Will Biden Seize the Opportunity to Reframe His Agenda?

When I think back to memorable State of the Union Addresses, it is President Bill Clinton’s 1996 address that springs to mind.

Many say Clinton’s move from a centrist campaign to a left-leaning agenda during his first two presidential years brought about a historic Republican realignment in the House with Newt Gingrich and conservatives firmly grabbing the leadership reins of the Republican party.

Faced with an historic upset and a stalled agenda, President Clinton used the State of the Union to recapture his centrist positioning, reframing himself as the bipartisan president and resetting his agenda. It was one of the most brilliant political moves in modern times.

As President Biden prepares to address Congress and the nation, the State of the Union provides an opportunity for him to reset in hopes of averting a dismal showing at the polls next fall. His speech also comes at a time when the world’s eyes are on the U.S. as Europe faces its greatest crisis since World War II.

President Biden didn’t run on a left-wing agenda. In fact, the left wing of the party didn’t win the nomination. A close general election should have sent a signal to the incoming Administration that governing from the middle would be more accepted than moving to the left fringe to appease a vocal minority. The policies rolled out from day one by the Democratic Senate, House and Administration were not centrist. Hidden throughout these big packages are expensive programs directly from an agenda embraced by the liberal wing. Policies like dramatically expanding IRS funding, providing tax deductions for union dues, or giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, to name a few. When you add programs like these to a $555 billion Clean Energy Initiative, it’s no wonder it’s hard to find enough votes to make it across the finish line.

Witness San Francisco’s local elections just last week along with the Virginia Governor’s race last fall.  These elections weren’t about Donald Trump. They were about American citizens standing up for what they want in their local communities. Like it or not, most of America is right down the middle. Not too far left and not too far right.

President Biden’s values and background earned him the nickname, Middle-Class Joe. It brought him to this place today and has been a guiding force throughout his career. He’s the guy who took the train to work every day. The guy from Scranton who joined his neighbors jumping in the ice-cold winter water during the Turkey Day Plunge. America gave Middle-Class Joe a chance, but now they fear he wasn’t really with them and he’s unable to hold back those from the left who are reaching too far.

Drastic times call for bold, unconventional actions. With today’s world order challenged like it hasn’t been since WWII, the stock market in a freefall, and inflation shrinking the buying power of American paychecks, Biden needs to harness his “Middle-Class Joe” voice. The American people are looking for someone they recognize at the helm – someone with empathy and integrity – who will reach out to families across the country and listen to what they truly need instead of throwing money at problems.

The State of the Union always presents an opportunity to highlight Administration successes. President Biden can seize this moment and right the ship before the election clock starts ticking down. But whether the President seizes the opportunity is up to him and his team. If the Biden Administration authentically resurrects “Middle-Class Joe” and brings centrist ideas to the halls of government, I believe the tide can be turned.

Over the past few weeks, I reached out to several prominent political insiders who have been covering the State of the Union for decades to hear their thoughts and perspectives. Here’s what they had to say:

Columnist Margaret Carlson explained, “There are many esthetic reasons for wanting to dump the State of the Union but more somber reasons to keep it on life support. First, there’s hope for this year’s in that there won’t be guests in the gallery. What was serio-comic relief in its early days—turning the camera on the First Lady’s box to see who was chosen to be there, is now a stilted series of stunts: there’s the shot of the veteran, the crime victim, the teacher, the candlestick maker choreographed to appear at the right moment in the speech. We get it. Even when COVID is, hopefully, a distant memory, future SOTUs should skip the gallery portion of the evening. For that matter, skip having members, the cabinet, and Supreme Court. The money shot of members is someone in the opposition, stone-faced, refusing to applaud, or better, asleep…Get rid of the filigree. It just signals nothing to see here from the dais. It’s good to have one hour devoted to a ritual focused on how everything is going and where we go from here, even if the laundry list portion throws a sop to every constituency. What else do we have that focuses on policy? I know it’s a bone but it’s all, policy wise, we’re ever thrown.”

Steve Clemons, the editor at large of The Hill, stated, “I was among the guests in 1996 when President Bill Clinton said, ‘the era of big government is over.’ The room, packed with Members of both Chambers, the joint chiefs of the military services, Clinton cabinet members, and the justices of the Supreme Court all seemed caught off guard by Clinton’s statement, not knowing whether to applaud or hold back. It was a moment that mattered, and it showed that the State of the Union could be so much more than an evening of pointing into the gallery at various people props to draw forced applause lines.

