If the State of the Union address Tuesday night was the unofficial beginning of Joe Biden’s quest for reelection, Republicans should be worried. For all the talk about how good ol’ Joe has lost a step or two, the President signaled that he’s more adept than ever at wielding his trademark optimism and likability.
Perhaps more than any other politician, Biden is the king at eviscerating his political opponents with a high-beam smile. Just ask Paul Ryan, who experienced that firsthand in a 2012 vice presidential debate.
That disarming tactic was again on full display during his State of the Union address when he sarcastically told Republicans who voted against the infrastructure bill he signed into law in 2021, yet claimed credit for the jobs it’s bringing to their home districts, “see you at the groundbreaking.”
The State of the Union jousting between Biden and the Republican caucus perfectly sums up the contrasting styles between the President and his adversaries. The Republicans, with their outrage-driven heckling, are doubling down on their image as brass-knuckled street fighters. What they seemingly haven’t learned from 2020 is that Biden thrives when cast as the gentler, more amiable counterpuncher.
The question heading into the State of the Union address was: Would Biden’s empathy and decency stand out as much without his chaotic and mean-spirited adversary there to accentuate the stark contrast?
The answer, it seemed, was yes — in part thanks to a new breed of House Republicans more than willing to create chaos in the absence of former President Donald Trump himself.
Members of the GOP just can’t help themselves. Perhaps they thought that insulting Biden from the House floor, as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia did in repeatedly shouting “liar,” would represent some kind of destabilizing surprise ambush.
The President swatted the attacks away and even managed to turn the tables on his critics. Of course, if those GOP rabblerousers had carefully watched videos of his 2020 presidential debates, they would have known that ruffling Biden’s feathers is pretty tough to do. You don’t spend decades in Washington, DC, and still sport a thin skin.
The puzzling question is why are political opponents like Greene creating the same stark contrast in personality that plays right into the President’s hands? It’s a mistake that could cost them in 2024. According to a psychology of voting study, traditionally, voter turnout increases when the electorate is presented with an “angel vs. villain” choice, and high turnout favors Democrats.
By keeping the hostility factor high, the GOP is also paving the way for Biden to reuse in 2024 one of his stickiest and most effective campaign messages from 2020: that the election is nothing short of a battle for the “soul of the nation.” Thanks to the new breed of attention-seeking, far-right Republicans, Biden gets to go back to that well regardless of whether Trump is his opponent or not.
If you had told a younger Biden years ago that one day he would be running for President in an election where the other party completely conceded the political middle ground, he probably would have said, “Oh c’mon, man! That’s a bunch of malarkey.” And yet, that’s the new political reality in which Biden finds himself, a world where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell almost seems like his bipartisan pal.
For decades, the conventional political strategy has been to move to the center in the general election. The tone and substance of the State of the Union proved that’s exactly what Biden plans to do in the run up to 2024. While he’s relentlessly focused on “kitchen table issues” and the blue-collar blueprint, he can only hope that his adversaries are screaming from every rooftop about M&M’s and woke mobs.
But, to garner enough support for a successful reelection campaign, Biden needs to overcome a nagging reality: that octogenarians shouldn’t seek reelection. Democrats have to worry that voters will be resistant to electing someone who will be 86 at the end of his second term. In a concerning sign for the President, a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed, that within his own party and among Democratic-leaning voters, Biden’s support is weak.
During the State of the Union, Biden made a point of bringing vigor to his delivery, perhaps in an effort to prove there’s still plenty of fuel left in that 80-year-old tank. But even for candidates almost half Biden’s age, the campaign trail can be a grueling marathon.
Undoubtedly, Biden’s perceived fitness for office will be an issue Republicans put squarely under the microscope. That simple math and the President’s lackluster poll numbers may be giving the GOP reason for hope that he’ll be a one-term president.
But Biden has made a career out of being underestimated. The political skill with which the State of the Union was delivered made one loud statement as the 2024 election season approaches: Underestimate me at your own peril.
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