You didn’t have to listen for very long to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last week to realize that he was using it as a dress rehearsal for his not yet formally announced 2024 re-election bid. In addition to the usual laundry list of presidential policy accomplishments and goals, the 73-minute speech delivered to a joint session of Congress featured a number of political attack lines which Biden repeated over the next two days at campaign-style events in Wisconsin and Florida, which are expected once again to be among the key battleground states in the 2024 election.
However, Biden began his speech on a much friendlier and more conciliatory note, by claiming that he wants to work with the opposition Republicans who now control the House of Representatives on a number of issues on which there is some bipartisan agreement.
“You know, we’re often told that Democrats and Republicans can’t work together,” the president said. “But over these past two years, we proved the cynics and the naysayers wrong.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well.”
“The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere.”
Biden then focused on the bipartisan infrastructure law, which passed both houses of Congress with a significant number of GOP votes, but which was also the target of criticism by some Republican conservatives.
The president then added, jokingly, “I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law, and my Republican friends who voted against it as well. I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well. But don’t worry. I promised I’d be a president for all Americans.”
But that was the end of his light-hearted comments and his plea for cooperation from Republicans. The mood of the Republicans in the chamber would soon turn hostile when Biden repeated the highly dubious accusation that they want to do away with Social Security and Medicare, in a successful effort to deliberately provoke an outraged reaction from some of the more conservative GOP lawmakers in the audience.
TEST DRIVING BIDEN’S BLUE COLLAR ECONOMIC MESSAGE
Biden also used the State of the Union speech to test drive a new economic message intended to address his most serious political weakness, his loss of support among mostly white, blue-collar working-class voters in the American heartland. They had once formed the nucleus of the Democrats’ voter base, but many of them now believe that their political party has abandoned their interests in order to pursue the elitist, race-based and anti-American woke agenda of the extreme left.
In September, a New York Times/Siena College poll found that 59% of white working-class voters said Republicans were the party of the working class, compared with 28% who chose Democrats. Sixty-eight percent of these voters said they agreed more with Republicans than Democrats on the economy, while just 25% sided with the Democrats. Those same white working-class voters also agreed overwhelmingly with conservative Republicans on the need to complete building a wall on the southern border wall to stop illegal immigration, opposition to new gun control measures, and support for traditional moral standards and gender definitions.
A number of recent polls have also indicated that the Democrat party’s problems with the working class are not limited to white voters. A significant percentage of traditionally Democrat-supporting blue-collar black, Latino, and Asian-American voters have been changing their affiliations and re-registering as Republicans, especially in states which have been heavily impacted by the flood of illegal immigration that Biden’s lax border policies have invited.
In a more recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, just 36% of working-class Americans without a college degree were satisfied with Biden’s overall job performance, and just 31% approved of his handling of the economy.
Biden made a deliberate attempt to directly address the concerns of that segment of the electorate by highlighting the economic accomplishments of his administration to date.
REACHING OUT TO “FORGOTTEN” VOTERS
“Folks, my economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten,” Biden said. “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.
“You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away.
“I get it.
“That’s why we’re building an economy where no one’s left behind.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives,” the president declared.
In the State of the Union speech, Biden also rolled out a new proposal that would eliminate what he called “junk fees” imposed by various businesses. These include what he called “exorbitant” bank overdraft charges; credit card late fees; “resort fees” charged by hotels; change-of-service fees imposed by cable and internet providers; and the long list of airline “surcharges” for things such as checked luggage and refreshments during the flight that used to be included in the cost of an economy class ticket.
Biden also made it clear that this initiative was designed specifically to please lower-income families, and to try to convince them that he is one of them when he said, “Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in. They add up to hundreds of dollars a month.”
BIDEN FEELS THAT HE DESERVES MORE CREDIT
Biden and members of his administration have been frustrated by their belief that in the face of rampant inflation and worries about a looming recession, the president has not received the political credit that he deserves from the voters for his economic accomplishments to date, including a quick recovery from the Covid pandemic and the damage done to the economy by the lockdowns.
During his State of the Union speech, Biden made yet another attempt to push that narrative. Attempting to rewrite recent history, the president claimed, “Two years ago, the economy was reeling,” even though by the time he took office, the economy was clearly beginning to recover.
“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.”
