March 8, 2024 - 10:00am

In front of one of the largest captive audiences he will have prior to the presidential election this autumn, 81-year-old Joe Biden used this year’s State of the Union address to show he can still conjure the swagger and energy that once made him a reasonable facsimile of an old-school, tough-guy Rust Belt politician.

For longtime observers of political rhetoric, it was a strange spectacle: the President, with that characteristic squint he employs when reading giant text from a teleprompter, started by shouting his support for Ukraine and ended in more hushed tones, perhaps due to fatigue, with the cautious endorsement of a two-state solution in Israel. Along the way, amidst shouts from the gallery, he attempted to joust with the likes of Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. As she drew attention to the murder of a young woman by an illegal immigrant, Biden sheepishly noted that “legals” kill thousands.

While accurate — American citizens do indeed commit the bulk of murders occurring in America — this sort of awkward phrasing accompanied much of the President’s high-wire act. He entered with much to prove and many objectives to accomplish, too many even for a young and energetic politician like his former boss, Barack Obama. At points, he nodded toward bipartisanship, such as when he tried to muster praise for the nation’s uneven economic performance or when he stumped for a doomed immigration reform bill that once seemed like a legislative fait accompli. These issues are now hopelessly politicised, as the shouts and murmurs of Republican discontent conveyed.

For the most part, though, this was a garden-variety campaign speech, albeit one delivered directly from the bully pulpit. Between staccato boasts about his achievements (America has, in his speechwriter’s words, gone “from setback to comeback”), Biden would segue into instances of pure campaigning. He branded the January 6 riots a “dagger at the throat of American democracy”, and seized numerous opportunities to criticise the misdeeds and mistakes of his “predecessor”, which included failing to ensure that the government “bought American” on infrastructure products.

Surely eager to remove the stain of special counsel Robert Hur’s characterisation of him as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”, Biden spoke with extraordinary fervour. Although he sometimes fell into moments of stuttering and stammering, mispronouncing words or placing emphasis on the wrong syllables, his ad-libs — particularly about his advanced age — were engaging and mostly effective, recalling his brighter moments on the campaign trail in 1988 or his Senate interrogation of controversial Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.

All the same, the overall effect of the speech wouldn’t be lost on longtime watchers of The Simpsons — it was akin to that newspaper photo of Grandpa Simpson, angrily shaking his fist beneath a headline that reads “Old Man Yells at Cloud.”

While Biden has now proved he can not only last an hour on the microphone with the assistance of a kindly teleprompter but emote from the diaphragm while doing so, it remains to be seen what impact, if any, this speech will have on an electorate which has significant concerns about both candidates. He did the work, gutting his way through another State of the Union, but were any but his truest believers truly here for it (“the Squad” of far-Left legislators refused to clap for his entrance)?  In any case, Biden is going to need to dig deep to find the energy for the next eight months of hard campaigning, because a rejuvenated Donald Trump certainly isn’t going to settle for another sedate “front porch” campaign decided by mail-in ballots.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work