State of the Union 2023

Opinion | Why Biden’s Speech Worked

He had a clear political message, and his populist outrage sounded genuine.

President Joe Biden speaks with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley after Biden delivered his State of the Union address.

Here’s an opening line I did not expect to write an hour or so ago: President Joe Biden gave a pretty good State of the Union address — indeed, one of the better ones I’ve heard.

What made it work was not just that Biden was in a buoyant spirit, with an energy that’s often lacking, but that it was a clearly political speech with a clear political goal: to define Biden as the guy who is on your side, going after the big boys who were flourishing at your expense.

Clearly the most dramatic portion of the speech was when the president talked about the killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the Memphis police, as his parents looked on from the House balcony, and as Biden quoted his mother saying, “Something good will come from this.” And the highlight reels will also include Biden’s moving words about a “cancer moon shot,” and the feisty give and take — one that Biden’s speech clearly invited — with Republicans who did not follow Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s guidance to be polite.

But other moments stood out to me.

Early on, we got one of the rarities of such a speech: a solid laugh line. In talking about the bipartisan infrastructure act, he thanked the Republicans who voted for it, and then added this: “And to my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”

There was as well, the trumpeting of the economic news that has turned brighter in recent months — record low unemployment, an easing of inflation — and with a nationalist take on his economic agenda that may have made Donald Trump jealous.

“‘Buy American’ has been the law of the land since 1933,” Biden said. “But for too long, past administrations, Democrat and Republican, have fought to get around it. Not anymore. … On my watch, American roads, bridges and American highways will be made with American products.”

The meat of the speech, however, was a series of assaults on the forces that were costing Americans money — a group that included not just familiar villains of the progressive left, but those that likely never have been called out in a State of the Union speech before.

Yes, there was the specter of the ultra-wealthy who paid little or no taxes.

“I’m a capitalist. But pay your fair share. I think a lot of you at home agree. … Look, the idea that in 2020, 55 of the largest companies in America, the Fortune 500, made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal taxes? Zero? Folks, that’s simply not fair.”

Yes, Big Oil was in the dock again, with Biden blaming them for the spike in energy costs.

“Last year, they made $200 billion in the midst of a global energy crisis,” he said. “I think it is outrageous. Why? They invested too little of that profit to increase domestic production.”

But Biden also reached down into much more quotidian matters. Look at the examples he used:

“We’re making airlines show you the full ticket price upfront and refund your money if your flight is canceled or delayed. We’ve reduced exorbitant bank overdrafts, saving consumers more than $1 billion a year. We’re cutting credit card late fees by 75 percent, from $30 to $8. Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one on your bill. … The idea that cable, internet and cell phone companies can charge you $200 or more if you decide to switch to another provider. Give me a break.”

I suspect this part of the speech will be mocked in many corners, for the small-bore nature of the topics. But it was striking for referencing the kind of daily outrages that burden ordinary life at the drug store, the airport or at the kitchen table as the bills pile up. They are in sharp contrast to the State of the Union speeches weighed down with Washington-speak that makes eyes glaze over by the millions.

Biden sounded genuinely outraged, and that’s something people respond to.

When and if he kicks off his reelection campaign — and tonight’s speech made the “when” way more likely than the “if” — expect to hear a lot more like this from Biden from now until November 2024.

I still think the conventional wisdom is right — that these moments rarely if ever affect the political terrain. But the president and his team deserve some credit for trying to speak more plainly and clearly to the country.