However, Biden conveniently failed to mention that his own administration’s policies were responsible for extending the school closings, at the behest of the teachers’ unions, much longer than necessary, and that by imposing unnecessary vaccination and mask-wearing mandates, he had increased the amount of damage done to America’s economy and to the education of its public-school students.
BIDEN ASKS VOTERS TO LET HIM “FINISH THE JOB”
Biden also tested out his new 2024 re-election campaign theme, the phrase “finish the job,” which he used as a punch line during his State of the Union address more than a dozen times.
Republicans openly mocked the slogan. “Finish the job? On what? Fueling inflation? Opening the border? Lowering wages? Emptying our energy reserves?” asked Tommy Pigott, the rapid response coordinator at the Republican National Committee.
Biden’s speech included the now-standard progressive liberal wish list of policy goals, including hideously expensive climate change and green energy spending programs, “woke” race and gender-based social and economic policy initiatives, calls for new restrictions on the constitutional right to gun ownership, race-based demands to reform local policing, and federal intervention to force the lowering of prescription drug prices. He also repeated his calls for the renewal of a lapsed federal assault weapons ban, federal pro-choice legislation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling last summer to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, the passage of a new tax on billionaires, and a further expansion of labor union protections, even though none of these legislative measures has a realistic chance of passage as long as Republicans remain in control of the House.
Biden and his fellow Democrats are well aware of the latest polls which show his job approval rating still stuck at under 45%, and that only 25 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction. With Republicans now in control of the House, Democrats also understand that Biden is unlikely to be able to pass the items still on his liberal legislative agenda during the final two years of his first term as president.
Biden’s speech focused on his greatest single political liability, the public’s strong disapproval of his handling of the economy, especially on the issue of inflation, notwithstanding his administration’s strong job creation and near-record low unemployment rate numbers.
Despite January’s unexpectedly strong job creation numbers, in a February 1 Washington Post/ABC poll, 60% of respondents said that Biden had failed to make progress in “creating more good jobs” in their communities, and more generally, 62% of those surveyed said that he has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” since becoming president.
REAGAN’S 1980 QUESTION TO JIMMY CARTER STILL APPLIES
Biden’s bid for a second term as president is also threatened by the same fatal weakness that Ronald Reagan identified in his pivotal October 28, 1980, debate with Jimmy Carter. Reagan had asked the national television audience, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” The answer to that question was apparently “No,” judging by Reagan’s huge popular vote victory just a week later in what had been thought to be a very close race. That is why Democrats have good reason to be concerned by a recent poll which found that today, only 16 percent of Americans feel they are better off now than they were two years ago, when Biden took office.
In response, Biden again tried to shift the blame for the economy’s current troubles on the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, and accused Republicans of hypocrisy for refusing to raise the debt ceiling without first reaching a deal with Democrats on significant cuts in federal spending.
“Under the previous administration, America’s deficit went up four years in a row,” Biden said. “Because of those record deficits, no president added more to the national debt in any four years than my predecessor.” He then added, as GOP lawmakers in the audience jeered, “[Republicans] lifted the debt ceiling three times without preconditions or crisis.”
In fact, the big new spending programs that Biden signed into law during his first two years in office will continue to drive increases in the annual federal budget deficit for many years to come.
IGNORING THE INFLATION ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Biden also tried to avoid the political elephant in the room, the spike in inflation which was touched off by the excessive liberal spending initiatives in Biden’s $1.9 trillion 2021 Covid relief bill, coupled with persistent fears that the need for the Federal Reserve to keep increasing interest rates in order to bring that inflation under control will go too far and force the economy into a recession by the end of this year.
American consumers keep being reminded about inflation and its impact on their budgets and quality of life every time they go to the supermarket to buy food, stop at a gas station to fill up their car’s tank, or open their monthly utility bills. While job openings remain plentiful and wages are rising, lower-income workers are painfully aware that they are still losing ground economically because the increases in their paychecks cannot keep pace with the rise in the basic costs of the necessities in life, such as food, shelter, and clothing. That is why it has been so hard for Biden and the Democrats to convince the voters that they deserve credit for the handling of the economy.
They keep asking themselves an updated version of the same question that Ronald Reagan posed in his debate with Jimmy Carter 42 years ago, “Am I better off today than I was before Joe Biden became president?” As long as their answer remains, “No,” President Biden’s prospects for winning re-election to a second term in 2024 against any Republican candidate, including Donald Trump, will remain very much in doubt.
