Essential Politics: Biden needed a ‘reset.’ Speeches only accomplish that in Hollywood

President Biden arrives to deliver the State of the Union.
President Biden arrives in the House chamber on Tuesday to deliver his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
(Saul Loeb / Associated Press)

When a chief executive has been through a rough patch, as President Biden unquestionably has, the annual ritual of the State of the Union speech always brings forth metaphors of pivots and fresh starts — a “reset,” as Biden put it Tuesday night.

But the big speech that changes everything exists only in TV scripts. Reality is less forgiving and more complicated.

Biden’s speech appears to have boosted his standing, especially with one key audience: Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who had soured on his tenure. Early polling indicates that at least among those voters, Biden gained ground on a couple of important measures, such as their assessment of his empathy for people like them and his efforts to bring the country together.

Biden needed badly to regain ground among Democrats: A few days before the speech, a poll by the Washington Post and ABC News found that just 77% of people in his own party approved of his job performance. That may not sound terrible, but in these highly polarized times, approval ratings within a president’s party often top 90%.

The difference between a midterm rout and an election that results in modest losses for Democrats largely turns on whether core Democratic constituencies feel dispirited about Biden come November. But while reviving Biden’s fortunes among Democrats is important, it will not, alone, solve the political problems he faces, which include factors well outside of what any speech could reasonably be expected to change.


Little credit for improvements

When Biden took office a year ago, his advisors believed that he’d ultimately be judged on his ability to deal with the coronavirus and revive the economy. That’s not quite how things have turned out.

The economy remains a top concern among Americans, but the shape of that concern has shifted. The jobs picture has brightened dramatically, as Friday’s strong jobs report highlighted, but before Biden could get much credit for that, worries about rising prices supplanted last year’s fears of unemployment. And while public concern about the pandemic has clearly receded, that shift happened in a way that didn’t help Biden much.

A year ago, COVID-19 topped every list of the public’s top concerns. By the anniversary of Biden’s inauguration, the virus had dropped to third place in a survey of Americans conducted by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Republicans showed the steepest drop in concern about the pandemic — 35% listed it as a top priority compared with 60% a year ago — but even among Democrats, the share listing it as a top priority had declined from 93% last year to 80% this year.

Unfortunately for Biden, no triumphant sense of accomplishment has accompanied that shift.

At the time of Biden’s inauguration, a large majority of Americans said in a separate Pew survey that a major reason Trump lost was that he did “not do a good enough job handling the coronavirus outbreak.” And by the spring of Biden’s first year, the public saw a sharp contrast with the previous president: Almost two-thirds of Americans said they were confident of Biden’s ability to handle the impact of the virus on public health.

But successive waves of illness — first the Delta variant, then Omicron — rapidly eroded that faith. At the same time, the strong undercurrent of partisanship around issues like masking and vaccine mandates further wore away public support. By this fall, public perception of how Biden had handled COVID, once a strong suit, had become just another topic on which he got mediocre reviews.


By now, with Americans clearly tired of pandemic-related restrictions, the administration is scrambling to catch up with Democratic governors who have lifted mask mandates and other rules. The visuals of the State of the Union, with almost no masks in sight, clearly signaled their desire to project a different image to the public after two years of Democrats being the party that preached caution. But even if the spring brings renewed optimism, it may now be too late for the issue to ever provide Biden a big boost.

With COVID starting to recede, the economy now once again tops the list of public worries, and when they cite that, voters mostly mean inflation. The Pew survey found that 89% of Americans said prices for food and consumer goods had gotten worse in the past year, with 60% saying they were a lot worse.

Biden talked a fair amount about inflation in his speech. He conveyed a sense of empathy, one of his strengths as a politician, and pledged that “my top priority is getting prices under control.”

What he said generated a relatively good response — up to a point.

Polling done pre- and post-speech showed a shift toward a more positive view of the country’s condition and a more favorable attitude toward Biden, said Democratic pollster Margie Omero. Before the speech, the polling showed a high level of anger among voters. After the speech, the share of voters saying they were hopeful rose significantly.

“All those things are signs of positive movement,” she said.

But other key measures of how the public views Biden showed less movement — most notably ratings of his ability as a leader.

Even at the peak of Biden’s popularity, leadership was not his strongest attribute. Since then, his standing on that question has declined a lot.


In that Post-ABC poll, taken the week before the speech, 59% said Biden was not a strong leader, compared with 36% who said he was. Predictably, Democrats (74%) were far more likely than Republicans (9%) to see him as strong. Among independents, however, just 30% called him strong, 65% said he was not.

