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Doyle McManus: Biden should hope he gets heckled at his State of the Union speech

Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Op Eds

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden should hope he gets heckled by Republicans when he gives his State of the Union address on Thursday, just as he was last year.

Here's why.

Biden's campaign for a second term is in trouble. His job approval rating, normally a reliable indicator of an incumbent's chances, is mired below 40%.

So the stakes for the State of the Union address, usually a forgettable event, are unusually high.

The president and his aides have been getting a tsunami of public advice from other Democrats, including strategists who worked for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, on how to improve his prospects.

They say Biden needs to accomplish three goals: He needs to quell voters' worries that at 81 he is too old to seek a second term. He needs to tackle, head-on, the issues on voters' minds: high prices and immigration. And he needs to frame the election as a binary choice between him and former President Donald Trump instead of a referendum on his first term.

For months, Biden has tried to joke his way out of voters' concerns over his age — or worse, reacted angrily to questions about it.

"It's crazy to think that if you don't talk about it, people won't think he's old," David Axelrod, Obama's campaign strategist, said recently. "You won't get a hearing unless you at least acknowledge to people, 'Yeah, I get it.'"

Last week Biden took a half step in that direction, telling late-night television host Seth Meyers that both candidates are old, and that voters should focus on the differences between them.

"Take a look at the other guy — he's about as old as I am," the president said of the 77-year-old Trump. "It's about how old your ideas are. Look, I mean, this is a guy who wants to take us back. He wants to take us back on Roe v. Wade, he wants to take us back on a whole range of issues."

That was a good start, but probably not enough.

"I don't think they've put it to bed," said Doug Sosnik, who helped Bill Clinton win a second term in 1996. "It's still an issue. He needs to lean more forward on it.… This isn't an issue he's going to win; he just has to get to the point where he's not losing on it."

"We'll have to do it again," a Biden aide acknowledged.

Biden is unlikely to raise the age issue in his State of the Union speech. But merely by turning in a competent performance, he can rebut opponents' claims that he's not fit for the office.

In his address a year ago, he was handed a minor triumph by Republican zealots, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, whose heckling and the back-and-forth that followed showed he can still be quick on his feet. The president should hope for more of that kind of help again this year.

On the economy, aides say Biden will recount the achievements of his first three years, including bipartisan legislation on infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing.

 

On inflation, which is easing but still troublesome, he'll talk about his push to negotiate down prescription prices for Medicare and his efforts to ban hidden "junk fees" charged by banks, hotels and other businesses.

And he'll repeat his demand for legislation to "make the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share," meaning higher taxes on corporations and individuals making more than $400,000 a year.

On immigration, he'll ask Congress — again — to pass the bipartisan Senate border bill that has been blocked by House Republicans. He previewed that pitch during his visit to Brownsville, Texas, last week, puckishly appealing to Trump to join him in support of the bill. With House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) sitting behind him, that part of the speech could set off fireworks.

He'll talk about a long list of other issues as well, including reproductive rights — possibly including the recent ruling by Alabama's conservative Supreme Court that had the effect of shutting down in vitro fertilization in the state.

The test of Biden's success will be whether he can turn a speech that too often devolves into a laundry list of priorities into a coherent narrative of what he would seek in a second term.

"You need a compelling, consistent narrative on where the country is and how you're going to make it better," Sosnik said. "It's got to be forward looking."

Which brings us to the third goal: making the 2024 election a choice between two flawed candidates, not a referendum on Biden's first three years.

"Most presidents can't win a referendum, and Biden surely can't, given the environment and the mood of the country right now," Axelrod said on the podcast he co-hosts, "Hacks on Tap." "If it's a referendum, it's going to go poorly. If it's a choice, I think he's got a shot to win."

Biden offered a preview of that theme in his appearance with Meyers, when he framed the election as a choice between two old men — only one of whom "wants to take us back."

Given the protocol of a State of the Union address, he's unlikely to take Trump on by name, as he's been doing more often in campaign events — calling the former president "dangerous," a "threat to democracy" and, turning one of Trump's favorite insults back at him, "a loser."

His rhetoric on Thursday will be more elevated, but the underlying goal will still be to make the contrast clear.

One way he can do that is on foreign policy, where he will press the Republican speaker of the House, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, to put his pending request for military aid for Ukraine to a vote. Biden is likely to remind Congress that defending U.S. allies against Russian President Vladimir Putin is a core national security goal. The comparison with Trump, an unabashed Putin fan, won't need to be spelled out.

So here's a television recommendation rarely made before. This will be a State of the Union speech worth watching — even if the president isn't lucky enough to get heckled again.

___


©2024 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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