WASHINGTON – In good times or bad, American presidents come to Congress with a diagnosis that hardly differs over the decades. In their State of the Union speeches, they declare “the state of our union is strong" or words very much like it.
President Joe Biden’s fellow Americans, though, have other ideas about the state they’re in and little hope his State of the Union address Tuesday night can turn anything around.
America’s strength is being sharply tested from within — and now from afar — as fate, overnight, made Biden a wartime president in someone else’s conflict, leading the West’s response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine that makes all the other problems worse.
The state of the union is disunity and division. It’s a state of exhaustion from the pandemic. It’s about feeling gouged at the grocery store and gas pump. It's so low that some Americans, including prominent ones, are exalting Russian President Vladimir Putin in his attack on a democracy.
Measures of happiness have hit a bottom, with fewer Americans saying they are very happy in the 2021 General Social Survey than ever before in five decades of asking them.
This is what a grand funk looks like.
Biden will step up to the House speaker’s rostrum to address a nation in conflict with itself. The country is litigating how to keep kids safe and what to teach them, weary over orders to wear masks, bruised over an ignominious end to one war, in Afghanistan, and suddenly plenty worried about Russian expansionism. A speech designed to discuss the commonwealth will be delivered to a nation that is having increasing difficulty finding much of anything in common.
Even now, a large segment of the country still clings to the lie that the last election was stolen.
THAT ‘M’ WORD
Four decades ago, President Jimmy Carter confronted a national “crisis of confidence" in a speech describing a national malaise without using that word. But Vice President Kamala Harris did when she told an interviewer last month “there is a level of malaise” in this country.
Today’s national psyche is one of fatigue and frustration — synonyms for the malaise of the 1970s. But the divides run deeper and solutions may be more elusive than the energy crisis, inflation and sense of drift of that time.
Take today’s climate of discourse. It’s “so cold,” said Rachel Hoopes, a charity executive in Des Moines, Iowa, who voted for Biden. “It’s hard to see how him talking to us can break through when so many people can’t talk to each other.”
It’s as if Americans need group therapy more than a set-piece speech to Congress.
“We have to feel good about ourselves before we can move forward,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show.”
Yet in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s attack last week, a long-absent reflex kicked back in as members of Congress projected unity behind the president, at least for the moment, in the confrontation with Moscow. “We’re all together at this point,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “and we need to be together about what should be done.”
Politics didn’t stop at the water’s edge but it paused. Though not at Mar-a-Lago's ocean edge in Florida, where Donald Trump praised Putin's “savvy," “genius” move against the country that entangled the defeated American president in his first impeachment trial.
PICK YOUR POISON
White House officials acknowledge that the mood of the country is “sour,” but say they are also encouraged by data showing people's lives are better off than a year ago. They say the national psyche is a “trailing indicator” and will improve with time.
Biden, in his speech, will highlight the improvements from a year ago — particularly on COVID and the economy — but also acknowledge that the job is not yet done, in recognition of the fact that many Americans don’t believe it.
A year into Biden’s presidency, polling indeed finds that he faces a critical and pessimistic public. Only 29% of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to the February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
In December’s AP-NORC poll, most said economic conditions are poor and inflation has hit them on food and gas. After two years of a pandemic that has killed more than 920,000 in the U.S., majorities put masks back on and avoided travel and crowds in January in the sweep of the omicron variant. Now, finally, a sustained drop in infections appears to be underway.
Most Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, but debates over masks and mandates have torn apart communities and families.
With Biden so hemmed in by hardened politics, it’s difficult to imagine a single speech altering the public’s perception, said Julia Helm, 52, a Republican county auditor from the suburbs west of Des Moines.
“He’s got a lot of stuff on his plate,” she said. “You know what could change how people feel? And pretty fast? What they pay at the pump. I hate to say it. But gas prices really are the barometer.”
Biden suggested last summer that high inflation was a temporary inconvenience. But it’s snowballed in recent months into a defining challenge of his presidency, alongside, now, the threat of geopolitical instability from Russia’s attack on its neighbor.
Consumer prices over the past 12 months jumped 7.5%, the highest since 1982, as many pay raises were swallowed up and dreams of home ownership or even a used car became prohibitively expensive.
Inflation was a side effect of an economy running hot after the economically devastating first chapters of the pandemic, when Biden achieved the kind of growth that Presidents Barack Obama and Trump could not deliver.
The prime engine for both the gains and the inflation appears to be Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which pushed down the unemployment rate to a healthy 4% while boosting economic growth to 5.7% last year — the best performance since 1984.
Still, voters have largely overlooked those gains as inflation bit. The February AP-NORC poll found that more people disapproved than approved of how Biden is handling his job as president, 55% to 44%.
That was a reversal from early in his presidency. As recently as July, about 60% said they approved of Biden in AP-NORC polls.
After four years of Trump's provocations from the White House, Hoopes, 38, the Des Moines charity executive, finds Biden to be a “nonthreatening” leader, a “decent person, someone it seems you could talk to.”
“He seems to be a quiet decision-maker,” she said. “But I don’t know if that’s good or bad for him or the country right now.”
The most she could say about Biden's State of the Union speech is that “it can't hurt.”
That's about the most that historians say about it, too.
If State of the Union addresses are remembered at all, it's generally because feathers were ruffled on a night of tradition and forced comity: Obama admonishing the Supreme Court justices seated in front of him for their ruling on campaign finance laws in 2010; Justice Samuel Alito mouthing “not true” in response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ripping up Trump's speech in disgust in 2020.
In 2009, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., was reprimanded by fellow Republicans and lacerated by Democrats for shouting “you lie" at Obama when he spoke to Congress about his health care plan.
“Inaugural addresses sometimes do have an impact because they are big picture, far horizon speeches,” said political scientist Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University. “State of the Unions rarely do because they tend to be listy rather than thematic.”
Among presidents of the last half century, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump repeatedly declared “the state of our union is strong” while Bush's father took a pass and Gerald Ford confessed: "I must say to you that the state of the union is not good."
Trump being Trump and Clinton being Clinton, both additionally claimed that the state of the union had never been stronger than on the nights they said it.
Whatever diagnostic phrase Biden chooses, his task is to promote an agenda and plausibly claim credit for positive developments over the last year “without a ‘mission accomplished’ moment," Jillson said. “That’s delicate. It’s delicate to claim credit for the economic recovery ... and still acknowledge people's pains and fears.”
Biden comes to Congress with some missions actually accomplished, like his historic infrastructure package, as well big dreams deferred.
He still wants to “Build Back Better.” In the funk of these times, Americans just seem to want someone to wake them up when it's all over.
Associated Press writers Josh Boak, Emily Swanson and Hannah Fingerhut in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.