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Biden's State of the Union speech answered one big question

OpinionBiden's State of the Union speech answered one big question

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In Thursday night’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden spoke principally to Democrats and answered one question and one question only: is he, at this point, able to be a candidate for reelection? 

His answer, as evidenced by his fiery, combative, and extremely partisan speech, is yes, he is, but only for those Democratic and Democratic-leaning independents who are inclined to vote for the incumbent president. For the rest of the electorate, the speech was decidedly unremarkable as the 80-minute performance was an argumentative and divisive list of partisan proposals and accomplishments.

The stakes could not have been higher for the president, who trails former President Donald Trump on virtually every major issue Americans care about most: inflation, the economy, the border, crime, and national security. A new poll by my firm, Schoen Cooperman Research, confirms as much, in addition to the serious doubts that exist among the electorate — and even within Biden’s own party — about his mental acuity and fitness for office.

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For Democrats, let’s not underestimate how important this speech was. According to recent polling, 36% of Democrats think their party should nominate someone other than Joe Biden. And for that group, this address provided at least some reassurance that he can deliver a fire and brimstone speech. 

Listening to the audio picked up after the speech, a number of partisan Democrats congratulated the president on his way out of the House chamber for his “fiery” remarks. And indeed, that will probably be his major accomplishment from the night.

According to the SCR poll, about 6 in 10 (59%) say the economy is headed on the wrong track, 68% say the state of the economy is poor, and just under half of Americans (44%) say their personal economic situation is worse today than it was one year ago. How’s that for the state of our union?

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But on Thursday night, all Biden did was repeat his classic litany of job creation and economic activity that has informed the basis of his ‘Bidenomics’ campaign, an initiative that has been decidedly unsuccessful. Indeed, there is no reason to believe his remarks will, in any way, influence any swing voters upset over the state of the economy.

The president took a full 40 minutes to get to the issue of the border and our polling shows that Americans rank immigration and the border as Biden’s biggest failures as president. Worse, when asked who would better handle immigration, Trump owns Biden with a 29-point lead (58%-to-29%).

Biden did not make clear why it had taken more than three years to talk about border security and, moreover, did not indicate, in any way, that he was prepared to take executive action to stem illegal immigration, tighten up the asylum process, or stem crime in cities across the nation. 

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Indeed, when it came to crime, there was some sense the president could, by executive order, reverse some of the ‘soft on crime’ policies that have come to define his party’s response on the issue over the last couple of years. But, in terms of specifics and an agenda, we will have to wait for details.

Beyond his delivery, it was the partisan nature of the speech that was most motivating to Democrats. The speech will likely have little impact with swing voters, much less moderate Republicans, as it was, to a very large degree, an attack on Donald Trump, both in terms of his foreign policy, his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic fallout thereafter. 

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Throughout the speech, the Biden campaign was running the same playbook it has run for the last two elections, albeit successfully, demonizing the former president. However, in an election that is undoubtedly a referendum on the incumbent, Joe Biden, it remains an open question whether these attacks on President Trump will in any way resonate with voters. If one thing is clear, it’s that Biden’s campaign clearly believes the key to picking up former Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s supporters and swing voters is to make Trump the central issue. 

Lastly, the Biden campaign and the president certainly understand that the issue which has been most potent among voters is abortion. And indeed, reproductive rights got a great deal of time and attention on Thursday night. Biden leads Trump on the issue by 2 points and used it on Thursday night to underscore the stakes for reproductive rights and rile up his base. 

Biden made the case, I thought compellingly, that President Trump is the reason, given his role in nominating conservative justices to the Supreme Court, that Roe v. Wade was overturned. 

This argument by the Democrats certainly paves the way for Republicans to make the countervailing argument — which they have so far failed to make — that the extreme wing of the Republican Party, which is unapologetically pro-life, is the reason for the party’s overall position on the issue. Polls show that by and large Democrats, independents, and swing voters have deep skepticism about the willingness of the GOP to consolidate over a more moderate and realistic abortion ban at any point.

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I don’t expect that the largely negative polling for Biden will change in the long term based on this speech. Though, based on the history of State of the Union addresses, there could be some short term bump for the president. 

But rest assured, the ultimate purpose of Thursday night’s speech was to make a case that absolutely needed to be made; Joe Biden plans to be a candidate for reelection, is a candidate for reelection, and has the energy, and indeed the vigor, to run in this campaign. Whether that remains the case beyond Thursday night is an open question, but for now, Biden did the minimum necessary to maintain his status as a credible and viable major party candidate for president.

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