Perhaps no-one benefited more from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week than Joe Biden. The president’s approval had been flagging thanks to inflation, pandemic fatigue, and a Carteresque sense of malaise. In one recent poll, a majority of Americans said he lacked the “mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president”.
But war is unifying, and no war could be as unifying as Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, which pits America’s traditional geopolitical rival, with its cartoon-villain president, against a band of plucky underdogs — a moral fable worthy of a John Wayne Western, and one in which Americans won’t be asked to do much other than cheer.
Biden led his first State of the Union with the war. With the Ukrainian ambassador seated next to his First Lady and scattered lawmakers dressed in blue and gold, a fresh-faced Biden, looking as if he’d had new work done, promised to punish Putin, defend every inch of NATO territory, and demonstrate US resolve. Biden tripped over the word “ruble.” He made a baffling reference to a “pound of Ukrainians.” He looked, at times, very very old. But the message was the right one: tough talk, but with a guarantee of no new war.
The rest of the speech was a seminar in David Shor’s concept of “popularism,” marred only by the president’s occasional verbal stumbles — e.g., the Rust Belt as “the… the… the… home of the… the… significant resurgence of manufacturing”. There was scarcely a mention of the culture war. The president promised jobs, infrastructure, investment. He promised to buy American and lower the costs of prescription drugs. He talked about the mental health toll of the pandemic on children. He promised to beat the opioid epidemic and “end cancer as we know it.”
Notably, on issue after issue, Biden tacked hard to the centre. Speaking to a mostly barefaced chamber on the day the CDC relaxed its masking guidance, Biden positioned himself as championing a return to normal — he bragged that for most Americans, masks are now optional, while urging workers to return to offices. And, in the biggest applause line of the night, he announced: “The answer is not to defund the police, it’s to fund the police”.
In his first State of the Union, that is, the “most progressive president since FDR” endorsed positions that, for much of the last two years, would have earned the average blue-city professional pariah status at best. As he’s shown since his primary campaign, Biden is an imperfect vessel for basically sound instincts. But as his predecessor in the White House showed, and as Biden has learned with his most ambitious legislation, it’s not always easy to translate instincts into political results.