Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

At last, Joe Biden comes out fighting

The president’s state of the union speech was a spirited attack on Donald Trump

Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Well, that was unexpected. For months, we have grown used to the shuffling, mumbling, visibly fading Joe Biden, as he confused world leaders’ names, fell over, and, with every appearance, compounded the sense that he was simply too depleted a force to lead the free world. But it was a very different Biden that delivered his State of the Union address on Thursday evening.

This version was aggressive, feisty and unapologetically partisan. He did not name Donald Trump once, but referred with disdain to “my predecessor” at least 13 times. As soon as this strategy became clear – which was very quickly – MAGA surrogates took to social media to clutch their digital pearls and complain that Biden was debasing the whole occasion with his excessively “political” speech.

Really? Even as Marjorie Taylor Greene, congresswoman from Georgia and Trump devotee, wore a red baseball hat and heckled Biden? The charge that the president was delivering a campaign speech turned to ash in the mouths of such people: Trump’s troops – the defenders of the January 6 insurrection and opponents of the peaceful transfer of power – are hardly in a position to complain daintily about breaches of protocol or hardcore politicking. It’s not so much fun when you’re on the receiving end, is it?

From the start, Biden was explicit (and correct) that the election on November 5 will be existential for America and define its future identity. “Not since President Lincoln and the civil war have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today,” he said. “What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas, at the very same time”.

And then, a neat contrast between Ronald Reagan, still the lodestar for old-school Republicans, telling Gorbachev in Berlin in 1987 to “tear down this wall”; and Trump, at a South Carolina rally last month, saying that Putin’s forces could do “whatever the hell they want” to Nato members that do not pay their fair share.

Repeatedly, he distinguished the decent ideals and instincts of ordinary Americans from the malign intentions of Trump and his allies. “My predecessor and some of you here seek to bury the truth of January 6,” he said. “I will not do that”.

Then: “Like most Americans, I believe Roe v. Wade got it right…. But my predecessor came to office determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned. He’s the reason it was overturned. In fact, he brags about it”.

And why is the bill linking a border deal to aid for Ukraine and Israel being blocked by Congress? “I’m told my predecessor called Republicans in Congress and demanded they block [it]. He feels it would be a political win for me and a political loser for him. It’s not about him or me.”

Then: “My predecessor told the [National Rifle Association] he’s proud he did nothing on guns when he was president. After another school shooting in Iowa he said we should just ‘get over it’”.

In this particular evening of political theatre, there is no doubt who the villain was – though he remained offstage.

In fact, this was as much a speech about Trump as it was a speech about Biden. The president’s subliminal point was that their respective fates have been inextricably linked by destiny and that – as far as he is concerned – only he can prevent the disaster, for the US and the world, of a second Trump presidency.

Especially strong in this respect was the section of his address on reproductive rights, which he deftly made a symbol of all of America’s most cherished liberties. “My God,” he said, “what freedoms else will you take away?”

Given that the presidential candidate leading in the polls is an unapologetic authoritarian, it’s a pertinent question. And it helped Biden that his political opponents – in spite of instructions from the Republican leadership to behave themselves – took the bait so gormlessly and gave him precisely what he wanted.

This president loves a rowdy room, as he showed in response to heckling at last year’s State of the Union. Once again, he was in his element as Trump’s furious disciples yelled at him. At such moments, he is a kid back in Scranton, Pennsylvania, putting up his dukes and taking on the bullies.

Naturally, there were plenty of reliable applause lines: support for Ukraine, attacks on executive pay and tax avoidance by billionaires; a promise of cheaper prescription drugs; a pledge of a temporary pier to get humanitarian aid into Gaza.

But the heart of the speech was deeply personal. As for Biden’s own most conspicuous vulnerability – his age – he addressed it in an elegant manner: framing his battle with Trump as a battle within the older generation to define the future.

“I know I may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while,” he said. “And when you get to my age certain things become clearer than ever before.

“My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy,” he continued. “To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbour.

“Now some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution. That’s not me.”

In other words: the choice on the menu is between two varieties of “old” – and mine is definitely the one to support.

Will it be enough? The mountain he has to climb is daunting, In the eyes of Americans, Biden’s frailty is now his primary characteristic. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll published last week, 61 per cent of voters think that he is “just too old” to be president – a finding repeated in multiple surveys.

