Familiar Biden. President Biden has worked in Washington for nearly 50 years and knows how to give a speech. This week’s speech was a fairly predictable one of his “greatest hits” of past policy positions and more recent policy accomplishments. In it, the President emphasized familiar themes (like promoting the middle class and using the power of the federal government to improve lives) and identified familiar villains (like billionaires, oil companies and companies that he believes don’t pay enough in taxes). Predictably, the speech received rave reviews from most Democrats and frustrated reactions from most Republicans. What is less clear is what the reaction was of more independent-minded voters who are not strongly affiliated with either party.
The success of the speech will hinge to a large extent on the reaction of those voters, who are likely to determine the elections outcome in 2024.
2023 Priorities. Legislative accomplishments over the next two years will be hard to come by in a divided Congress, so the President and his team will focus on the implementation of several big pieces of legislation passed over the past two years. These include a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a measure to enhance the production of semiconductors in the US and the Democratic-passed Inflation Reduction Act. Combined, the bills provide over $2 trillion in new federal spending. In an effort to emphasize their tangible impact in local communities, President Biden and his cabinet fanned across the US (in 20 states) this week to announce new projects launched by these bills.
This activity will intensify over the next two years, and you should expect at some point a Biden administration official to come to your area to announce a local project.
Social Security/Medicare Protections. Whether or not President Biden intended it, his remarks over the need to preserve Social Security and Medicare—as well as the reaction from Republican lawmakers in the audience—seemingly solidified a bipartisan commitment to save the programs from any reductions for the foreseeable future. While this development no doubt pleases individuals who are reliant on these programs, it makes the goal of deficit reduction significantly harder. If both programs are off the table for negotiations, what federal funding can be reduced to meaningfully lower the deficit? “Mandatory” federal spending (comprised mostly of these two programs) and interest on the debt account for about 70% of all federal spending, while defense consumes close to half of the remaining roughly 30% of “discretionary” spending (many Republicans will resist reductions in defense).
If all of these areas of spending are off the table, any discussion on deficit reduction will focus on just 16% of federal spending, which makes the exercise much more difficult.
Teeing up 2024 Re-election. The speech was in many ways a preview of the 2024 presidential race. While new issues will come and go between now and November 2024, many of the policy issues addressed Tuesday night will be featured prominently on the campaign trail and revisited in future speeches.
The Biden team will closely watch public reaction to the speech to determine if adjustments need to be made to the President’s case for re-election, including the possible slogan of “Let’s Finish the Job” that the President often referred to in the speech.
Debt Ceiling Extension. Reflecting the official Democratic position not to negotiate on a debt ceiling increase, President Biden called on Congress to act quickly and without brinksmanship to extend the debt ceiling. Nevertheless, lawmakers from both parties are increasingly recognizing that a negotiation of some kind will need to occur to pass an extension. While the recent focus has been on the dynamics between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), they won’t be able to reach any agreement on their own. The Senate, though currently in the background, remains critical. There currently does not appear to be the 60 votes needed to advance a clean debt ceiling in the Senate.
Negotiations on the debt ceiling may not begin in earnest until after a clean debt ceiling vote fails in the Senate, and that is probably months away.
Who Watched? While State of the Union addresses don’t approach the more than 100 million viewers expected for a typical Super Bowl, it is still one of the top ten most viewed television events each year. During this week’s address, President Biden had by far the biggest audience he will have all year. In their third addresses to Congress, Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump drew television audiences of 42 million, 62 million, 43 million and 37 million, respectively.
President Biden’s speech drew an estimated 27 million viewers on Tuesday, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
See Washington Weekly, 10 February, 2023.
(For Public Distribution)
Approval date: 2/10/2023
Review Code: IS2300940