumbent, bitter because the putsch had failed, lacked the respect for tradition and country to attend Biden’s inauguration.

Look where we are now.

Follow Eugene Robinson's opinionsFollow

Some 65 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and nearly 44 percent has also had a booster shot. Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are in free fall. During Biden’s first year, the economy added a record 6.6 million jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 4 percent. Schools are open and functioning normally. Mask mandates are being lifted. Our political discourse has returned to Democrats and Republicans shouting at each other across a yawning divide, but they are once again fighting with words, not cudgels and bear spray.

Follow along with Post columnists as they watch Biden’s State of the Union address

Working with a slim majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate, Biden and the congressional leadership — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) — managed to pass a $1.9 trillion covid-19 rescue package and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. Biden has had a record 46 federal judges confirmed. And this past week he nominated U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court — she could be the first Black female justice in our nation’s history.

By any standard, that’s pretty remarkable for a year’s work.

Perhaps just as important as the concrete achievements are the intangibles. We have moved beyond the exhausting craziness of Donald Trump’s time in office. For four long years, Americans woke every morning to a fresh barrage of insanity, inanity and insults from the president and his administration. Now, everything is so normal as to be almost boring.

White House statements are not riddled with misspellings. Media briefings are once again held daily and are informative, not argumentative. Policy positions are developed through an exhaustive process, not announced and abandoned according to whim. Nobody gets fired via angry tweet.

Yet Biden’s approval rating stands at just 40.8 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, with disapproval at 54.6 percent. In part, that just demonstrates the absolutist nature of our partisan divide. In part, it reflects the fact that Biden and the Democrats overpromised by heavily touting the benefits of the Build Back Better spending package, which they lacked the votes to pass — and then spent more time talking about what they couldn’t do than what they’d already done.

Eugene Robinson: In year two, Biden needs to be The Boss

The biggest and most important factor, however, is likely that inflation has soared to levels not experienced in four decades. Biden has taken concrete steps to demonstrate that he sees the problem and is trying to address it — releasing oil from the strategic reserve, for example. But some of his actions are unlikely to lower prices very much and others will take time to have an impact, and the administration needs to visibly do much more.

Voters care about inflation because they see and feel it every day. They understand that it cannot be vanquished overnight. But they have little patience with politicians they perceive as indifferent to rising prices for gas, food, housing and almost everything else. In his State of the Union, Biden should offer a long list of actions he is taking to try to defeat inflation, and he should treat the subject with the urgency it deserves.

Biden took over from an administration that had bashed our NATO and European Union allies and gone out of its way to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin. Today, following Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the transatlantic alliance is stronger than it has been in decades. The United States leads a coordinated response designed to isolate Russia and devastate its corrupt Potemkin-village economy.

On foreign policy, Biden needs only to explain how Ukraine shows that “America is back” is more than a slogan. It’s the hope of the free world.