Ominously for Biden, younger Americans, whose votes Democrats count on, were particularly likely to not see him as strong — just 29% of those aged 18-39 called him strong, 65% said he was not.

In 2020, as he ran against President Trump, public doubts about Biden’s strength didn’t matter so much. Many voters were fed up with Trump’s belligerent posturing and were willing to accept a lower-key approach in return for a promise of calmer times ahead.

But times have not grown calmer. Amid the anxieties caused by rising prices, continued doubts about the pandemic and, now, a war in Europe, Americans increasingly seem worried that the president is overmatched by the problems he faces.

That’s something no speech can fix.

ICYMI: State of the Union coverage

Biden heralded the power of democracy in his speech, Jennifer Haberkorn wrote. He praised the West’s response to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s “premeditated and unprovoked” war with Ukraine while seeking to convince Americans that he has plans to combat spiking inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic at home.

In his analysis of the State of the Union speech, Noah Bierman looked at how Biden sought to reassure the public about his stewardship.


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Jan. 6 investigation

Trump and his campaign may have tried to illegally obstruct Congress’ counting of electoral votes and “engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States,” lawyers for the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot alleged. As Sarah Wire reported, the committee made its allegations in court filings in a civil case involving John Eastman, one of Trump’s lawyers and a former dean of Chapman University School of Law in Orange.

Eastman is already being investigated by the State Bar of California, Nathan Solis, Hannah Fry and David Savage reported.

Simone Gold, a Beverly Hills physician known for her anti-vaccine views, pleaded guilty Thursday to unlawfully entering and remaining in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Wire reported. The charge to which Gold pleaded is a Class A misdemeanor. Sentencing is scheduled for June 16.

The latest from the campaign trail

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey will not run for Senate this year, he said Thursday, putting an end to speculation that he would hop into one of the most hotly contested midterm battles. As Melanie Mason reported, his decision represents a setback for Republicans in their effort to recapture a majority in the Senate.

Ducey has been targeted by Trump, who bears a grudge over the governor’s refusal to go along with the former president’s false claim that he won Arizona’s votes in 2020. But as Mark Barabak wrote, the governor has also pandered to the right wing, ducking when asked about antisemitic statements and conspiracy theories from state Sen. Wendy Rogers, whose campaign he helped finance.

The latest from Washington

Beginning this month, Americans will be able to head to their local pharmacy for a coronavirus test and, if they test positive, receive antiviral pills on the spot, at no cost to them, Anumita Kaur reported. The new options are part of the “test to treat” initiative that Biden announced during his speech Tuesday.

Confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will begin March 21, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) announced. In a letter to colleagues, Durbin said the committee “will undertake a fair and timely process to consider Judge Jackson’s nomination,” Nolan McCaskill wrote.


Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken painted dire images of the escalating ground war in Ukraine as he rallied opposition to Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, Tracy Wilkinson reported. “Hundreds if not thousands” of Ukrainian civilians are believed to have been killed, Blinken said as he announced more sanctions against Russia.

Just how wealthy is Putin? As Don Lee and David Pierson reported, on paper, the Russian president has few assets, but those who have studied the question believe that he’s amassed billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars in property held in other people’s names.

Biden announced new sanctions on more than a dozen Russian oligarchs and their families, as pressure continued to build on Capitol Hill for an even tougher response to Moscow, Haberkorn and Eli Stokols reported.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the government may invoke the “state secrets” privilege to block testimony by former U.S. contractors about the now well-known waterboarding and torture of prisoners held at CIA sites in Poland. As David Savage wrote, the 6-3 ruling, written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, held that the U.S. government can claim a privilege of secrecy even if there is no secret anymore.

Mitt Romney has been several things in his political career, Barabak writes: The socially moderate governor of Massachusetts. The “severely conservative” 2012 GOP nominee for president. The adopted son of Utah, the state he represents in the United States Senate. Now, at age 74, Romney has emerged as something else: a truth-teller and voice of conscience in the Republican Party.

The latest from California

Los Angeles City Council members are facing a wave of progressive challengers, Julia Wick reported. Ousting incumbent council members has been rare in the city, but progressive groups are hopeful that may change this year.


As California cities struggle to address a homelessness and mental health crisis on their streets, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration on Thursday unveiled a proposal to push more people with severe psychiatric disorders and addiction issues into court-ordered care that includes medication and housing. As Hannah Wiley reported, the proposal is part of a new initiative announced by the governor.

California would allow nurse practitioners to work independently of doctors and perform abortions under legislation that expands reproductive care as other states move to restrict access, Melody Gutierrez reported.

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