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Reason returns: Joe Biden shows America his true worth

The US president's State of the Union address was a bravura performance of ordinariness and common sense

Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address (Photo: Mario Tama/ Getty Images)

The comedian Stephen Colbert called Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address “a roller-coaster ride of rip-roaring reasonableness”. And maybe now, reason is returning to the United States.

Biden delivered his address to a largely maskless audience in the chamber of the House. Covid restrictions had been changed the night before, and you could almost hear the audience breathe.

The president gave his report to Congress and the nation in front of the first woman and first person of colour vice-president of the US and the first woman speaker of the House. After him, they are the No. 1 and No. 2 people in government, as designated by the constitution. Kamala Harris and Nancy
Pelosi are both powerhouses from what some call the “left coast”, California.

Someone on the right remarked that if Hillary Clinton had joined these three, it would have been like the Four Horsemen of the Democratic Apocalypse.

Unseen, and purposefully so, was the designated survivor. Not the star of a
hit TV show, but the real one for the evening: Gina Raimondo, the secretary
of state for commerce. She was chosen to watch from afar as the president
made his address. This is because the rest of the entire government was in
the room with him.

The idea of a designated survivor emerged during the cold war amid the threat of the mushroom cloud and of being nuked by the Soviet Union. Raimondo had not yet been born during that time, but Joe Biden was a
young man then. And I was a child, going to sleep under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

So the designated survivor was a callback to nightmare times. Times that have returned, courtesy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Biden’s advisers made sure that his hour-long address was full of rallying the country and condemning Putin. This was something that most Americans could get behind, and they crossed rancorous ideologies and bitter party division to do it.

Still, some far right Republicans heckled Biden and the die-hard “I stand
with Putin/Nato is the aggressor” people in the far right media lambasted the president. Strange how nowadays the so-called far left and the far right so
often find themselves under the same banner. I wonder if they notice.

Biden did and he does. His address was a bravura performance of ordinariness, of what many Americans consider to be common sense, whether they say it out loud or not.

So “Defund the police” became “Fund the police”. It’s what most Americans, according to the polls, are saying. They want the police to be better. Not to be gone.

In his magnificent performance with other hip-hop royalty as part of the NFL’s Super Bowl half-time show, Dr Dre rapped that he was “Still not loving
police”. Although you know that if Dre’s ride had been jacked, he’d love the police plenty.

This is what Joe knows, too, and so he gave the folks out there their State of the Union address. So much so that even his mortal enemy, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader of the House, jumped up and gave him a standing ovation. And the Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez smiled warmly.

Joe accomplished what he set out to do: Reassure. Be normal.

To say that Biden has a hole to climb out of is an understatement. Only Donald Trump had a lower approval rating going into his first SOTU.

The guy has been visited by almost all the biblical plagues: war; pestilence, etc, and, for many, has still come up short. The US is tired of the pandemic,
and now inflation has arrived, making a trip to the petrol station the equivalent of the way of the Cross.

Americans and petrol in their cars and trucks are inseparable and indivisible. If Putin messes with this, it will be like another Pearl Harbor.

And now, with Ukraine, the Biden administration is fighting wars on two fronts. This has not really happened since LBJ.

Back then, Lyndon Baines Johnson fought to re-make America. The protege of FDR, LBJ had a roadmap and a mission. He called his American vision “The Great Society”. It called for the erosion of systemic poverty and racism, which allowed people like me to go to university later. He was also waging a proxy war with the Soviet Union in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The looming possibility of a never-ending conflict, a problem he could not solve because we baby boomers, out there in the street would not allow him to, drove him from office. We opted, instead, for a Bernie Sanders-like figure, Senator Eugene McCarthy. What we got was Richard Nixon.

So this time Joe did not rally around “Build Back Better”, his campaign
promise. Not once.

Instead he talked about “burn pits”, those garbage dumps on battlefields that soldiers are expected to protect and maintain. The effects of doing this can be cancer, and his son, Beau Biden, who had been around these pits on the battlefield, was not far from his mind.

Ukraine is utterly dominating the news. Though far right sites are asking questions like “has Putin ever taken a job away from me?”, key Republicans, even Trump, are laying low for now. Even Fox News’ star agitator, Tucker Carlson, is low key.

Americans just really don’t like dictators. Plus we love to cheer “the little guy”, and that is Ukraine and its charismatic, media-savvy president.

According to the rapid-reaction polls right afterwards, the SOTU speech did not move the needle for Biden. But in the days that have followed, his strong response to Ukraine is beginning to be reflected in the polls. After the mis-steps in Afghanistan, Americans approve of what Biden is doing to support president Zelenskiy and his people, and there is movement too on his handling of Covid and the economy. Independents, that crucial demographic, are moving back in Biden’s direction.

It may take the suffering of a people in a land far away to show America Joe Biden’s true worth.

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