Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 23 February 2024

Ol’ Cranky and the State of the Union

Feb. 22, 2024 6:13 pm ET

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address in Washington, Feb. 7, 2023. Photo: Ron Sachs/Zuma Press

You know that look everybody gets when a long, bad Zoom meeting ends and you’ve said goodbye and you’re searching for the Leave Meeting button while keeping a determinedly pleasant look on your face? That’s how I’m feeling about our national political life! Or that tingly feeling you get when the novocaine starts to wear off but your jaw doesn’t have full feeling yet and you know when it does it’s going to hurt? That’s how I’m viewing 2024! Like a certain amount of pain is coming but one must maintain one’s poise. (I just thought I’d share. But it’s how you’re feeling too, isn’t it?)

Ol’ Cranky vs. Ol’ Crazy continues apace. Mr. Trump’s campaign is odd for a probable primary victor in that he is obsessed with the love of his assured followers while giving no apparent thought to anyone else. He says mad things, inviting Russia to invade U.S. allies and comparing himself to Alexei Navalny. But he takes questions from the press even when not emerging from a courtroom, and a friend suggests one whose answer might clear things up: “Would the killing of Navalny come under your idea of presidential immunity?”

Nikki Haley plugs away, sharpening her critiques. The South Carolina primary is Saturday, and one wonders how expectations will play into its coverage. She has consistently trailed by about 30 points. If she loses by 15, can she claim momentum? She’ll likely call it a victory. Will it be? Honest question.

It’s good she’s in and still swinging, because her simple presence says something important: that a significant portion of the party doesn’t support Donald Trump for president, and all arguments as to why will be made.

As for Ol’ Cranky, he delivers his State of the Union address on March 7, two days after Super Tuesday. This will be President Biden’s kickoff to the election year, his final scheduled speech to Congress before November, his last chance at a new unveiling. I’m leapfrogging the news cycle because I have thoughts.

The speech is an exhausted form, bloated and interminable. People say it’s too long because it is. The shortest by a modern president was Richard Nixon’s in 1972 (under 29 minutes), the longest Bill Clinton’s in 2000 (almost 90). Last year Mr. Biden’s went 73 minutes. Does anyone remember anything he said?

Make it short—no more than 30 minutes. Instruct party members not to jump up and cheer constantly. Say you asked them not to, there’s much at stake and this isn’t theater.

If Mr. Biden is going to stay in this thing, he must turn serious. Not somber or ponderous, but serious.

There are only three subjects: America at home (illegal immigration), America in the world (Ukraine, Israel), and the economy.

No one knows how Mr. Biden is thinking about the massive illegal-immigration crisis. People are coming to believe, and they are right, that it isn’t only a matter of the law, our capacities and our culture, but what is happening now at the border has a huge national-security component. All the friendly, well-put-together Chinese nationals crossing—who are they, why are they coming, how did this happen? All the Eastern Europeans, Asians and Africans. Once Mexico was coming illegally, then Central and South America, now the world, including people on the terrorist watch list. This is a border collapse.

It’s easy to imagine how the Joe Biden of 1984 would have thought about this: That’s bad, the people won’t buy it, we gotta stop. Or even 2004: This is gonna be a problem for us and a gift to Republicans. It’s not at all clear how he thinks about it now. He owes it to the country to say. About half of us feel we’re experiencing an unaddressed invasion. We can’t imagine how this ends well.

America in the world: What are we doing? What are we trying to do? The president has to get back to the basics. Many conservatives see Ukraine as a secondary interest, a place far away with no immediate bearing on our safety, the effort to help it defend itself driven by unrealistic assumptions about American power. Answer this. Why must Russia be stopped? Why is it in America’s interests? America has to hear a clear, contained argument that isn’t emotional, that isn’t cheap applause lines, that gives a clear sense of strategic thinking.

On Israel, decent people who were moved and horrified by the atrocities of Oct. 7 are now four months out from that event. Gaza, tens of thousands dead, Benjamin Netanyahu as the face of the Israeli government—an attrition of support is undeniable. Quinnipiac had a poll this week that said more Americans support aid to Ukraine than to Israel. We’re in a sea change in U.S. public opinion. What should America do? What is the right way to think? The president should reject the soft, rubbery language of the State Department and the National Security Council, which can always be interpreted in several ways because it’s supposed to be interpreted in several ways.

On the economy, we have functional full employment and inflation isn’t worsening. Bragging rights, but keep it low-key, not “we did this” but “America did this.” Americans need to hear from the president why food prices are so unbudgeably high. And what the plan is.

He should avoid the soaring phrases he loves; they always sound like high-end ad copy. Say it plain and straight. All of Mr. Biden’s political life he saw rhetoric as magic wordage, as if the right series of words a consultant pulled from his hat would put him over the top. He should forget that formula. It was never true. Mr. Biden rose because he was young and attractive, perceived as moderate but malleable, and wanted it so much, and looked the part, and people kind of liked him. They never thought he was eloquent. They thought he had a noncrippling and almost endearing tendency toward blowhardism.

The past week reading the old speeches I found myself drawn to the simplicity of the language of Harry S. Truman in 1948. He was another old busted valise whose electoral prospects were dim. “We are here today to consider the state of the union.” What a great, straight beginning. “The United States has been great because we as a people have been able to work together for great objectives even while differing about details.” That was plainness in service of tact.

A good thing for the president: If he does a perfectly adequate job, the press will be inclined to call it brilliant. Expectations are low. There’s a politesse about State of the Union coverage, nobody wants to pounce. The media have been slapped around recently for taking notice of Mr. Biden’s age after three years of ignoring it.

Bad news: People won’t be impressed if anchors call it brilliant, because our media world is all broken up in pieces and anchors speak to mere shards. And most Americans aren’t watching. Viewership declines each year.

But some are, and they’re intelligent, and when you play it straight with them they are generous.

Wonder Land: Whether it’s members of Congress, protesters in the street, even golf tournaments—it’s hard not to notice the rising tide of jerk-like behavior. Images: Storyblocks/TikTok/BidenHQ Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the February 24, 2024, print edition as 'Ol’ Cranky and the State of the Union'.

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