WASHINGTON — Joe Biden stepped to the rostrum for his State of the Union address at what should be a high point of his presidency. He’s repeatedly beaten the odds with a string of legislative accomplishments and a historically strong midterm election where Democrats held the line against Republicans. His steadfast support for Ukraine has won praise. The cloud of the pandemic has lifted.
But on Tuesday night, he found himself facing a problem that has shadowed him for years — doubt.
Polls show a majority of Americans are largely unaware of his successes and don’t approve of his job performance. Even Democrats question whether he should run for reelection amid concerns about his age.
It all added up to a particularly high-stakes moment for Biden, providing him with his last, best opportunity to make his case for why he deserves a second term before a formal campaign announcement.
He left no doubt that he believes he has more work to do as president. Addressing Republicans who recently won control of the House, Biden said “the people sent us a clear message” about the need to find common ground.
“We’ve been sent here to finish the job,” he said.
Although Biden frequently used the language of cooperation, he slipped in a few digs at the other party, such as when he talked about Republicans who voted against his infrastructure law but still celebrate the money being used in their districts.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking!”
At another point, Biden accused Republicans of trying to curtail Social Security and Medicare benefits for older Americans, provoking shouts of “liar” from his critics.
Veering from the text of his speech, Biden responded with a grin. “Anybody who doubts it, contact my office, I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.” It was a thrust and parry more likely to be found on a debate stage than in a State of the Union.
Now it’s just a matter of waiting for Biden to reveal his decision on whether he’ll run again. He’s promised an announcement early this year.
“Until the moment when he makes that pronouncement, that’s still that question that hangs over every word that he utters,” said Patrick Gaspard, a former White House political director and top official at the Democratic National Committee.
Gaspard, who is currently president of the liberal Center for American Progress, said the State of the Union “is often considered the opening bid in an argument for reelection. And in this situation, it’s certainly the case.”
American presidents almost never forgo a shot at a second term. The last one was Lyndon Johnson, who did not seek reelection in 1968 after his presidency became unmoored by the Vietnam War.
But there’s also never been a president as old as Biden. He’s 80, and would be 86 at the end of a second term. He first ran for the White House in 1988.
“I’m not new to this place,” Biden acknowledged in his speech. “I stand here tonight having served as long as about any one of you has ever served here.”
Lyndsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian, said Biden’s age is “the X factor” that differentiates him from his predecessors. Even when other presidents faced low approval ratings during their first term, “no one was suggesting that they not run.”
“If he was ten years younger, none of these conversations would be happening,” she said.
Biden gave a glimpse of his campaign pitch on Friday in Philadelphia, when he spoke at a Democratic National Committee meeting. He rattled off legislative accomplishments, some of which were achieved after they were left for dead in Congress, and blasted Republicans as “extremists,” even calling them “nuts” at one point.
“Let me ask you a simple question. Are you with me?” he said to the cheering crowd, which responded by chanting, “Four more years!”
Political appearances rarely draw the same attention as the State of the Union. Last year, 38 million people tuned in, compared to nearly 100 million who watched the Super Bowl.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said the challenge is to find the right way to harness that fleeting focus.
“The speech will probably be remembered for two or three lines,” he said. “He has to decide which he wants those to be.”
Judging by the text, Biden wants that line to be “finish the job,” a phrase included no less than a dozen times. Whether it’s increasing taxes on billionaires, preventing police brutality or lowering insulin costs, Biden said he wants to “finish the job.”
It may not have been a campaign announcement, but it’s an implicit request for voters to stick with him.
Biden plans to travel to Wisconsin on Wednesday and Florida on Thursday to continue pushing his agenda, part of an administration-wide plan for top officials to fan out across the country this week.
After a Democratic midterm showing that was strong by historical averages in a president’s first term, Biden has successfully tamped down handwringing within his party over whether he should seek another term. No primary opponent has emerged.
And he has a record to build upon. He’s also secured investments in infrastructure, computer chip manufacturing and financial incentives to encourage Americans to adopt cleaner technologies for fighting climate change.
“At the end of the day, you can’t argue with the extraordinary accomplishments, more than almost any other modern president, that President Biden has achieved, again, under the toughest of circumstances,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a Sunday interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”
However, Biden still faces skepticism from the country at large.
Only 37 percent of Democrats say they want Biden to seek a second term, down from 52 percent before the midterm elections in November, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Victories in Congress to the contrary, many Americans don’t see him making progress either.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll said 36 percent of Americans believe Biden has accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount” since taking office, while 62 percent said he’s done “not very much” or “little or nothing.”
Cedric Richmond, a former top White House official who is now a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, says the numbers don’t concern him.
“When you hit a campaign, and you’re going to spend the kind of money that campaigns cost now, people will get inundated” with reminders of changes that Biden has made during his administration, he said.
Right now, Richmond said, “people are more focused on their lives than political commentary and polls and all of those things.”
Now the question is whether Biden’s big speech shifted voters’ focus to him — and got them to see the country his same way.
Story by Chris Megerian.