United States

Biden's comeback blueprint: State of the union reveals re-election strategy

Author: Editors Desk Source: CBC News:
March 8, 2024 at 07:13
U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a fiery campaign-style speech that had Democrats like Vice-President Kamala Harris cheering, and Republicans like Speaker Mike Johnson sitting stone-faced. (Shawn Thew/Reuters)
U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a fiery campaign-style speech that had Democrats like Vice-President Kamala Harris cheering, and Republicans like Speaker Mike Johnson sitting stone-faced. (Shawn Thew/Reuters)
What we saw in Thursday's state of the union address was U.S. President Joe Biden's re-election strategy — a blueprint for a comeback, as he's down in the polls. It revealed four things about the campaign he intends to fight.

There may be no question more futile in American politics than asking whether a state of the union speech might lift a president's fortunes.

The historical record offers a resounding answer: No. At best, the president gets a polling bump that is tiny and temporary. If it happens, it disappears within weeks. Sometimes, there's no bump at all.

This annual speech is more useful as a peek into a president's mind. 

In this case the president is months away from an election, and he's in deep trouble. Joe Biden has miserable approval ratings and trails Donald Trump in most polls.

What we saw in Thursday's state of the union address was Biden's re-election strategy — a blueprint for a comeback.

WATCH | Biden fires up re-election campaign with state of the union address:

A fiery U.S. President Joe Biden delivered a campaign-style state of the union speech, repeatedly referring dozens of times to Donald Trump not by name but only as his 'predecessor.'

It revealed four things. His preferred issues, where he's on the attack. His vulnerabilities, where he's playing defence. His desire to focus attention on Donald Trump. And his willingness to broach, in the most delicate way, concerns about his age.

Biden closed out his speech by joking that in his career he's been called both too young to be in politics (he was elected to Congress at age 29) and now he's called too old.

"I know it may not look like it, but I've been around a while," Biden said. "When you get to be my age, certain things become clearer than ever."

He then contrasted his ideas with those of his predecessor — calling his own ideas forward-looking, and his predecessor's old and backward.

He referred to Trump that way roughly a dozen times: "My predecessor." He alluded to Trump repeatedly, but never used his name in the non-campaign setting.

Biden set that tone at the very start. 

Biden's winning issues: Democracy, abortion, federal programs

The speech started with issues Biden is keen to discuss. Defending democracy from an authoritarian rival; defending reproductive rights, including abortion; defending Ukraine against Russia; and federal safety-net programs.

View from behind the podium, showing Biden arriving to VP Kamala Harris's outstretched arms and Speaker Mike Johnson looking on. In background: crowded room
Biden seen arriving to deliver his state of the union Thursday. He alluded more than a dozen times to his predecessor, Trump. (Alex Brandon/Reuters)

On democracy, he referred to Trump attempting to overthrow a U.S. election, when he encouraged a crowd to march upon the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as votes were being certified.

"[This was the] gravest threat to democracy since the Civil War," Biden said. "My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth about Jan. 6." 

He also accused Trump of bowing down before Russia. He pressed Republicans to allow a vote on delivering weapons to Ukraine: "The free world is at risk."

Then came abortion. He mentioned Trump's boasts about appointing the judges who struck down a national right to an abortion, and new threats to in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Biden looked at the Supreme Court justices in the crowd and quoted the ruling that struck down Roe v. Wade, which said women have electoral power.

"You're about to realize just how much," Biden said. "Those bragging about overturning Roe v. Wade have no clue about the power of women."

He moved on to pocketbook issues, like his legislation that lowered some drug prices for seniors, his use of antitrust law against price-gouging landlords, controls on credit-card late fees, his future proposal of universal pre-kindergarten and tax credits for first-time home buyers.

Then he turned to his trouble spots.

Man shouting in balcony
A heckler, identified in some reports as the father of a U.S. Marine killed during the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan, shouted as Biden and was escorted from the chamber Thursday. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)


Biden's problem areas: Inflation, immigration, Gaza

He referred to inflation lowering, while the economy and employment grow. Americans are upset about inflation, and they give Biden poor marks for his economic handling.

