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 good enough.”
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 doing.
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 well.
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 of day.
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 voice.
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.
This is a high stakes moment for the president and the state of the union.
© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.