Perhaps that is also the reason why Biden appears to be in danger of losing his national audience. According to the Nielsen television ratings, about 27.3 million people watched Biden’s State of the Union speech last week, a 29 percent falloff from his audience for last year’s speech making it one of the least-viewed State of the Union addresses in decades.
THE QUESTION THAT DEMOCRATS ARE AFRAID TO ASK
Another political elephant in the room was the issue that most Democrats are very still very uncomfortable discussing in public, Joe Biden’s age. There have been various indications that at age 80, he may not be up to the physical and cognitive challenges of undertaking the rigors of another national presidential campaign over the next two years, followed by another four years in the White House. That is why, despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Democrats approve of Biden’s performance as president, only 37% of them say they would like to see him run for a second term.
Biden is in a much stronger position to announce a run for a second term today than he was early last summer when his job approval ratings dipped below the crucial 40% mark. At that point, a number of prominent liberal news outlets, such as the New York Times and CNN, start running front-page stories about the need for Biden to step aside, and for Democrats to find an electable substitute, preferably someone other than Vice President Kamala Harris, as its nominee for president in 2024.
Biden’s popularity with his fellow Democrats has improved significantly since that time, thanks to the passage by Democrats in Congress of several significant pieces of liberal legislation, and the much better-than-expected showing by Democrat candidates in November’s midterm election. On the economic front, the rate of inflation has started to decline, the pace of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes has been reduced, and dire predictions of a sharp recession in the near future are being replaced by growing hopes for a “soft landing.” While many Democrats are still quietly nervous about Biden’s advancing age, the liberal media grumblings over his fitness for a second term have stopped, and no Democrat has yet dared to come forward to challenge him for the 2024 presidential nomination.
BIDEN’S REASSURING PERFORMANCE
In that respect, at least, Biden’s performance in delivering the State of the Union address last week was encouraging to his supporters. He suffered none of the obvious cognitive lapses or apparent moments of confusion that have marred many of his other public appearances since taking office. Nevertheless, even Biden’s supporters must admit that there is a reason for voters to be concerned about whether he will still be fit enough to run the country by the time completes a second term at the age of 86.
Biden also showed some flashes of humor and political skill in initially praising and then taunting his Republican political opponents, when he deliberately picked a fight by falsely claiming that at least some of them want to do away with Social Security and Medicare.
This is an old charge that liberal Democrats have used for years whenever Republicans point out that the trust funds which finance Social Security and Medicare benefits are being rapidly depleted, and that painful financial measures must be taken, the sooner the better, to prevent them from going bankrupt over the next decade or so.
One of the main reasons that the trust funds are now in trouble is the demographic fact that all of the members of the large baby boom generation have now retired. What that means is that fewer workers are now left to pay part of their salaries into the trust funds, and more people are now collecting Social Security retirement benefits and getting their health coverage from Medicare.
REPUBLICANS WANT TO FIX SOCIAL SECURITY AND MEDICARE, NOT END THEM
All of the various Republican proposals to fix the financial problems facing Social Security and Medicare invariably include assurances that they do not intend to reduce the benefits of current recipients, as well as those of workers who have already made their retirement plans based upon the current level of benefits. Nevertheless, Biden and the Democrats insist on ignoring those assurances in an attempt to frighten voters into believing that Republicans are intent on doing away entirely with both entitlement programs rather than just making the changes necessary to keep them financially solvent.
In his State of the Union speech, Biden deliberately provoked an angry reaction from the Republicans when he said, “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share… some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.”
“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage — I get it — unless I agree to their economic plans,” Biden said. “All of you at home should know what those plans are. Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.”
Biden was referring to a plan that was circulated last year by Florida Senator Rick Scott that would require “all federal legislation [to] sunset in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” In his plan, Scott did not specify Medicare and Social Security, but since they were created through federal legislation, they would need to be reauthorized by Congress every five years.
DISTORTING RICK SCOTT’S SUNSET PROPOSAL
Democrats immediately pounced on the proposal as the proof they had long sought that Republicans wanted to do away with the popular entitlement programs, and ignored Scott’s insistence that he was only seeking to create a mechanism that would force Congress to update them on a regular basis.
