There is no shortage of substantive policy issues and messy crises for President Joe Biden to talk about in his State of the Union speech Thursday night. He can tout violent crime dropping to one of the lowest rates in 50 years and the stock market climbing to record highs under his watch, while unemployment sunk below 4%. He could flay congressional Republicans for cynically blocking a deal to tighten immigration enforcement. More dramatically, Biden could also demand that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately cease fire in Gaza. Or, more mischievously, he could thank Mitch McConnell for his years of service as the Kentuckian prepares to step aside as Republican Senate leader.

Yet the president’s campaign team expects—almost certainly correctly—that mainstream media coverage of the speech will be dominated by one thing: Did Biden show his age? Did he mix up the names of any world leaders? Was his performance surprisingly sharp, at least for an old man?

“The expectations at this point, in the wake of the Hur report, are that this guy is drooling in his soup,” says Joe Zepecki, a Democratic strategist based in Wisconsin who was the state communications director for Barack Obama’s winning 2012 reelection campaign. “And he’s not. So when some crackpot Republican pops off, he oughta fight back. It’ll define the next couple of news cycles. Listen, it’s truly screwed up that we live in a world where if that happens, it’s going to be more important than the fact that he will have the largest audience, save for his convention speech, to remind the American people of what’s been done in the last three and a half years. But that’s where we are.”

In some respects, punditry focused on performance would be a repeat of last year, when Biden touched on everything from billions in infrastructure spending to the importance of standing firm in defense of Ukraine. However, it was his clever, improvised response to Republican heckling, particularly from Marjorie Taylor Greene, over Social Security that grabbed headlines.

The president’s team isn’t in denial about the need for their guy to score similar style points, to chip away at pervasive voter worries about Biden’s competence to serve four more years in the White House. They just believe that he best responds to doubts by steadily demonstrating a command of the facts, and by drawing a stark contrast with Donald Trump’s dark agenda and how it would hurt average Americans by doing things like boosting drug prices. “I think we just keep bringing it back to the substance and the stakes,” a Biden operative says, “making sure that people don’t just sleepwalk our way into authoritarianism. A lot of people have forgotten how bad it was under Trump. There’s a lot of reminding that we need to do.”

It’s an admirably high-minded—and possibly winning—approach, both for Biden’s State of the Union speech and for the next eight months of the campaign. Yet it will be met with relentless fearmongering and calculated mendacity. “It’s going to be hard for Biden to get a victory out of this speech. And it won’t be because of the words that come out of his mouth or the way he presents himself,” says Bakari Sellers, a CNN political commentator and former South Carolina Democratic state representative. “It’s because the Republican echo chamber, particularly on social media, is so quick and so vast. They have an outright advantage when it comes to messaging, and a lot of it is disinformation.” A strategist for one of Biden’s 2020 Democratic primary rivals believes the static hasn’t been entirely of the GOP’s making—that the president’s camp has so far done a lousy job of telling the story of Biden’s first-term successes. “Coming up with a concise, cohesive articulation of what the president’s accomplishments mean for real people, that’s been a struggle to date,” the strategist says, “and that’s what they’re going to be trying to accomplish with this speech.”

Perhaps Marjorie Taylor Greene won’t be able to resist being Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the Republican congresswoman from Georgia will once again boorishly give the president an opening to look nimble and gracious, just like last year. Biden’s team isn’t counting on it. They have been pointing toward and preparing for the State of the Union as a pivotal moment for months now, and they will be pushing out ads and announcements in advance of and immediately after the speech to try to amplify Biden’s message, and to capitalize on Super Tuesday’s primary results solidifying the rematch with Trump. All they need is for the president to deliver, flawlessly, under the bright lights.


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