A single State of the Union speech cannot instantly alter the trajectory of a presidency, but it can be a circuit breaker. It can stop a slide downward and lay out a path to recovery. President Biden did both on Tuesday night.
Biden was as rhetorically forceful as he has ever been in his opening salvo against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and — critically for his political standing — displayed a strength that many Americans have told pollsters they find lacking.
He insisted that “freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” He channeled global anger over Vladimir Putin’s wanton violence against the Ukrainian people and promised that when “the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.” He pledged to go after the wealth of “the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilk billions of dollars off this violent regime.”
And while he kept bragging to a minimum and showered credit on the people of Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden came back several times to the alliance he helped build among Western allies to punish Russia.
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Biden needed to point this out because painstaking diplomacy is rarely the stuff of popular acclaim. “Like President George H.W. Bush, who quietly but persistently rallied allies to support reversing Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told me. “President Biden’s quiet diplomacy has been effective in rallying the West against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But Biden will probably not get the credit Bush did because American troops are not directly involved in Ukraine.”
It’s credit Biden needs, with a recent Post-ABC News poll finding 59 percent of Americans answer “no” when asked if he is a strong leader. Tuesday night, the president took a major step toward reversing this presumption.
Biden did not make Ukraine his dominant theme, no doubt because he knows how much work he needs to do on the domestic front — on inflation and crime, on education and exhaustion with the pandemic. This gave the speech a bifurcated quality, and even its domestic focus was split in two.
On the one hand, he acknowledged inflation as a problem but chose to go on offense. He reminded Americans of the record economic growth he presided over in his first year and then outlined how his approach to battle inflation differed from conservative economic doctrine.
“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer,” he declared. “I have a better idea to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages. … Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America.”
Gone were references to his “Build Back Better” plan, but many of its components — on cutting child-care, health-care and prescription-drug costs, as well as on climate — were rebranded as inflation-fighters. So was taking on the power of monopolies.
Yet he ended his speech by outlining an entirely different, bipartisan “Unity Agenda” that might serve as an alternative focus of action in an election year if his earlier proposals stall again. His new emphasis was on the opioid crisis, mental health, care for veterans and curing cancer. One can imagine moderate Democrats in swing districts embracing his unity theme with relief.
The imperative to highlight action on bread-and-butter concerns reflects the political problems Biden faces not from outside his ranks but from within. Scott Clement, The Post’s polling director, analyzed Post-ABC surveys at my request, focusing on respondents who did not identify as Republicans — that is, Democrats, independents and those who declined to declare a party preference. The proportion in this group who approve of Biden’s performance fell from a high point of 65 percent in April 2021 to 47 percent in late February.
Within this non-Republican group, Biden suffered especially steep drops among non-White respondents and younger adults (those 18 to 39 years old). He has suffered 25-point losses since last April in each group. Among non-Republicans with annual incomes of less than $50,000, his approval rating was down 24 points.
The Biden who addressed the nation on Tuesday clearly knows that he faces an enthusiasm gap among key Democratic groups and a persuasion gap with more moderate voters worried he is not addressing their concerns. He took on his political problems with renewed urgency because his core commitment to “the battle between democracy and autocracy” is more central to his presidency than ever.