The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A speech that moved Biden to the center

Play it again. (Bloomberg)
5 min

“Let’s use this moment to reset,” President Biden said midway through his State of the Union address. He was talking about the pandemic, but on a deeper level he was assessing his presidency and foreshadowing its future course.

Ukraine was the news, and the top of the speech, necessarily and properly so. Republicans predictably heard the address, with its laundry list of liberal priorities, as more of the same. GOP National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Biden “doubled down on his disastrous and polarizing agenda.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board complained that the president offered “a rehash of his first-year domestic agenda that has brought him to his low political ebb.”

I heard something different, the sound of a presidency shifting — and not just shifting, but retrenching. To the extent this speech is remembered, and few such addresses are, I suspect it will be for Biden’s move from placating his party’s liberal base to recognizing the sober reality that his legislative options are already limited. His presidency is likely to be even more constrained after the midterm elections, which means his political future is tied more closely to finding areas of common ground with Republicans — or at least appearing to seek them — than engaging in partisan warfare.

Of course, Biden took his jabs — for instance, at “the $2 trillion tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefited the top 1 percent of Americans.” Of course, he dutifully ticked off the Democratic wish list: paid leave, $15-an-hour minimum wage, protections for union organizing, negotiating prescription drug prices, protecting reproductive rights (though without mentioning the A-word) and “LGBTQ+ Americans.”

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But Biden spent more than three times as long touting a pending measure to improve U.S. competitiveness with China on technology manufacturing than he did pressing for protecting the right to vote: 278 words to 87 words, by my count. He’d like to see the items on his laundry list passed, sure, but he mentioned them without conveying any certainty that would happen.

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Rather, Biden’s immediate deliverables — “Tonight, I’m announcing” — all involved areas of broad public agreement: fixing roads and bridges, making even more free coronavirus tests available, cracking down on pandemic fraud, supporting veterans with respiratory cancers.

“My top priority,” Biden asserted, “is getting prices under control.” In “this sacred space — the citadel of democracy,” he did not mention the defiling on Jan. 6, 2021, though he dwelled on the topic extensively during his first address to a joint session of Congress, in April 2021.

And his message was more Clintonian triangulation between partisan extremes than Democratic orthodoxy. “Let’s not abandon our streets, or choose between safety and equal justice,” Biden said. And: “Folks, if we are to advance liberty and justice, we need to secure our border and fix the immigration system.”

Most pointedly, Biden took on a slogan that has inflicted untold damage on Democrats. “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training. Resources and training they need to protect their communities.”

President Bill Clinton, in 1996, used his annual address to proclaim that “the era of big government is over.” Biden’s message was more subtle, but as significant as it was unmistakable; you don’t have to announce your retreat to start backing up. The political math is what it is. The new math is apt to be even worse.

Biden summed up with what he termed a “Unity Agenda for the Nation”: “beat the opioid epidemic,” “support our veterans,” “take on mental health” and “end cancer as we know it.” Who could be against that — and, perhaps not coincidentally, who can measure success?

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“It’s within our power, and I don’t see a partisan edge to any one of those four things,” Biden observed. If Republicans reacted to that olive branch with more than a bit of skepticism, that’s entirely expected — and why should they help him out? Where was Biden’s passion for unity, they might ask, when he muscled through a $1.9 trillion covid rescue plan with only Democratic votes, a precursor to his unsuccessful strategy to pass Build Back Better?

The answer is simple. If politics is the art of the possible, the contours of the possible are clearer, and more clearly constrained, now than they were then. White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain’s first post-speech tweet, just minutes after Biden concluded, led with the new agenda: “Four big things. Strong bipartisan support. Time to move forward, together.”

Which is the real Biden — Build Back Better Biden or Unity Agenda Biden? The answer is both: Biden tends to tack to where his party is, but left to his own devices, he trends to conciliation and moderation.

But the answer doesn’t really matter. Biden is where he is. He wanted to use the moment to reset a troubled presidency, but as he and his advisers well understand, that takes more than a single speech.