You didn’t have to listen to Joe Biden’s third State of the Union address to get the message that the 46th president is fully engaged with his bid for a second term. Even before the speech was delivered, Biden’s team had revealed plans to travel Wednesday morning to the Laborers Apprentice and Training Center in Wisconsin’s vote-rich Dane County. Out of all the places he could have chosen, the president was headed to the Democratic heartlands of what for decades has been the most consistently contested presidential battleground state in the nation.
Even though Biden hasn’t made the formal announcement, he’s clearly running in 2024. But he’s a long way from taking a victory lap.
Biden’s challenge—on Tuesday night in Washington, on Wednesday in Wisconsin, and on every day of his next presidential campaign—is a serious one. He has to get apprehensive voters to see his leadership—especially on the economic issues that tend to dictate election results—as sufficiently vital to keep an 80-year-old president around until he’s 86. But does he have a sufficient message for a campaign in which, according to polling by the Associated Press, only 25 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction and only 37 percent of Democrats want Biden to run again for the nation’s top job?
The State of the Union address sought to answer that question with a steady assurance that, even if he does not always inspire enthusiasm, Joe Biden is getting the job done as well as can be expected in an era of newly divided government. And, of course, that appeal was accompanied by the implication that keeping Biden in office is the way to guard against the chaos and calamity that would ensue were he to be defeated by Donald Trump or an equally unsettling Republican such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
It’s a message grounded in something Trump and DeSantis rarely acknowledge: reality. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 1969. The recession that was looming on the horizon may be averted. And the infrastructure, competition, and technology programs that Biden and Democrats passed when they controlled Congress in 2021 and 2022 are starting to come online. So the economic picture is encouraging, and it could get better.
Unfortunately for Biden, the majority of Americans just aren’t feeling it. Whether that’s fair or not isn’t the point. This is the political problem the president knows he must address. And he’s experienced enough to recognize that no speech, not even one that ably utilized the biggest bully pulpit available to a sitting president, will close the deal.
Biden made a game effort on Tuesday night to tout his first-term achievements, arguing that the country has turned some big corners:
Two years ago, the economy was reeling. I stand here tonight, after we have created, with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs—more jobs created in two years than any president has created in four years, because of you all, because of the American people. Two years ago, Covid had shut [things] down—our businesses were closed, our schools were robbed of so much. And today, Covid no longer controls our lives. Two years ago, democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. And today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.
The trouble is that telling people that they don’t know how good they’ve got it has rarely proven to be a winning approach politically. Ask Jimmy Carter or George H.W. Bush, each of whom found that anxious voters were unforgiving voters. Biden, who had a front-row Senate seat to both of those presidencies, knows this. That’s why, with a reasonable measure of populist energy and some deftly delivered applause lines, he devoted so much of Tuesday’s address to the fights he wants to keep waging—to save the planet, preserve democracy, defend reproductive rights, address gun violence, reform policing, and lower prescription drug prices. He used the phrase “finish the job” at least a dozen times. Reelection pitches don’t get much more blatant than that.
The highlight of the speech came when Biden declared, “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share…some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.” That inspired booing and shouts of “liar” from House Republicans. Then a smiling Biden, showing skills developed during 36 years as a senator, announced, “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now. Right? All right. We’ve got unanimity!”
This is the ground Biden wants to fight on. He circled back, again and again, to the kitchen-table economic themes that he so obviously plans to make central to his reelection bid.
Determined to connect with swing-state voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by drawing blue-collar voters away from the Democrat, Biden said Tuesday night:
Folks, my economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. So many of you listening to me tonight, I know you feel it. So many of you felt like you’ve just simply been forgotten. Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind and treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching from home…. That’s why we’re building an economy where no one’s left behind…. a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives at home.
That’s the sort of carefully crafted political appeal that experienced politicians slip into State of the Union addresses. And Biden delivered it capably. But it will take more than calm reassurances about smoothing over the rough edges of capitalism to generate the enthusiasm—especially among young voters—that Biden needs going into an election where polls suggest he’s narrowly trailing Trump. After the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll put Trump up by three points over Biden—a number well within the margin of error, but still ahead—former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro tweeted:
It’s the general consensus that Dems are content with Biden in a Trump rematch. But this poll undermines Biden’s central argument for re-nomination. Two years is forever and it’s just one poll, but if he’s faring this poorly after a string of wins, that should be worrisome.
Castro’s right. And Biden, even if he may never admit as much publicly, is well aware of the political dynamics. That’s why he framed his State of the Union address as the opening argument for a reelection run that he understands will be difficult. And that’s why he was on a plane just hours after he finished the speech—headed for a battleground state he can’t afford to lose.
Biden’s running. There’s no question of that. But he’s a long way from the finish line. Indeed, despite encouraging economic numbers, and despite a successful State of the Union address, Biden knows he’s still got work to do just to convince Democrats that he’s their best presidential prospect. And if, as expected, he is the nominee, he’s got even more work to do to convince the Democratic base, and its independent allies, to turn out in sufficient numbers to prevail in November of 2024.
Hyper-partisan Democrats may not want to acknowledge these realities. But Biden, judging by the tenor of his address and the focus of his post-speech campaigning, clearly does.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the latest Washington Post-ABC News polling numbers. Biden is trailing Trump by three points, not leading him, as was originally stated.