President Biden needs to take command and level with the American people and the Congress that these are not ordinary times and talk about the drivers of high inflation, a stressed out global supply chain, racial tensions, worker shortages, a pandemic that is not nearly over, and a former global adversary that is back on the hunt, invading sovereign states, and killing innocent people who desired freedom and Western-fashioned democracy. Biden needs to remind America of its history when notable U.S. celebrities like Charles Lindbergh praised Adolph Hitler and reflect on what signals it sends to the world and to Americans when President Trump, media celebrities, and even some members of Congress praise Vladimir Putin as very savvy and a genius. Biden needs to give his Constitutionally required report to Congress and the American people about America’s needs, his administration’s efforts, successes, and shortcomings.  This is a time for honest assessment, and to hear what course Biden is going to take to confront all of these challenges.

That is what the State of the Union should be — not grinning at the gallery, not a ritual tromp through glad-handing Senators and Representatives who want selfies with Biden. This is a somber and serious moment – and the State of the Union could be the vital platform to offer a new plan to propel Americans towards greater unity, health and purpose – and give Biden a chance to resurrect his sinking Presidency.”

Former U.S. Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley said, “The State of the Union address is THE chance for the president to hit the reset button on the narrative of his agenda. How President Biden talks about his Build Back Better agenda, or components of it, is how every Democrat on the ballot will talk about it between now and November. One of President Biden’s greatest strengths as a leader is his empathy, so I suspect we will see that front and center. Combining this tone with a results-oriented approach could be quite powerful. Rising food prices affecting your family budget? I understand — here’s what we’re doing about it. And while we’re at it, we’re also going to make child care more affordable and lower drug prices.

Could the President say all of this in a primetime address from the Oval Office? Sure. But the guarantee of a built-in audience of the opposing political party (with cameras poised to capture their every reaction) and the ability to include storytelling and a little stagecraft does elevate the State of the Union. One could argue that standing ovations — or lack of — and other displays have turned what should be a time of unity into partisanship, and has contributed to the downfall of our political discourse. As someone who was in the chamber when Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” to President Obama, I would agree. But for an address that was originally intended for a Congressional audience seeing approval or disapproval of a president’s agenda in real-time is an experiment in itself.”

Journalist and former Carter Administration speechwriter, James Fallows, stated, “The State of the Union is one of the few regular opportunities to command at least part of the public’s attention for at least some span of time. No president can guarantee that one of these speeches will help his standing or his agenda. But it’s too important an opportunity for the White House team not to give it their best try… One part of the reaction to the speech is foreseeable: Mitch McConnell’s caucus in the Senate, and Kevin McCarthy’s in the House, will say it was disappointing, excessive, unrealistic, sign that it is ‘time for a change,’ and so on. And it’s almost as foreseeable that Chuck Schumer’s and Nancy Pelosi’s caucuses will say the reverse. So, what’s up for grabs? Essentially the ‘play’ from the news media, in two ways. First, did Biden look and sound ‘strong,’ ‘confident,’ ‘resolute,’ and so on. Second, did he provide a ‘narrative’ about why things are going his way (and America’s) when it comes to the big challenges — the pandemic, the economy, and global challenges starting with Russia. That’s why those of us interested in politics will watch.”

Washington Post National Political Correspondent and Anchor of The Daily 202, Olivier Knox explained, “The State of the Union remains relevant even in an era of bite-size social media nuggets because it’s almost certainly the largest audience any American politician will have this year. What’s changed is how the White House sees – and courts – that audience. Or rather, those audiences: Lawmakers in the room; TV watchers; Twitter users; people who’ll read about it a day later; or even those who’ll catch a memorable moment on Tik-Tok. There won’t be just one State of the Union. There’ll be one for every American, depending on their media diet.”

Bruce Mehlman, co-founder of a leading bipartisan government relations firm and a Bush Administration veteran, noted “Few political speeches are more challenging than a President’s initial State of the Union. After 12 months, the honeymoon is over. Often your largest accomplishments, and any low-hanging-fruit-wins, are behind you. Your base now realizes that your lofty campaign promises were greater than you’ll be able to deliver. Your opponents have seized upon your missteps, misstatements and bad luck, and they’re laser-focused on engineering another midterm shellacking, which history modern political suggests is unavoidable. If you offer sweeping new promises, the increasingly-aggressive media will claim you’ve abandoned your former goals, while reiterating the same things you’ve been pushing for 2-3 years will feel stale.”