It's a reason the Republican response to the state of the union was delivered in a kitchen to highlight the cost of everyday goods.

Biden receives absolutely devastating reviews from the public on the border. A record number of migrants are walking into the U.S., and most are released into the country while they file claims that can take years to adjudicate.

Biden blames a lack of resources, and says he needs a bill with new funding for immigration judges, border security, detention and expulsion. 

But Republicans say it's his fault. They blame a string of border-loosening executive actions he took early in his presidency for triggering the current wave.

"He invited it," said Republican Sen. Katie Britt, who offered the official GOP response. "President Biden's border policies are a disgrace."

The border, unsurprisingly, produced the most heated exchange of the evening. 

Wearing a bright red MAGA cap, far-right Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene accosted Biden before the speech and heckled him during it. 

Biden's eyes open wide as he sees Marjorie Taylor Greene in a red MAGA cap
Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, dressed in a red MAGA cap, heckled Biden before and during the speech. It produced a heated exchange on immigration. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

She demanded that he say the name of Laken Riley, the Georgia nursing student murdered, allegedly by someone who entered the U.S. illegally.

Biden shot back with ad-libbed lines, straying from his prepared text: "[Laken] Riley — an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal."

It sounded like he misidentified her as, "Lincoln." Also, some on the left chastised him for using a derogatory term for undocumented migrants. 

In fact, it's one of several lines Biden flubbed. He tripped over a line on abortion — a key soundbite the White House had advertised in advance. 

But here's the substance of Biden's defence on immigration: He'll tell voters he truly wants solutions and he'll accuse Trump of playing politics with the issue. 

WATCH | The border crisis, explained:

The crisis at the U.S. southern border is set to be a major issue in the 2024 presidential election. More than two million migrants were apprehended at the Texas-Mexico border last year alone. Andrew Chang explains the complexities of the growing issue and what's dialing it up.

bipartisan bill that had been negotiated over four months was stalled, partly at Trump's behest. Trump had warned it would hand Biden an election-year win, and pushed Republicans to block it.

"It's not about him. It's not about me," Biden said. "Get this bill done." 

What Biden and Democrats conveniently omit is that the Republican House has, in fact, passed a border bill, albeit one too punitive to get the required 60 per cent in the Senate.  

Then came Gaza. 

This was the reason protesters blocked Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursday. Biden's motorcade was forced to leave the White House late, and take an alternate route to the Capitol.

It's why Biden faces a backlash on the left, and why some Democratic lawmakers were wearing Palestinian keffiyehs in the chamber Thursday.

Elected women in House chamber drape themselves in keffiyehs
Some progressive Democrats including Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib, left, wore keffiyehs Thursday in a message to Biden. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

Biden defended his handling of the crisis. He said he's supported Israel in a justifiable effort to fight Hamas; that effort is complicated, he said, by Hamas hiding amongst civilians.


'It's how old our ideas are'

On the other hand, he said Israel had a duty to spare civilians. 

He also announced plans Thursday to build a temporary pier to Gaza to deliver U.S. aid of food, water, medicine and makeshift shelters.

Protesters block Pennsylvania Avenue with a sign that says 'Biden's Legacy is Genocide.' In the background, there's the Capitol dome.
Protesters blocked Pennsylvania Avenue during a pro-Palestinian demonstration. The scene, which briefly delayed Biden's speech, is a reminder of the rift Gaza has created on the political left. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

He finished by contrasting himself with Trump. 

He summed up his key messages again — on democracy, reproductive freedoms, middle-class programs and higher taxes for the rich.

"The issue … isn't how old we are," Biden said, concluding with the age reference. "It's how old our ideas are.… Tonight you've heard mine."

In the House of Representatives, the assembled Democrats chanted: "Four more years! Four more years!"

American voters get to make that call in November. On Thursday night, we heard Biden's plan for winning them back.

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