Biden SOTU Lays Out Dems' 2024 Strategy

Posted on Friday, February 10, 2023
by Daniel Berman

AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman

Joe Biden’s 2023 State of the Union address was a blueprint for how the Democrats intend to approach the 2024 election, and the two years leading up to it. Republicans may take exception to specific lines or proposals, or Biden’s attempts to claim credit for successes he had little role in, but that is to fall into a wider trap.

Biden, in a scattered speech, sought to portray the chaotic first two years of his presidency as representing a clear agenda for government. In contrast, by eschewing large themes in favor of a laundry list of proposals, he sought to frame Republican opposition to those proposals as reactionary, implying that the GOP lacked any viable alternative.

The purpose of this was to allow Biden to argue that the choice moving forward is between the Democrats, with a clear agenda for government with which some might disagree, and a GOP whose only plan is to disrupt this agenda. This approach, which Biden and Democrats believe served them well in 2022, is clearly their plan for 2024. Their argument will be that there is only one possible agenda – Joe Biden’s – and that the choice is between those who will implement it and those who will not.

By the standards of history, Joe Biden’s State of the Union was far from great rhetoric. It was long, 74 minutes. While no doubt intended as a call to action, it lacked energy and evocative phrases, and did not even attempt to be inspirational in the style of Barack Obama. It was a series of power-point slides in verbal form.

For a speech designed to troll its audience with forced applause lines, and to elicit heckling, it lacked the humor or drama of Donald Trump’s State of the Union addresses. Almost entirely eschewing foreign policy, with scarcely two minutes on China and less on Ukraine, with half of the latter section dedicated to Joe Biden refraining from attempting a pronunciation of the Ambassador’s name, it seemed far more the speech of a governor than an American president at times.

That said, it was also a highly strategic speech, from the structure and content to the length. Everything was designed to ensure coverage would be driven by transcripts rather than Biden’s delivery,  laser-focused on a political strategy. In the room, this mitigated Biden’s weaknesses, allowing him to move rapidly from topic to topic if one failed to elicit the correct response. The approach also helped ensure a rowdy room, as the speech was packed full of “applause lines” designed to torture the audience with the need to stand and applaud.

At the core of the speech lay a millennia-old cynicism dating from the first days of democracy. Ever since Athens and Rome, politicians have found that the easiest way of winning applause and votes is with the promise to spend other people’s money. It is not only popular, but it places the opposition in a quandary. Those who wish to spend money only need to decide whom to prioritize helping and with how much. Their foes must decide whom to hurt, and how much, which leaves them vulnerable to charges of cold-hearted indifference when they seek to share the pain, and hypocrisy when they seek to prioritize.

That challenge was as true of Roman senators who advocated prioritizing the legions protecting the Rhine border over the grain dole at home as it is when it comes to contemporary debates over whether to cut the defense budget, or to protect Social Security and Medicare. Biden and his advisors know that they can play on these divisions to ensure that no programs are actually cut, while being able to cast the GOP as being in favor of cutting all of them, as at least some Republicans favor cuts to most individual programs.

Biden’s goal, then, was not only to merely provide something for every demographic on every issue (the epitome of “micro-targeting”) but also to put forward a macro narrative that, rather than holding a principled and justifiable position that the U.S. cannot sustain this level of spending and must prioritize, the GOP is purely reactionary. In this telling, the GOP does not have a coherent opposition to spending in general, but because a Democratic president proposed it, and when it comes to programs, booed them merely because Biden suggested them.

That was one reason why it was effective when Biden threw in references to the fentanyl crisis or to policies such as capping insulin prices (undertaken under Donald Trump) or penalty fees for ticket sales. It was also why Biden eschewed foreign policy. Even if the arguments in favor of aid to Ukraine prevail over those against, there are indeed arguments for both sides, and the key to Biden’s approach was to suggest that his opponents had no arguments against anything he said or did, only objections.

Democrats appear to have interpreted their relative success in 2022 as justification to frame the next general election not as a choice between two visions of governance or sets of policy, but between Democrats who are serious about government and Republicans who are not. Democrats might get things wrong and go too far, as with COVID-19, or indulge fringe idealogues too much, or bungle things like Afghanistan, but they mean well. By contrast the Republican Party was portrayed as not being serious about solving any of the issues – energy security, education, infrastructure, spending, China – even where the public agreed with their criticisms of Biden and the Democrats.

The fragmented nature of Biden’s address also created a unique challenge for the response by the newly-elected Governor of Arkansas, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. If she did not engage with what Biden had said, she would be attacked in the media for conceding he was correct. The only way she could respond given the limited time, and 74-minutes of material, was to seemingly respond to something else entirely.

Sanders faced a nearly impossible task which she handled well. But GOP leaders in Congress in 2023, as well as the Republican 2024 candidate, will need to do more if they wish to neutralize this Democratic approach in the future. A strategy of simply responding to whatever Biden or the Democrats do allows Biden to choose his ground. To carry the day, Republicans need to define their own positions and vision for the country, not just oppose the one Biden laid out this week.

When it comes to Ukraine and China, Republicans need to stop complaining about what Biden is doing, and whether he is spending too little or too much. Instead, they need to define what they want to spend, on what, and why. As opportunistic as it was for Biden to cast Republicans as favoring cuts to Social Security and Medicare, it is the height of political malpractice that Republicans have not even formulated an alternative budget going into negotiations over the debt limit. How can they justify fighting over the fiscal health of the country when they have yet to decide what they are fighting for? Most importantly, they need to focus on issues where they can actually do things, and what they will be.

Biden’s proposals were not serious. They were bribery. But they might be effective because he is bribing voters with policies that he is serious about spending money on. The GOP is not serious yet about what it will cut, or what it will do, and without that, the 2023 State of the Union is a preview of how 2024 will go.

Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.

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