The State of Biden’s Next Campaign
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman
The president has little real opposition in his own party but remains dependent on weaknesses across the aisle.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— President Biden’s successful State of the Union address suggested he’s full speed ahead on running for a second term.
— Despite polls showing that even many Democrats would prefer Biden not to run again, he has no real opposition within his own party — and the State of the Union is unlikely to help generate any.
— Biden’s best friend is weakness within the Republican Party, which was on display once again on Tuesday night.
Biden’s State of the Union
There are competing realities at the heart of the president’s annual State of the Union address. It is both typically unmemorable, yet also is probably the biggest scheduled event on the political calendar. This is particularly true in odd-numbered years, in which there are few elections of national import.
Content-wise, State of the Union addresses are typically formulaic, a laundry list of presidential accomplishments and asks. While many inaugural addresses have stood the test of time, State of the Union addresses typically have not. The Library of America’s American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton includes only a single State of the Union address in its collection: Franklin Roosevelt’s Jan. 6, 1941 address to Congress in which he laid out his famous “Four Freedoms” — Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. That is not to say that other iterations of the speech, which was revived as an in-person address by Woodrow Wilson a little more than a century ago, are not without memorable moments — see here for some — but rather that the forum is usually not remembered in the annals of American oratorical brilliance.
Still, tens of millions of Americans watch the speech. By this time next year, the nation’s focus will have turned to the presidential primaries. So President Biden’s speech last night may have been the last time for a while where he will have the public stage squarely to himself — and he clearly tried to make good use of it to a broad audience. Biden’s State of the Union last year got about 38 million viewers, up from 27 million for his quasi-State of the Union the year before (technically, the president’s address to Congress right after taking office is not a proper State of the Union). The viewership for Biden’s first State of the Union was lower than that of his most recent successors, who generally got somewhere in the range of 45-52 million viewers (the viewership for Tuesday night’s address was unknown at the time of publication). Some of this, likely, is the splintering of the media environment, from which it seems only the National Football League is immune. But part of it, too, is that Biden himself does not seem to be the kind of lightning rod figure that at least his four most recent predecessors were: Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. This sort of dynamic likely helped Biden and Democrats in last year’s midterms — even though Biden’s standing was underwater, the public did not treat the election as an all-out referendum on the president.
Some recent iterations of the speech have sent signals, and last night’s did too. Clinton gave a typically long-winded State of the Union in early 1998, shortly after details emerged of his affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky. In the lead-up to the speech, many thought Clinton might resign; Clinton’s SOTU, in which he made no reference to the affair, helped muzzle that talk. In his 2002 State of the Union, George W. Bush first referred to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the “axis of evil.” The following State of the Union, in 2003, he was making the case for the soon-to-come American invasion of Iraq. The signal Biden likely was trying to send last night was this: His plan is to run again, despite his advanced age and sometimes shaky public appearances (although despite some characteristic flubs, Biden was clearly on his game last night).
Beyond that, the speech has sometimes recently provided famous moments — produced by people other than the president. After President Obama scolded the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision in his 2010 State of the Union, Justice Samuel Alito seemed to mouth the words “not true” in response to the president. In 2020, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a big show of ripping up the physical copy of the speech that then-President Trump had just given. Rep. Joe Wilson (R, SC-2) shouting “you lie” at Obama in 2009 was not during the State of the Union — rather, it was during a speech on health care that Obama was giving to a joint session of Congress in September 2009.
But Wilson’s outburst was front of mind last night anyway, because what may be remembered most from last night was the rowdy “House of Commons” feel that Biden’s address took on — the U.K. Parliament has a reputation for being much more raucous than the U.S. Congress, but that distinction may be getting less sharp. At points during the speech, Biden veered off script, chiding and baiting Republican members. Biden’s ad hoc public bargaining may have had some success — with talks over increasing the debt ceiling looming, he, apparently got Republicans to agree not to touch Social Security and Medicare (although some Republicans had already been suggesting this in the days leading up to the speech, perhaps prompted by former President Trump on the matter). Biden was continually heckled by far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, GA-14), who Speaker Kevin McCarthy visibly tried to hush at some points. In what became something of a meme on social media, Greene’s white, fur-lined coat drew comparisons to the Disney villain Cruella de Vil.