In response, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell disavowed Scott’s financial plan virtually as soon as it was issued, and refused to accept it as legitimate GOP policy, explaining, “We will not have as part of my agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”
But Democrats ignored the prompt disavowal of Scott’s proposal by the entire GOP congressional leadership last year, and continued to cite it as evidence of the alleged evil intentions of Republicans towards elderly Americans. That was why the Republicans attending the State of the Union address reacted so angrily to Biden’s repetition of the bogus charge.
REPUBLICANS EMBARRASSED THEMSELVES
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who was seated at the dais immediately behind Biden, could be seen shaking his head and mouthing the word, “No,” in an attempt to silence the Republicans in the room voicing their displeasure, led by controversial Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who could be heard shouting “Liar,” at the president.
A few hours earlier, McCarthy had cautioned his fellow Republicans to be on their best behavior because all eyes would be on them as Biden delivered his nationally televised address. He had also promised that Republicans would not engage in “childish” games, such as the televised gesture by then-House Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi when she ripped up a copy of President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address.
Greene’s protest recalled a similar incident fourteen years ago when Republican Congressman Joe Wilson was widely criticized by members of both parties for shouting, “You lie!” at then-President Obama during a speech to a joint session of Congress when he said that his proposed Obamacare legislation would not provide health coverage to illegal immigrants. In response to the outburst, Obama stopped reading his speech, looked at Wilson, and answered, “That’s not true.”
Later that evening, Wilson issued a statement of apology, declaring, “I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president’s remarks. . . While I disagree with the president’s statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility.”
But last week, Greene offered no such apology. In fact, she interrupted Biden’s speech several times, prompting Speaker McCarthy to try, in vain, to “shush” her from his seat on the dais.
Another Republican who interrupted Biden’s State of the Union address was Tennessee Congressman Andy Ogles, who shouted, “It’s your fault,” when Biden mentioned that the illegal drug “fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year.”
HOW BIDEN SEIZED THE MOMENT
Biden was unphased by the interruptions. In response to Greene’s outburst, he departed from his prepared remarks and said that he was referring only to some Republicans who want to do away with Medicare and Social Security. “I am not saying it’s a majority.” He even granted that “I don’t even think it’s even a significant” portion of the party.
The outburst by Greene also gave Biden an opportunity to confront his Republican critics on a hot-button issue. He publicly dared them, in front of a national television audience, to demonstrate their support for the two entitlement programs.
“I enjoy conversion,” Biden said. “So tonight, let’s all agree to stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.”
This left an embarrassed McCarthy and his fellow Republicans in a tough spot. They had no choice but to join the Democrats in the chamber in standing up to applaud in response to Biden’s challenge.
Savoring the symbolic political victory, Biden then cracked a smile and announced, “So, folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now. Right? All right. We’ve got unanimity!”
It was the most memorable moment of the event, and the video clip of Biden’s humiliation of the Republicans would dominate the news coverage of his speech.
The next day, in an interview, Speaker McCarthy tried to excuse his fellow Republicans for heckling the president during his State of the Union address, by saying that they were just being “passionate.” But he also conceded that it would have been smarter for the protesting Republicans to refuse to “take the bait” when Biden deliberately provoked them.
BIDEN’S MINI-VICTORY TOUR
After the State of the Union address, Biden and his White House staff were jubilant over the media’s praise for his masterful handling of the Republican hecklers. Biden then relived the moment over the next two days during his visits to Wisconsin and Florida in a mini-victory tour to follow up on the positive reception of his State of the Union address.
In his remarks to a small audience of less than two dozen union members at the LiUNA Laborers Apprentice and Training Center in DeForest, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, Biden quipped, “It looks like we negotiated a deal last night on the floor of the House of Representatives,” referring to the trap he successfully laid for Republicans on the issues of Medicare and Social Security. He then singled out Wisconsin’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, for also pushing a plan similar to Scott’s that would require all federal laws to sunset annually, and require their federal re-authorization. Biden also cited an old video clip of Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee saying, “I’m here right now to tell you one thing you’ve probably never heard from a politician: It’ll be my objective to phase out Social Security.”
Senator Johnson was quick to respond by accusing Biden of “lying” about his version of the sunset proposal. “I never suggested putting Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block,” Johnson insisted. He also accused Biden of hypocrisy, citing his support for sunset legislation when he was a senator from Delaware in 1975, and once again on a similar proposal in the 1990s.
