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Joe Biden is getting desperate

His ranting State of the Union address had nothing to say to ordinary Americans.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics Politics USA

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This week, US president Joe Biden appeared before both houses of Congress for the annual State of the Union address, but decided to give a campaign-rally speech instead. He attacked Donald Trump early and often, although not by name, referring to his political opponent as ‘my predecessor’ multiple times. In an event that traditionally has a dignified air – a single heckle from the audience is usually greeted with gasps – Biden repeatedly taunted Republicans, and engaged with those calling back from the floor. Democrats broke out into chants of ‘four more years’. It was not like any State of the Union before.

Biden’s delivery style was the most striking aspect: he shouted for the whole 68-minute address. Much of the media tried to put a positive spin on it, calling it ‘forceful’ and ‘fiery’. But more apt terms would be ‘angry’ and ‘shrill’. While his base of Democrats may have loved to see it, there’s no doubt Biden’s shouting would have been off-putting to many Americans watching.

Indeed, Biden’s protest-too-much presentation had a strong air of desperation about it. Namely, he was desperate to try to prove he was up to the job of president for another four years. Even though he is sure to win his party’s nomination – after Super Tuesday primaries earlier this week, he is on a clear path to gaining sufficient votes – reports are that Democratic higher-ups want him to stand down.

You can understand why. Multiple polls in the past week show Biden losing to Trump, and he is viewed more unfavourably than his Republican rival. Moreover, most Americans say the country is moving in the wrong direction. They say Biden’s policies, including his massive spending on Covid handouts, green initiatives and other things, have ‘hurt’, not benefitted, them. Never has so much public money been spent to so little positive political effect.

Most of all, it’s Biden’s age and mental abilities that scare Democrats. After a series of confused statements, the 81-year-old Biden is trying to shake off the impression that he is ‘an elderly man with a poor memory’, as special counsel Robert Hur recently described him. Even three-quarters of Democrats believe Biden is too old to run.

It was clear that last night Biden was going out of his way to try to show that he had the energy and wits to do the job. But he was so determined to prove his doubters wrong that he over-compensated with a rant. The vibe was ‘Grandpa’s really mad because we told him he shouldn’t be driving anymore’. And, as it happens, that is the situation – there are indeed many Democratic elites who would like to take the keys away from Biden.

Right out of the gate, Biden amped up the rhetoric to 11. He likened himself to FDR, who warned Congress about Hitler in 1941. He claimed that ‘not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today’. It was obvious he was talking about Trump. Biden then pivoted to raise the war in Ukraine, but mainly as a means of attacking Trump and the Republicans. ‘Freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas, at the very same time’, he said, setting up an ‘enemy within, enemy without’ parallel. We now know that, according to Biden, Trump is not only Hitler – he’s Putin, too.

Next, Biden dredged up the ‘January 6’ riot in the Capitol building in 2021. ‘Insurrectionists stormed this very Capitol and placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy’, he said. Of course, while that was a bad day and Trump’s role was disgraceful, democracy was not truly at risk – and nor was it an insurrection. Indeed, even special prosecutor Jack Smith, who was appointed by the Biden administration, is not bringing insurrection charges against Trump in the federal case alleging Trump sought to overturn the 2020 election. It was remarkable that, in a speech meant to discuss the current state of the US, Biden was harkening back to an event three years ago.

Biden then moved on to criticise the Alabama Supreme Court’s recent ruling in February that frozen embryos are human beings, which prompted some providers to suspend in vitro fertilisation (IVF) services. He claimed the Alabama ruling was ‘unleashed by the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade’, and predicted that the issue of reproductive freedom would be on the ballot in 2024. He even stared down the Supreme Court justices sitting right in front of him.

Biden’s choice of his first three issues – Ukraine, January 6 and IVF / abortion – showed that this was a speech for the Democratic base, not for the American people at large. These issues are not at the top of most voters’ minds, yet they are certain to get the true believers riled up.

The No1 issue among Americans, according to polls, is the border. Yet Biden said nothing about immigration until late in his speech, treating it as almost an afterthought. When he got there, he blamed Republicans for his failure to pass a recent bill on migration, rather than take responsibility. But his attempt to deflect the blame is unlikely to work, given he actively dismantled the border controls that Trump had in place. He has since had three years to fix the border crisis he created, but has failed to do so.

At one point, Biden went off-script (no doubt freaking out his advisers) to acknowledge Laken Riley, the nursing student who was murdered by an immigrant, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican representative who was handing out ‘say her name’ pins before the event. But as Biden held up the badge, he got her name wrong, calling her ‘Lincoln Riley’, which happens to be the name of the University of Southern California football coach. He also said that Riley was murdered by an ‘illegal’, using a term that is verboten in Democrat circles (they insist on the euphemism ‘undocumented’).

Turning to Gaza, Biden used the occasion to give a moral lecture to Israel about civilian deaths. In doing so, he treated Israel more harshly than Hamas, the perpetrators of the 7 October massacre of Israeli civilians. This was clearly an attempt to placate the anti-Israel sections of his party and shore up electoral support in Michigan and elsewhere. It’s to Biden’s shame that he is willing to sell out Israel, just to help his re-election prospects.

In reviewing his accomplishments in office, Biden said that America’s recovery from the pandemic, the economic crisis and (you guessed it) Trump was ‘the greatest comeback story never told’. But the ‘comeback’ he was clearly most concerned about was his own political comeback. It’s true that the inflation rate has slowed and the economy, while not going gangbusters, is not in crisis. But these facts make Biden’s current political unpopularity stand out as extraordinary. An incumbent president with a stable economy, and facing an opponent as flawed as Trump, should be cruising towards victory. And yet Biden is languishing.

There is a good chance that Biden’s partisan speech will go down well with his party, as he touched on their favourite messages and promised goodies to different constituencies. He may have very well quieted those Democrats who have been calling for him to stand down. To that end, it may be judged a success, as it served his political survival in the short term.

But last night the rest of America heard a scare-story about Trump’s unique wickedness that they have heard many times before. It hasn’t worked for Biden for the past three years. Who knows, maybe he’ll turn it around over the next eight months before the election. But at this point in time, he just looks like an old man screaming into the void.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics Politics USA

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