Watching State of the Union addresses is one of my least favorite parts of what I do at TPM. I find them a mix of tedious and stressful to watch. By and large they don’t matter. I’d prefer not to watch them. But it’s part of the job. This was very different from any of the State of the Union addresses I’ve seen in 40-plus years of watching them.
Joe Biden isn’t a particularly rousing public speaker normally. The first 10 or 15 minutes of his address were fairly boilerplate, occasionally halting. The substance was pitched toward mid-sized and small towns in post-industrial America. This was unsurprising but well-executed. But then it went somewhere entirely different, not in substance but in presentation, energy and tone.
I don’t need to describe the speech to you because you presumably saw it. Here are the two points that stood out to me.
The first part of Biden’s speech was unity, unity, unity. How we “came together,” essentially thanking the whole Congress and explicitly Republicans too for helping him accomplish all the things he got done in the first two years of his presidency.
As I said when it was happening, it’s always important to remember that these statements are aimed not at the members in the hall but at an audience at home. I don’t want to say it wasn’t sincere but it amounted to a set up. Biden then pivoted toward a series of unobjectionable or provable claims that set congressional Republicans to a series of catcalls, boos, jeers and more. The CSPAN video captured more ugliness than the networks did in real time. We’ll be seeing more of those clips. He lead them into a trap which they could only spring on themselves and they did so to a tee. I don’t know how else to describe it. He brutalized them in a bear hug of bipartisanship. He thanked them for their moment conversion and agreement not to cut Social Security.
Biden got energy from the angry and unhinged responses. Kevin McCarthy spent the second half of the speech trying to shush his members, the same feral radicals who tortured him for a week last month. The whole tableau spoke more than a thousand words.
It was beautiful.
The second standout was all in the moment — perhaps planned but still unrehearsable. They jeered and screamed; he engaged. They went toe to toe: Biden smiling and Republicans snarling. He was enjoying himself, clearly drawing energy from the verbal fisticuffs. The best and most powerful parts of the speech were Biden’s ad-libs in response to feral Republican antics. He showed in an effortless and natural way quite the opposite of what many see as his Achilles’ heel, the sense — not limited to Republicans — that he lacks vigor, is tired, simply too old for the job. Perhaps he is. But not tonight. As writing teachers say, show, don’t tell. And he did.
Many commentators say he baited Republicans into overreacting or reacting poorly. It’s true in a way if ungenerous. But it worked because he was able to bait them with entirely unobjectionable points or, again, things that are demonstrably true. That’s why it worked. In more than a few moments you could see Kevin McCarthy melting inside. It had moments of true beauty and while State of the Union addresses are not the highest bar it was the best one I’ve ever seen.