By MARSHA MERCER
When President Joe Biden delivers his State of the
Union address Tuesday night, he’ll almost certainly start a sentence with: “The
state of the union is . . .”
But how will he end it?
Presidents long have struggled to find the right word.
In 1949, Harry Truman said the state of the union was “good,” which sounds like
a gentleman’s C.
“Not good” Gerald Ford said in 1975, a few months
after Nixon resigned. A year later, Ford said it was “better . . . but still not
And a few months after that, voters sent Ford packing,
in favor of a peanut farmer from Georgia who later described the state of the
union as “sound.”
In 1983, Ronald Reagan – or a clever
speechwriter -- found a model way to end to the sentence. “The state of our
union is strong, but our economy is troubled,” he declared.
Ah, positivity and empathy. Good balance. Almost all
presidents in the decades since have echoed Reagan that the state of the nation
is strong and putting their spin on how to make it a “more perfect union.”
Biden’s address, delayed by COVID-19 protocols, comes
at a perilous time.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reckless invasion
of Ukraine this week threw the world into chaos. But even before the invasion,
Americans were in a sour mood. Inflation, soaring gas prices, supply chain
disruptions, the lingering pandemic, the fall of Afghanistan and other woes
have dampened, if not extinguished, the hopeful flame that accompanied Biden’s
inauguration last year.
Almost two-thirds (64%) of Americans think the country
is on the wrong track, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls
Jan. 14 to Feb. 22.
Biden’s job approval rating is in the low 40s, and
Congress’s is worse. Only 21% of Americans approve of the job Congress is
Gallup’s Mood of the Nation Survey last month found deep
dissatisfaction with democracy itself. Only 30% of those surveyed said they
were somewhat or very satisfied with our system of government and how it works.
No one wants to hear the president say the state of
the union is grim and distressing. This is one of those times when such candor
is not reassuring. We don’t need to be reminded about what we know all too
This State of the Union address is Biden’s opportunity
to showcase his perspective and long experience -- in the Senate, as former
chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as vice president – on the world
stage. He needs to use the bully pulpit calmly.
The White House still believes it has done a poor job
of accentuating the positive accomplishments of the last year. So Biden is
likely to tout more than 6 million jobs created, the drop in the unemployment
rate from 6.2% to 3.9% and plunging unemployment rolls – from more than 18
million to 2 million.
He also is likely to praise his new Supreme Court
nominee, which he has said he will name by the end of February. Biden has more
class than to turn the announcement into a reality TV moment in which the
cameras pan to the winner. Please.
As the midterm elections loom, some will urge Biden to
do what many of his predecessors have done: appease various constituencies with
a laundry list of legislative items that have little chance of seeing the light
If Biden resists that temptation and says something like
the union is “strong, but . . . ,” and focuses on his priorities, he could
strike a tone that is at once optimistic and realistic. Times being what they
are, some Republicans will guffaw no matter what he says.
The world’s precarious situation may draw more viewers
to Biden’s speech than in less stressful times. They want to hear the president
address the international crisis and the economy with a thoughtful, steady
He needs to explain why what happens in Ukraine is important to the United States, his sanctions and why they will succeed. On the economy, he needs to explain how his strategy will address the sectors that have not yet recovered.
© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.