Six More Years?
How to interpret a strong address from an uneven president to a depressed nation.
A newish president of the United States takes the rostrum of the House of Representatives to give his second State of the Union address. Fair or not, many Americans harbor doubts about the validity of his election, and most seriously, his mettle for the job.
His country is at war, although it doesn't exactly look like wars past, and it is halfway around the planet. The war is popular, but only so much, with no clear endgame and no pretty way to spin the demonization of the war's domestic opponents. The economy is sort of fine, though maybe really not, and all of this after a shocking start to a new decade.
But who cares about George W. Bush?
Or as perhaps more succinctly put by Pyotr Stolypin, a pre-Bolshevik prime minister of Russia, in a remark attributed to him: In a year, everything in the country changes; in a century, nothing changes.
President Joe Biden gave a lively and successful State of the Union address on Tuesday night. He reportedly won out over the weekend at Camp David against his more hardline advisors, who counseled a more partisan speech. Though why he needs to debate his own advisors is never all that clear.
Biden slyly attempted to eat Trumpist Republicans' brunch by co-opting many planks favored by "economic nationalists" (I say let the man co-opt).
Buy American has been the law of the land since 1933. But for too long, past administrations have found ways to get around it. Not anymore. Tonight, I’m also announcing new standards to require all construction materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in America. American-made lumber, glass, drywall, fiber optic cables. And on my watch, American roads, American bridges, and American highways will be made with American products. My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you, watching at home.
Biden also got bipartisan standing applause for hammering the unearned decadences of many Silicon Valley technology firms. At times, Biden exhibited the (Bill) Clintonian charisma of making his opponents in the room look smaller than him. But this is not 1996. And besides his presidential number, President Biden is not forty-six. His claim, demanded of him by administration dogma, that (paraphrasing now, but only so much) don't worry guys, America will only need oil for ten more years drew righteous gallery snickers. Even more earned: the Republican laughter.
When seeming healthy and staying on point, Biden can bestride Washington like a statesman who has outlived most of his rivals. Because he has.
Biden engenders what can be called "controlled jealousy" from everyone besides Barack Obama. Because in many senses, he just isn't most of the people's peer. He is far too old. It is all theoretically this weird strength, one that was ignored by many a Republican strategist during Biden's final comeback in 2019. It is all great except, that is, except the reality, most nights anyway, of the unloving vicissitude of time.
And Biden is a hard eighty. Teetotal, sure, but with decades of that backbreaking Amtrak commute, the fickle public glare, whatever on Earth is going on with his money, and Russian novel style tragedy in his personal life.
Biden's reputation—the man, not the head of his party—suffers from a pincer motion of Republican overconfidence and Democratic Ivy League arrogance. It shocks when he survives and occasionally delivers. But that is what he has been doing for fifty years. And that is what went down Tuesday night.
Most broad-minded conservative observers remarked to me that Biden may well be on his way to reelection. So was George W. Bush in that spring twenty years ago this year, as Washington prepared to drop bombs over Baghdad. Biden said "balloon" far less (that is, not at all) than the 43rd president said "Saddam" two decades back.
Of course, the confidence of this saw—Biden can't win (2019), Biden didn't win (2020), and on (now Biden is invincible)—belies the reality of the practitioner of this craft: Joe Biden is good at politics. Better than Obama, who looks more and more every day the celebrity phenomenon we were are all obsessed with there for a second that he is.
Biden is a more "natural" politician than the one to whom he is most commonly compared—similar, oddly enough, to the dynamic between George W. Bush and his father. But dynamics can wilt. Today, the first Bush is remembered as the far better president. Biden can still mess this up. The uncompromising and escalatory social leftism of his administration is as dangerous domestically as neoconservatism was in foreign affairs.
Still, Biden does look the part. It is nice to see a president wear a Rolex again. It has been decades of bad behavior in the Oval Office on this front. Maybe it is because he is the first president not in the Boomer or Gen X contingent since the end of Nirvana. As I have written, the attempts to brand him as head of "the Biden Crime Family" is curious tactic in a country that worships The Godfather films and is desperate for anything approximating traditional authority.
All the same, normalcy and dignity are elusive for this White House. No matter how much the establishment's denizens may try, it is never going to be normal reading that it is Hunter Biden's birthday in California Playbook, like he works at a lobbying shop or whatever. But probably best not to publish the business associations of Malibu's most in-demand artist.
And Biden surely knows full well how swiftly politicians and, yes, the public, can do a shameless volte-face. Because, of course, Biden has been a master of them himself. Bush looked strong two decades ago (Biden himself praised the president). Bush looked strong when he narrowly won in 2004. And Biden was first mate on the presidential ticket that succeeded the Bush White House and condemned their record as the worst in history—as it was.
Get weekly emails in your inbox
To rip from another Russian prime minister, Vladimir Lenin, “There are decades where nothing happens. And there are weeks where decades happen.”
Given the economy, the plausibility of two great power wars, and what is fair to say is Biden's own party's simmering radicalism, the president is going va banque in betting on the former scenario. "Nothing interesting will ever happen literally ever again," and certainly not on his watch, seems almost to be the refrain of this administration.
And to that I can only remark, to filch a Bidenism: Good luck, man.