2012's State of the Union (Architect of the Capitol)

From the Center

Joe Biden is giving a campaign speech this week.

Technically, the president has not yet officially announced his campaign for a second term in office, but for all practical purposes, this week’s State of the Union address will kick off a re-election effort that will continue through next November.

To be fair, every speech given by every first term president is a re-election speech. (Just as every address from a second term president is a legacy speech.) So Biden is not being singled out here for any undue criticism or compliment. But the high-profile nature and ceremonial trappings of an address to Congress, as well as the proximity of this speech to Biden’s expected reelection announcement, makes the political stakes for the president especially high.

There were a few hours last Friday when it appeared that Biden would be able to use this year’s State of the Union as a victory lap. When news broke that the U.S. economy had created more than half a million jobs in January, almost three times what had been forecast, the president and his advisors could barely contain their ebullience. While rising interest rates still have the potential to drive the country into recession this year or next, the post-pandemic economy is continuing to demonstrate unexpected resilience, which is in turn providing unexpected sustenance to a president whose approval ratings are still well below sea level.

The positive jobs numbers allow Biden to use both his State of the Union message and his formal announcement of candidacy as opportunities for considerable amounts of self-congratulation. He and his cabinet are planning a post-speech blitz of swing states later this week to highlight the administration’s job creation efforts. And even though Republicans are just as vehement in their opposition to his agenda today as they have been for the last two years, their criticisms have much less impact in the wake of positive economic news.

But in the 21st century, news cycles move with extraordinary speed. And by midday, the national media’s focus had shifted from the jobs report to the Chinese surveillance balloon looming over the American countryside. By Saturday afternoon, the aircraft had been shot down over the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of South Carolina. The political repercussions of the Chinese spying, though, will continue for some time. Biden clearly relished the opportunity to talk about ordering the U.S. military to shoot down the balloon, but the Republicans were unimpressed by the display of presidential toughness and are harshly criticizing him for not being more forceful in his response to such overt Chinese aggression.

Ironically, Biden has adopted most of his predecessor’s most confrontational attitudes toward China, and he has utilized diplomatic, economic and geopolitical tools to increase pressure on Beijing. So this is the first time that Republicans have been able to credibly attack him on this issue. The GOP’s disparagement may or may not harm Biden politically in the long term, but it gives them a political weapon in this high-profile moment that wasn’t available to them just one week ago.

It will be weeks – if not years – before we fully understand both the national security and political ramifications of the current flareup. But in the immediate, this is an unnecessary distraction for a White House that has been gearing up for a campaign launch designed to emphasize the president’s greatest political advantages. That goal is now much more complicated.

Biden’s overarching goal is to position himself as the voice of reason, defending the nation against a band of Trump-supporting zealots. Running against the former president has served him well in both the 2020 and 2022 elections, and so it’s not surprising that this will be Biden’s strategy in his re-election campaign. The fight between Biden and House Republicans over the nation’s debt limit has been the centerpiece of the White House efforts to establish this contrast, and the joy with which the Democrats have been attacking their GOP counterparts for potential cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and defense spending has been palpable. 

Hammering home the differences between the two parties on these budgetary matters had been the Biden team’s highest political priority – at least until Friday’s double-barreled news salvo. Now the question is whether it will get much notice at all this week as the 2024 campaign gets underway.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.