In considering this popular conviction, it is essential to recall how patriarchal and how pitilessly Darwinian US presidential politics really are. In the age of television – since John F Kennedy, in other words – no president has been elected who was not perceived to be handsome or strong, or both.

George W Bush in 2000 might seem to buck the trend, but his victory in that election was imposed by the Supreme Court rather than the voters – and, by 2004, he was a war leader. As Bill Clinton has observed: “Strong and wrong generally beats weak and right”.

It is not Biden’s date of birth itself that has bothered voters (Mick Jagger is only eight months younger than the president and will be performing as Jumpin’ Jack Flash in arenas across US this summer). It has been his reedy voice, his lack of physical vigour, his cognitive lapses.

The low point was undoubtedly the report by special counsel Robert K Hur last month which described the president as “a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory” – and therefore unfit for prosecution. Biden’s furious and sometimes confused press conference in response to this characterisation only compounded the damage.

In response to this, the most drastic proposal has become known as the “Ezra Klein Option” – after the prominent New York Times podcaster and commentator who has done most to popularise it. According to Klein, the “distinction between the job of the presidency and the job of running for the presidency” is not being drawn with sufficient rigour or urgency.

Biden, Klein says, should be persuaded to announce that he will not seek re-election, in the manner of Lyndon Johnson in March 1968, enabling the Democrats to select a new candidate at their convention in Chicago in August.

Citing The Lincoln Miracle, Edward Achorn’s wonderful book about the 1860 Republican Convention, he borrows the injunction to the assembly of Massachusetts senator, Charles Sumner, “to organize victory”. For those Democrats who agree with Klein – and there will still be some – Biden is breaking his promise in 2020 to be “a bridge” and “a transition candidate” and acting instead as a political road-block.

Indeed, his State of the Union performance has shown quite how certain he is that there is no alternate contender yet ready to take on and defeat Trump. In the current issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos asks him if he ever doubts that this is so. “No,” Biden replies. “I’m the only one who has ever beat him. And I’ll beat him again”.

Implicit in that insistence is a solemn belief that the fragility of the republic is greater than his own. He believes he is indispensable.

Is he? What this speech demonstrated, at minimum, is that his campaign team has grasped fully that it absolutely must seize the initiative from Trump who has been on quite a hot streak – primaries, polls, court rulings and trial delays all going his way (except in New York, as I write in the current TNE). In 2020, because of Covid, Biden ran what became known as a “basement campaign”. Four years later, that is simply not an option.

It looked terrible when the president’s handlers passed on the traditional Super Bowl interview and its 123.7 million viewers. It is almost beyond belief that they have yet to agree that Biden should debate Trump later this year. Reclusiveness is the opposite of a winning strategy, especially against an ubiquitous, relentless blowhard.

On Late Night with Seth Meyers on February 26, the president was relaxed, witty, scornful of Trump: “It’s just… I don’t want to get started”. He needs a lot more coverage like that, and like last night’s: on network shows, at rallies, on podcasts, in local town halls and at impromptu meetings on the stump.
He will make mistakes, mix up Gaza with Ukraine, perhaps even confuse Putin with Pinochet. The voters may not change their mind about his fitness for office. But staying home and keeping shtum would simply ensure that they didn’t.

In that sense, last night marked an overdue recognition by Team Biden that the president is almost always better when dialled up to 11.

For all we know, as soon as the speech was over, he was gently lowered back into his cryogenic chamber, there to slumber at sub-zero temperatures until his next outing. One cannot be sure if such blasts of bravado are a last gasp – or the start of an authentic Bidenaissance.

You can be certain that there will be gaffes, tumbles and embarrassment aplenty on the campaign trail. The feisty and belligerent Biden we saw on Thursday evening will not always be on parade. And we can expect Trump to go berserk, too: he has already condemned the address on Truth Social as “the Angriest, Least Compassionate, and Worst State of the Union Speech ever made”. How like Donald to get upset about what he sees as a lack of compassion; he really is all heart.

Be in no doubt: this was only round one of a political slug fest that is going to last almost eight months. It will get ugly. It will be brutal. It will be unbelievably tense, as befits a contest with such high stakes.

But now, at least, and not before time, we know that it will be a proper fight.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.