During his speech to the hard-hat-wearing union members in Wisconsin, the president ticked off some of the federally funded benefits from the bipartisan infrastructure bill and other pieces of liberal legislation that would soon impact the state: a new terminal at the Port of Green Bay that’s “going to create thousands of jobs over time,” a replacement of the aging Wisconsin River Bridge, and 46 electric buses that will replace “dirty diesel buses” on Madison’s city streets.
BIDEN STILL HAVING TROUBLE GETTING HIS MESSAGE ACROSS
While his small audience greeted the president’s remarks enthusiastically with cheering and applause at all the right moments, it was not clear that his five-hour visit to Wisconsin, during which Biden gave no interviews to the local newspapers and broadcast outlets, had much of a political impact. Even many of the local Biden supporters were annoyed to learn that they could not attend the event, which was closed to the public and not advertised in advance.
For example, Christine Elholm, age 71, a Democrat who voted for Biden two years ago and would like to convince her more skeptical friends to join her in supporting him again in 2024, told the Washington Post, “I have to admit, I’m not in tune to how some of these policies are affecting our city yet. I think President Biden has done amazing things that he has not gotten credit for. It makes me frustrated that those accomplishments are not being recognized the way they should. I think that [his] approval rating should be much higher than it is.”
Joe Wineke, a former chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, agreed that Biden and his fellow Democrats need to do a much better job of promoting his accomplishments to independent and moderate Republican voters.
“He does need the right message,” Wineke said. “I don’t exactly know what that message is, because he keeps saying the right stuff. … He should be in so much better shape.”
The gap between the optimistic way Biden touts the impact of his policies and the opposite perception of people like Elholm’s skeptical working-class friends sums up the political challenge confronting the president and his supporters leading up to the 2024 election.
Meanwhile, Brian Schimming, the state’s GOP chairman, was unimpressed with Biden’s first re-election campaign stop in Madison and predicted that it “will do nothing to improve his standing with Wisconsin voters. Wisconsin households and businesses have faced crushing inflation, decreasing real wages and increasing energy bills for months, and trying to buy votes with his inflationary spending and Green New Deal agenda isn’t the answer to helping Wisconsin families,” Schimming said in a statement.
BIDEN ATTACKS SCOTT AND DESANTIS ON THEIR HOME TURF
During Biden’s appearance the next day at the University of Tampa, Biden doubled down on his criticism of Senator Scott’s sunset proposal. “The very idea that the senator from Florida wants to put Social Security, Medicare, on the chopping block every five years, I find to be somewhat outrageous,” Biden said. “So outrageous that you might not even believe it, but it’s what he said.”
To emphasize the point, Biden’s aides had distributed pamphlets bearing the logo of the White House on the back which contained the text of Scott’s original proposal, plus a commentary that explained, “This means Medicare and Social Security would be on the chopping block every five years under Senator Rick Scott and Congressional Republicans’ plan.”
Biden also contradicted the claim that he made during his State of the Union speech two days earlier that only some Republicans support Medicare and Social Security by telling his Tampa audience, “I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security, Medicare. Well, let me say this. If that’s your dream, I’m your nightmare.”
Scott responded to Biden’s political attack on his own home turf by releasing an ad that called upon the president to resign and accused him of being the true danger to Medicare and Social Security.
“Biden has ripped off Medicare,” Scott said in the ad, which accuses the president of cutting funds from the Medicare program and cheating on his own taxes to the tune of $500,000, money Scott said should have gone to help fund the entitlement programs.
During his Tampa appearance, Biden also took the opportunity to criticize Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is considered likely to be his Republican opponent in the 2024 presidential election if Donald Trump doesn’t get the GOP nomination, for refusing to expand Florida’s Medicaid to cover more of the state’s low-income residents. Biden said that the only reason Medicaid had not been expanded in Florida “is politics. It’s time to get this done.”
HOW LONG WILL 2024 REMAIN A TWO-MAN RACE?
Statements like this make it clear that Biden’s re-election campaign has already begun, and that its official announcement is just a formality.
Right now, the 2024 presidential election is a two-man race, a rematch of the 2020 election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, despite the fact that many Republicans and most Democrats would much prefer to have other candidates to choose from. But it will be almost a year before the voters will have the opportunity to express their own decisive opinions on that matter at the ballot box when the primary season begins.