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Wednesday 31 May 2023 Dublin: 14°C
DPA/PA Images President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday.
Larry Donnelly If Biden's speech is anything to go by, he wants four more years in office
Our columnist looks at the US President’s State of the Union address and asks, what now?

IN THE RUN-UP to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last Tuesday night, there were several lines of conjecture spreading among political pundits. The first was actually existential.

In an era of shrinking attention spans and infinite viewing options, is the annual speech superfluous – crying out either to be dramatically reconceived or scrapped altogether?

That looks unlikely, yet after listening to a far-from-inspiring orator go on for approximately an hour and a quarter, it is easy to see why those advocating that the tradition be abandoned think as they do.

A second was espoused by doubters, predominantly on the right, who are sceptical enough with respect to the 80-year-old Scranton, Pennsylvania native’s cognitive and other capacities that they wondered aloud if he would make it all the way to the end. President Biden’s delivery was only middling and a few of his departures from the script were meandering, but it wasn’t the dire performance his foes were hoping for.

The third related to the substance. What tone would he strike? Would he take the fight to Republicans? What issues and priorities would he name? And would he give any signals as to whether he really will seek re-election? Let’s examine what can be divined from the State of the Union by way of answers to these questions.

Up for the fight

Well, the robust tenor of President Biden’s remarks was not what one would expect from a man intending to retire. As many of his fellow Democrats have been urging both publicly and behind the scenes, he was not shy about touting his administration’s accomplishments to date.

Biden took credit for “12 million new jobs, more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years.” He further asserted that, under his leadership, the United States had come through Covid and that American democracy, “having faced down the greatest threat since the Civil War,” has emerged “unbowed and unbroken” from January 6th.

Moreover, he referenced 300 bipartisan pieces of legislation he has signed in office, including a massive package to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and posited that “time and time again, Democrats and Republicans came together.”

But it wasn’t all sweetness and light. With clashes looming about increasing the amount of money the US government can borrow to guarantee that it can honour its obligations, Biden alleged that some in the GOP would prefer to imperil the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programmes that countless elderly people depend upon to survive than to raise the debt ceiling.

In so doing, he engendered a visceral reaction from congressional Republicans who, conscious of the truism that old people vote, shouted back at him from their seats.

This became the media moment of the speech. It unfolded very favourably for Democrats in that many millions, who didn’t tune into the State of the Union in its entirety, saw a clip of an angry, unruly band of congressmen and women clearly on the back foot.

Change of tone

And shrewdly, in running through a litany of pressing objectives that he would continue to pursue, President Biden concentrated on an “old school” Democratic agenda, which he and his advisers know that a solid majority of the electorate subscribes to.

It may be strange, but some of his messaging on this score was unmistakably Trumpian.

“We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America… I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America… on my watch, American roads, American bridges and American highways will be made with American products.” While the president mightn’t employ the controversial “America First” label, this language is part and parcel of the rhetoric Trump used to capture the hearts and minds of crucial, alienated voters in battleground states.

Additionally, he detailed plans to lower the price of prescription drugs, such as insulin, to grow manufacturing, make third-level education more affordable and boost taxes on large corporations and on billionaires. These items are political winners for Democrats and it is here where the party’s emphasis should always be.

Aware that maintaining access to abortion is vital to progressives and a motivating factor for key elements of the Democratic coalition, President Biden blasted the Supreme Court’s decision reversing Roe v Wade and vowed to veto any national ban on the practice. Yet simultaneously cognisant that the audience for his address was definitely older and probably more conservative than the broader citizenry, abortion was well down the list in his delineation of a “bread and butter” oriented itinerary.

Will he run?

This was a strong, successful State of the Union, a badly needed good outing for the president in the wake of the revelations that he, too, wrongly kept possession of classified documents after his tenure as vice president.

And again, if this speech is anything to go by, Joe Biden wants four more years in the White House.

So, with less than 12 months until a reconfigured sequence of primaries kicks off in earnest, what lies ahead for the proud ancestor of emigrants from Ballina and the Cooley peninsula? I’m still not 100% convinced, but let’s assume for a minute that he’s in the race.

It’s extremely difficult to predict the fate of a Biden candidacy with any degree of certainty at this stage. There is an initial obstacle in his path, however. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll indicates that 58% of Democrats do not want him as their standard bearer in 2024.

That said, this figure does not appear to daunt him in the slightest. And although the rather quiet negativity must be tempting to a putative primary challenger or two, there is no sign of anyone credible coming forward. The passage of time renders the possibility of an insurgency remoter by the day.

Democrats, as well as those Independents who typically support the party’s nominees, should ultimately rally around Biden, their reservations notwithstanding. If it seems that no one on the other side will be able to take Donald Trump out of the equation, all hands will be on deck. There will be no enthusiasm deficit and Biden will have no shortage of ebullient surrogates to help carry the load on the campaign trail and defeat the man they loathe.

But if the equally youthful Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or ex-South Carolina Governor and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley – the former is arguably better situated – gets traction with the Republican grassroots, wounds Trump early on and attracts the interest of floating Independents, Democrats will have cause to be nervous and may rue their deference to a senior statesman.

It’s complicated.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with


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