Many Democrats are terrified of President Joe Biden running for a second term. Most of them, according to recent polls, don’t want him to.
But in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden did something largely unexpected: He lessened the mental anguish of those privately nerve-wracked, infamously bed-wetting Democrats — for a moment, at least.
Inside the White House, where aides anxiously watched the proceedings, a palpable relief set in as the 73-minute speech progressed. Some said they literally began breathing easier once Biden got on a roll, taking comfort in his smiling retorts to jeering Republican House members.
It wasn’t only that the 80-year-old, gaffe-prone president had avoided any serious misstep. It was that Biden showed he was up for a fight and, frankly, had a few uppercuts left in him.
“The energy of the speech, particularly the joyful jousting with the Republican hecklers, was a powerful rejoinder to those who question his mental acuity,” said David Axelrod, the former Barack Obama adviser, and someone not prone to hold back on Biden skepticism. “The speech,” he added, gave “Democrats a messaging road map.”
For months, uneasiness among Democrats about the president had centered on fears that it would be much harder for him to run in 2024 against any younger, less objectionable Republican nominee than Donald Trump.
But in his sparring with heckling House members Tuesday evening, Biden demonstrated that there was an entire constellation of Republicans beyond the former president whom he could turn into a foil. Doing so had long been the plan of Biden’s advisers, but watching it actually happen in front of one of his largest audiences in recent memory was a different dynamic entirely.
“It doesn’t have to be Trump being the boorish rude jerk if the rest of them are doing the work for him,” said Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the center-left group Third Way.
One day after the State of the Union, Bennett said, “It’s a good day to be a Biden Democrat.”
That one evening could provide such profound relief and zest is a testament to the psyche of the Democratic Party. By most measures, Biden has proven to be one of the most effective Democrats in modern history: defeating a sitting incumbent, enacting historic legislation and scoring major midterm victories even while his approval rating hovered in the low 40s. And yet, the party — as it is wont to do — laments.
Members are concerned about Biden’s age. And they note that despite his successes, he is still with major liabilities. Few Americans — just about three in 10 — think the country is heading in the right direction. According to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this week, just 37 percent of Democrats want Biden to run for re-election.
That’s hardly a vote of confidence. In a preview of how Republicans will go after him, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, in her GOP response to the State of the Union, cast Biden as an aged creature of the “woke” left.
But it was the GOP’s uprising in the House chamber that offered Biden a contrast that Democrats were still reveling in hours later.
“If [House Speaker Kevin] McCarthy had better control over his caucus, which he doesn’t, he would have prevented the caucus from walking right into the president’s hands,” said Julie Roginsky, a Democratic strategist and former top adviser to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. “But when you have Marjorie Taylor Greene becoming the story of the Republican opposition, much more so than Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gave the actual rebuttal, that can only benefit the White House.”
For Biden’s allies, Tuesday evening wasn’t a revelation so much as an affirmation of their long-held belief: that the party worries too much and too often about him and can’t seem to accept that he’s been a success.
“He’s the master of lowering expectations and then clearing them by a mile,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “Whether that’s the press or Republicans lowering the bar for him, when it matters he just keeps knocking it out of the park. It’s something you can’t teach. You can only claim luck so many times. It’s working. It’s just working for him.”
Biden’s goading of Republicans on Social Security and Medicare on Tuesday night (getting them to publicly take cuts to the programs off the table) was, for many party allies, the evening’s crowning achievement. It amounted to what Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called a “brilliant master class.” Bennett said Biden “set a trap and the Republicans walked right into it. It was incredible.”
And yet, even in a moment of triumph, caveats abound. The bar for Biden on Tuesday was extraordinarily low, and the State of the Union is a controlled environment designed to benefit a sitting president. The afterglow, the concern went, may not last very long.
“These speeches,” Axelrod said, “have a limited half-life, time marches on and the issue of age won’t disappear. He’s going to have to continue to bring it, as he did last night.”
House Republicans certainly weren’t eager to dwell on the night that was. They moved quickly on Wednesday to hearings on the Hunter Biden laptop incident, hoping to reorient Washington D.C.’s focus. The GOP’s presidential primary, once it begins in earnest, will do more to define the Democrats’ opposition in 2024 than any off-year State of the Union speech.
Democrats, too, may not remain as sanguine. In a divided Congress, much of Biden’s high-profile legislative agenda is unlikely to pass, and the glow of Tuesday night may soon turn to restlessness.
Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the Bernie Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, said the president had missed an opportunity to “up the ante” on Republicans by threatening to govern more on a range of issues by executive action.
But as a table-setting address for Biden’s likely re-election campaign, Tuesday could hardly have gone better.
“People continually underestimate Joe Biden,” said Kelly Dietrich, a former Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which trains candidates across the country. “I know people worry about him being too old, but he’s crushing this job right now.”
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