Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was a senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The State of the Union speech is not a magic elixir or cure-all for political ills. Generally, presidents get a slight bump in polling following the speech, but that fades over time.
The annual report to Congress and the nation is still important because it almost guarantees a president the largest audience he will have all year to share his unfiltered message with the American people.
The traditional pre-game television interview before the Super Bowl may deliver a much larger audience, of course, and a chance for President Joe Biden to crow about his beloved Philadelphia Eagles. But interviews are a gauntlet a president can’t entirely control. Plus, people tune in to watch football – not politicians!
The big speech next week comes at something of a hinge moment for Biden.
After a string of impressive legislative victories, impactful leadership in stiffening allied resolve against Russian aggression in Ukraine and a surprisingly strong showing for Democrats in the midterm elections, Biden has been dogged lately by a classified documents imbroglio that, at the very least, has been a distraction.
His overall job approval rating is stuck in the low 40s, according to CNN’s Poll of Polls. Meanwhile, nearly three in four Americans say they feel things are headed in the wrong direction and only 36% approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to a recent NBC News poll.
All of this as the President appears poised to run for reelection next year.
Every president, and particularly those contemplating reelection, wants to use the State of the Union speech to burnish his accomplishments, especially on the issues that are of unique concern to voters. And that is important and necessary. But it is easy to think of the speech as a presidential “report card” and miss the opportunity to share a larger and authentic narrative about the country.
Objectively, the economy is in much stronger shape than when Biden took office: more than 10 million jobs created and steady growth despite eight interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve.
The significant steps he and Congress took to undergird people and businesses during the worst of the pandemic were important. The bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed is now blossoming into major public works improvements across the country. The steps he’s taken are making health care more affordable for millions.
Yet Americans have weathered wrenching loss and jarring dislocations during the pandemic, many of which are still reverberating. We have been buffeted by blistering inflation, thanks to global supply chain shortages and spiraling energy costs exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.
The rest of the world has been rocked by the same forces but, as Harry Truman said, when you’re President of the United States, “the buck stops here.” You can’t jawbone people into feeling better.
Mindful of this, even as he reports on the things that have been accomplished, Biden should avoid triumphalism or grandiose claims like, “Not since Lyndon Johnson!” or “The biggest since FDR!” Leave that stuff to historians.
Acknowledge the stress people feel, explain how you’ve tried to help but don’t tell them how great things are. Or worse, how great YOU are. You can’t persuade people of what they don’t feel — and will lose them if you try.
Rather than claim his place in history, the President should paint the picture of where we’ve been and, even more important, where we’re going:
- The massive, bipartisan infrastructure law that is just beginning to rumble.
- The bipartisan measure passed last year to turbocharge advanced American manufacturing and technology in response to competitive threats from China.
- Historic investments to retrofit the country in the battle against climate change.
These are more than shiny talking points. They are pillars of an integrated strategy, a plausible vision for America’s future.
All presidents want to project such a vision. But when you have recently turned 80, and you’re already the oldest president in American history, people don’t instinctively connect you with the word “future.”
So, rather than merely claiming credit for what he’s done, Biden desperately needs to tell a larger story about where we’re going and paint a picture of how these major initiatives are laying the groundwork for something better.
He needs to be a man of the future.
Every State of the Union speech requires a president to report on foreign, as well as domestic affairs. This year, Biden can rightly take credit for rallying the world’s response to Russian aggression.
But there is a much larger point: The ongoing struggle in Ukraine underscores his argument for the importance of continued American leadership and global alliances in a dangerous world. His former – and perhaps future — Republican challenger’s “America First” mentality is a disastrous path if it means America alone.
I’m sure the President will speak about gun violence and abortion rights and the crying imperative for more steps to prevent unspeakable horrors such as the savage beating of Tyre Nichols.
He must speak about the crisis at the border and what additional steps he plans to quell it but also the continued crisis faced by millions of undocumented workers who live in our country — crises that should be solved by rekindling proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.
These issues, too, are about the future in our growingly diverse country. And, as a political matter, Biden has the popular position on almost all of them — though the border looms as a vulnerability — while the new Republican House majority is on the losing side.
That slender new House majority, which is animated by some of the GOP’s most extreme voices, will be the elephant in the room on Tuesday. Many of them are sworn to Biden’s political destruction. He ought to engage in political ju-jitsu and turn their negative energy back on them.
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He should say: “To those of you in the new House majority, let me say, we all have a choice. We can spend the next two years trying to destroy each other for politics. Or we can try to work together wherever we can to solve problems facing families and communities across our country. I’m pretty sure I know which choice the American people are hoping we make. I know which choice I’m prepared to make. I hope you’ll join me.”
As the President ponders his political plans, Tuesday’s speech will offer clues to where he’s headed.
By striking the right balance between claiming credit and over-claiming progress, delivering a compelling and credible vision for the future and preaching constructive collaboration in contrast to the bellicose voices of the right, Biden would be doing more than reporting to the nation: He would be road-testing themes for a challenging reelection campaign to come.