In 2015, one of President Obama’s most memorable rhetorical nudges in the Republicans’ direction came with the line, “I have no more campaigns to run… I know because I won both of them.” Though some of Biden’s lines received similar reactions from across the aisle — he told members who would like to see the Inflation Reduction Act repealed, “As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year” — it certainly seems like Biden intends to run one more campaign. Despite his age, little in Biden’s address suggested that he was ready to step aside. In fact, throughout the speech, one of his most repeated lines was “let’s finish the job.” With his second formal State of the Union address in the books, Biden will now embark on a very campaign-like trip, visiting several key states across the country — today, he is taking his message to Wisconsin, which happened to be the tipping-point state in the last 2 presidential elections and will surely be hotly contested again.
Still, as he gears up for a 2024 run, Biden’s standing with the electorate remains subpar. According to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregates, while Biden’s approval spread is not deep in the double-digit negative category, as it was last summer, he stands at an upside-down 43%/52% rating. Tinkering with FiveThirtyEight’s model settings, when only considering polls of registered voters (not just adults), Biden’s disapproval number briefly fell below 50% last month — it had been over 50% since October 2021. The GOP infighting over the protracted speaker vote likely made Biden’s image look better by comparison. With that spectacle over, and Biden dealing with some negative headlines related to his handling of classified documents, Biden’s disapproval number crept back up over 50%.
Though Biden has had a (somewhat surprisingly) productive tenure in office so far and key economic metrics have been largely positive, concerns about inflation and the broader economy persist — while inflation has slowed, prices are still higher than when Biden first took office. A national poll from CBS News, released just before Biden’s address, found that a majority of voters feel his policies have made inflation, gas prices, and the economy as a whole, worse. Gallup also recently reported that 50% of Americans feel like they are worse off financially now compared to this time last year, a high mark last seen in the “great recession” era of 2008 and 2009.
Concerns about Biden’s age do seem to have fostered at least a degree of reticence among Democratic partisans when it comes to his renomination. An Associated Press poll from this week found that just 37% of Democrats want him to run for a second term. Though Biden gets the coolest reaction from younger voters — a group that never seemed his natural constituency in primaries — only about half of Democrats who are over 45 say he should move ahead with reelection plans.
But if and until Biden receives a major primary challenge — and most big names seem to be deferring to him — he starts as a prohibitive favorite for renomination, and he may not have much opposition at all. As Biden himself is fond of saying, “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.” And at this point there really is no alternative. This is the same sort of dynamic we sometimes see in horserace polls – an incumbent may be shown trailing against a generic unnamed opponent, but leading against a named opponent. It may also be that the president’s generally well-received speech last night could help tamp down whatever problems Biden may have in his own party.
While Biden is not strong at the moment, the alternative to him running again could be a fractious primary that reveals divisions in the party that Biden (and opposition to Trump and Republicans) has papered over for now. A fear of the unknown may also keep Democrats behind Biden, even if it’s possible a new candidate would raise the party’s electoral ceiling — particularly if Republicans opt for a third Trump nomination.
In her State of the Union response, newly-elected Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR) argued that American politics was no longer about left vs. right, but rather normal vs. crazy. She may have something of a point, although mostly in a way that she did not intend, as her party’s problem of late has been producing too many candidates who end up on the wrong side of that divide. One of the GOP’s challenges for 2024 is sanding down some of the party’s rough edges, which have turned off some key swing voters. Not that it likely matters much overall, but did Sanders’s base-focused speech paired with GOP House members heckling the president serve to soften the party’s image? Surely not.
In the end, Biden won in 2020 because enough key voters were fed up with Trump and his antics. Democrats held the line in 2022 for much the same reason. His 2024 fate is likely contingent to at least some degree on this very same dynamic — do Republicans offer up a better alternative? On this particular question, Biden is more bystander than participant.
See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.
See Other Political Commentary by J. Miles Coleman.
See Other Political Commentary.
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