WASHINGTON — In good times or bad, American presidents come to Congress with a diagnosis that hardly differs over the decades. In their State of the Union addresses, they say “the state of our union is strong,” or very similar words.
President Joe Biden’s fellow Americans, however, have other ideas about the state they find themselves in and little hope that his State of the Union address on Tuesday night can change anything.
America’s strength is being tested from within – and now from afar – as fate, overnight, has made Biden a wartime president in someone else’s conflict. another, driving the West’s response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine that compounds all other problems.
The state of union is disunion and division. It is a state of exhaustion due to the pandemic. It’s about feeling ripped off at the grocery store and at the gas pump. It is so low that some Americans, including notables, are exalting Russian President Vladimir Putin in his attack on democracy.
Happiness measures have bottomed out, with fewer Americans saying they are very happy in the 2021 General Social Survey than ever before in five decades asking them.
This is what great funk looks like.
Biden will take the Speaker’s rostrum to address a nation at odds with itself. The country wonders how to keep children safe and what to teach them, tired of orders to wear masks, bruised by the ignominious end of a war, in Afghanistan, and suddenly many are worried about expansionism Russian. A speech designed to discuss the common good will be delivered to a nation that is increasingly struggling to find anything in common.
Even now, much of the country still clings to the lie that the last election was stolen.
THIS WORD ‘M’
Four decades ago, President Jimmy Carter faced a national “crisis of confidence” in a speech describing national malaise without using that word. But Vice President Kamala Harris did just that when she told an interviewer last month “there is a level of unease” in this country.
The national psyche today is one of fatigue and frustration, synonymous with the malaise of the 1970s. But the divisions run deeper and the solutions may be more elusive than the energy crisis, inflation and the sense of derives from that time.
Take the current climate of discourse. It’s “so cold,” said Rachel Hoopes, a charity official in Des Moines, Iowa, who voted for Biden. “It’s hard to see how the fact that he talks to us can cut through when so many people can’t talk to each other.”
It’s as if Americans need group therapy more than a scripted speech to Congress.
“We have to feel good about ourselves before we can move on,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”
Yet in the aftermath of Russia’s attack last week, a long-absent reflex resurfaced as members of Congress projected unity behind the president, at least for now, in the showdown with Moscow. “We’re all together at this point,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., “and we have to be together on what needs to be done.”
Politics did not stop at the water’s edge but it did. But not at Florida’s oceanfront Mar-a-Lago, where Donald Trump hailed Putin’s ‘shrewd’, ‘brilliant’ move against the country that entangled the defeated US president in his first impeachment trial .
CHOOSE YOUR POISON
White House officials acknowledge the country’s mood is “sour” but say they are also encouraged by data showing people’s lives are better than a year ago. They say the national psyche is a “leakage indicator” and will improve over time.
Biden, in his speech, will highlight improvements from a year ago — particularly on covid and the economy — but also acknowledge that the work is not yet done, in recognition that many Americans are not don’t believe it.
A year into Biden’s presidency, polls show he is facing a critical and pessimistic public. Only 29% of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research February poll.
In December’s AP-NORC poll, most said economic conditions were poor and inflation had hit them on food and gas. After two years of a pandemic that has killed more than 920,000 people in the United States, majorities put on masks and avoided travel and crowds in January in the omicron variant sweep. Now, finally, a sustained decline in infections appears to be underway.
Most Americans are vaccinated against covid-19, but debates over masks and mandates have torn communities and families apart.
With Biden so hemmed in by hardened politics, it’s hard to imagine a single speech changing public perception, said Julia Helm, 52, a Republican county listener from the western suburbs of Des Moines.
“He’s got a lot on his plate,” she said. “You know what could change the way people feel? And fast enough? What they pay at the pump. I hate to say it. But gas prices are really the barometer.
Biden suggested last summer that high inflation was a temporary downside. But that has snowballed in recent months into a defining challenge to his presidency, now alongside the threat of geopolitical instability from Russia’s attack on its neighbour.
Consumer prices over the past 12 months have jumped 7.5%, the highest since 1982, as many wage increases have been swallowed up and dreams of home ownership or even a car d opportunity have become prohibitive.
Inflation was a side effect of a booming economy after the economically devastating early chapters of the pandemic, when Biden achieved the kind of growth that Presidents Barack Obama and Trump were unable to deliver.
The main driver of earnings and inflation appears to be Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which has lowered the unemployment rate to 4% while boosting economic growth to 5.7 % last year – the best performance since 1984.
Yet voters largely ignored those gains due to inflation. The February AP-NORC poll found more people disapproving than approving of Biden’s handling of his job as president, 55% to 44%.
It was a reversal of the start of his presidency. As recently as July 2020, around 60% said they approved of Biden in AP-NORC polls.
After four years of provocations by Trump from the White House, Hoopes, 38, the head of the Des Moines charity, finds Biden a “non-threatening” leader, a “decent person, someone he seems to that you could talk”.
“He seems like a quiet decision maker,” she said. “But I don’t know if it’s good or bad for him or for the country right now.”
All she could say about Biden’s State of the Union address is “it can’t hurt.”
That’s about all the historians say about it too.
If State of the Union addresses are remembered, it’s usually because the feathers were ruffled on a night of tradition and forced courtesy: Obama berating Supreme Court justices seated in front him for their ruling on campaign finance laws in 2010; Judge Samuel Alito says “not true in response,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, tearing up Trump’s 2020 speech in disgust.
In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R.S.C., was chastised by fellow Republicans and lacerated by Democrats for shouting “you’re lying” at Obama when he spoke to Congress about his health care plan.
“Inaugural speeches sometimes have an impact because they are speeches from a distant horizon,” said political scientist Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University. “The union state rarely does this because it tends to be listed rather than thematic.”
Among the presidents of the past half-century, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump have repeatedly declared ‘the state of our union is strong’ while Bush’s father took a pass and that Gerald Ford confessed: “I must tell you that the state of the union is not good.
Trump being Trump and Clinton being Clinton both further claimed that the state of the union was never stronger than on the nights they said it was.
Whichever diagnostic phrase Biden chooses, his task is to promote an agenda and plausibly claim credit for positive developments over the past year “without a moment of mission accomplished,” Jillson said. ” It’s delicate. It’s tricky to take credit for the economic recovery…while acknowledging people’s pains and fears.
Biden arrives in Congress with missions truly accomplished, like his historic infrastructure package, as well as big dreams postponed.
He always wants to “build back better”. In the funk of these times, Americans just seem to want someone to wake them up when it’s all over.