Right now, the White House is gearing up for the president’s first State of the Union address. His speechwriters are churning out drafts, gathering guidance from strategists and senior aides and contending with fervent pleas from every agency of the federal government for a paragraph in the speech — even a sentence — about their good works.
The speech will command the largest television audience the president is likely to enjoy this year, and the temptation will be, as it always is, to herald his achievements and declare that we have navigated the storm.
But, Mr. President, proceed with caution. Talk about the things you and Congress have done to help meet the challenges Americans are facing, for sure. Lay out your goals for the future, absolutely. Offer realistic hope for better days ahead. We desperately need it. But recognize that we are still in the grips of a national trauma. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe we are on the wrong track, and people will have little patience for lavish claims of progress that defy their lived experiences.
Even if we are, objectively, in a stronger position than we were a year ago — closer to the end of this ordeal than the beginning — Americans are not celebrating. Millions have lost loved ones; many continue to struggle with the effects of the virus. Kids lost valuable time in the classroom, and parents have struggled to cope. Health care workers are in crisis. And we all have felt the profound cost of our relative isolation, away from family and friends, offices and colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, incidents of suicide, drug overdose deaths and violence in our homes and on the streets have grown dramatically. Frustrations with masks, mandates and shifting rules have deepened our political divides. Jobs have coming roaring back, raising wages. But those wage increases have been eaten up by inflation, the likes of which we have not seen in four decades. And all the while, the rich have gotten richer.
The state of the union is stressed. To claim otherwise — to highlight the progress we have made, without fully acknowledging the hard road we have traveled and the distance we need to go — would seem off-key and out-of-touch. You simply cannot jawbone Americans into believing that things are better than they feel.
At a news conference on the eve of his first anniversary in office, President Biden tried. He energetically sold a litany of achievements — record job growth; a massive and complex vaccine mobilization; a historic rescue act and a landmark infrastructure bill, forged with bipartisan support. He did acknowledge the trials this country has endured, but only sparingly. He got the emphasis and proportions wrong, spending more time pitching his successes and touting progress than he did recognizing the grinding concerns that have soured the mood of the country.
We learned that lesson in the Obama White House. At the height of the Great Recession — and even when it was technically and demonstrably over — the trauma from that catastrophe ran so deep that gaudy claims of progress met with an angry backlash from Americans still grappling, economically and emotionally, with its effects. We learned to pitch progress delicately, and always with a focus on the continuing struggles of the middle class as they tried to recover their financial footing from the crash and decades of shifting fortunes. Rhetorically and substantively, Barack Obama made the cause of those Americans his focus and set up a deliberate contrast between himself and the Republicans that helped him win a second term in 2012.
Even if the Omicron wave has greatly receded by the time Mr. Biden speaks — which may be what the White House was hoping for when his address to Congress was delayed until March 1 — the lingering effects of the pandemic still will be with us. The nation likely will still be in a funk, and its people will want to hear their president recognize why.
It is not that Americans are yearning for a lugubrious speech, freighted with lamentations about our damaged national spirit, without a sense of direction or hope. Amid an energy crisis that triggered sprawling gas lines in 1979, President Jimmy Carter gave a remarkably introspective televised address in which he discussed the “crisis of confidence” that had gripped the nation and called for sacrifice to change our energy future. It became known as the “malaise speech,” though Mr. Carter never actually used that word. And while it briefly lifted his standing, his stark address, coupled with the firing of several Cabinet members a few days later, ultimately deepened the political crisis he was facing.
There is a balance to be struck.
What Americans want to hear is genuine understanding of what we have been through, together and a clear path forward — less about Mr. Biden’s accomplishments than about the heroic, unsung sacrifices so many have made to see their families and communities through. They will want to hear less about his “transformative” legislation than the specific, practical steps Mr. Biden has taken, and is recommending, to help reduce inflation, curb violent crime and, of course, effectively confront any future waves of the virus. They want it to be less about him than us.
This should come naturally to the president.
From the beginning of his long political career, Mr. Biden’s great strength has been his preternatural empathy, borne of his own personal tragedies and his ability to speak in authentic, resonant ways about the everyday challenges facing people in working class communities like Scranton, Pa., where he was born and partly raised. Middle-Class Joe is a nickname he earned over the years, a reflection of his values and sensibilities. Many national politicians speak the language of Washington. Mr. Biden, at his best, speaks American.
Now, he needs to find that voice by telling the story of the ordeal so many Americans have shared, honoring their resilience and painting a credible, realistic picture of how we can all reclaim control of our lives.
David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) was a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and the chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns.
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