WASHINGTON (AP) — This should be a high point of Joe Biden’s presidency. He’s repeatedly beaten the odds with a string of legislative accomplishments and a historically strong midterm election where Democrats held the line against Republicans. His steadfast support for Ukraine has won praise. The cloud of the pandemic has lifted.
But instead, going into his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, he finds himself facing a problem that has shadowed him for years — public doubt.
Polls show a majority of Americans are largely unaware of his successes and don’t approve of his job performance. Even Democrats question whether he should run for reelection amid concerns about his age.
It all adds up to a particularly high-stakes moment for Biden. The speech is likely the last, best opportunity to make his case for why he deserves a second term before his formal campaign announcement, believed to be several weeks away.
“The State of the Union is often considered the opening bid in an argument for reelection,” said Patrick Gaspard, a former White House political director and top official at the Democratic National Committee. “And in this situation, it’s certainly the case.”
Gaspard, who is currently president of the liberal Center for American Progress, said Biden has a strong record since taking office and now needs to demonstrate that he’s “a man with a vision for tomorrow.”
Biden’s allies insist that the president is routinely underestimated, dating back to the 2020 Democratic primaries. He also offers a strong contrast to Republicans who his supporters say have become beholden to extremists within their party.
“They’re just not mature enough to sit at the table and govern,” said Cedric Richmond, a former top White House official who is now a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee.
American presidents almost never forgo a shot at a second term. The last one was Lyndon Johnson, who did not seek reelection in 1968 after his presidency became unmoored by the Vietnam War.
But there’s also never been a president as old as Biden. He’s 80, and would be 86 at the end of a second term. He first ran for the White House in 1988.
Lyndsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian, said Biden’s age is “the X factor” that differentiates him from his predecessors. Even when other presidents faced low approval ratings during their first term, “no one was suggesting that they not run.”
“If he was ten years younger, none of these conversations would be happening,” she said.
Biden gave a glimpse of his campaign pitch on Friday in Philadelphia, when he spoke at a Democratic National Committee meeting. He rattled off legislative accomplishments, some of which were achieved after they were left for dead in Congress, and blasted Republicans as “extremists,” even calling them “nuts” at one point.
“Let me ask you a simple question. Are you with me?” he said to the cheering crowd, which responded by chanting, “Four more years!”
Political appearances rarely draw the same attention as the State of the Union. Last year, 38 million people tuned in, compared to nearly 100 million who watched the Super Bowl.
Biden’s challenge will be to find the right way to harness that fleeting focus, said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
“The speech will probably be remembered for two or three lines,” he said. “He has to decide which he wants those to be.“
Biden plans to travel to Wisconsin on Wednesday and Florida on Thursday to continue pushing his agenda after the State of the Union, part of an administration-wide plan for top officials to fan out across the country this week.
He’s promised to announce a decision on running for reelection in the early part of this year. Donald Trump, who continues to falsely claim he did not lose to Biden, already announced in November that he would seek another term. Trump is only four years younger than Biden.
After a Democratic midterm showing that was strong by historical averages in a president’s first term, Biden has successfully tamped down handwringing within his party over whether he should seek another term. No primary opponent has emerged.
And he has a record to build upon. He’s also secured investments in infrastructure, computer chip manufacturing and financial incentives to encourage Americans to adopt cleaner technologies for fighting climate change.
“At the end of the day, you can’t argue with the extraordinary accomplishments, more than almost any other modern president, that President Biden has achieved, again, under the toughest of circumstances,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a Sunday interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”
However, Biden still faces skepticism from the country at large.
Only 37% of Democrats say they want Biden to seek a second term, down from 52% before the midterm elections in November, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Victories in Congress to the contrary, many Americans don’t see him making progress either.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll said 36% of Americans believe Biden has accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount” since taking office, while 62% said he’s done “not very much” or “little or nothing.”
Cedric Richmond, a former top White House official who is now a senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee, says the numbers don’t concern him.
“When you hit a campaign, and you’re going to spend the kind of money that campaigns cost now, people will get inundated” with reminders of changes that Biden has made during his administration, he said.
Right now, Richmond said, “people are more focused on their lives than political commentary and polls and all of those things.”
Now the question is whether Biden can use his big speech to shift voters’ focus to him — and get them to see the country his same way.
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