Calmes: It's State of the Union time. Will Biden blow it?

US President Joe Biden speaks during a State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, US, on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. Biden is speaking against the backdrop of renewed tensions with China and a brewing showdown with House Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling. Photographer: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address last year. (Jacquelyn Martin / Bloomberg / Getty Images)

Wishful thinkers in both parties, and pundits too, have mused about a State of the Union address on Thursday in which President Biden looks serenely into the TV cameras and closes with an LBJ-like shocker: an announcement that he will neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination for a second term.

That won’t happen, and it shouldn’t. Back here in reality, the way to watch Biden’s address is as the antithesis of Lyndon B. Johnson’s speech about Vietnam with its surprise ending, on another March night more than a half-century ago, amid the tumult of 1968. The current president is writing a very different ending for his term.

Biden, unlike the beleaguered Johnson, will not be pressured to retire. He is stubbornly wedded to the conviction that, to borrow from his rival’s bluster, he alone can do it — beat Donald Trump, that is. (Forget that Biden once quipped that “probably 50” Democrats could win.) And that he deserves the chance to prove it, his age be damned.

Maybe he’s selfish, as some Democrats mutter privately. I have my doubts too. I wish he were younger. But he’s not, he’s running and he’s earned a second term.

“The biggest surprise is that he betrays no doubts,” Biden biographer Evan Osnos wrote this week in the New Yorker, after interviewing him for the first time since 2020.

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That version of Biden — determined, firm, self-confident — can be appealing, and he seems less old as well. Recall last year’s address, when he bantered from the bully pulpit in the well of the House as raucous Republicans unwittingly became  his foils, heckling “Liar!” repeatedly.

The president’s great challenge, however, is not just to sustain an engaging persona for upward of an hour, in front of one of the biggest audiences he’ll get all year. The substance of the speech should make the case for why he should get another four years, why he’s not instead making good on his 2020 talk of being a transitional president, passing the torch after a good run to a younger Democrat.

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Biden must do more than simply recount his considerable achievements, a legacy that rivals Johnson’s own though Biden doesn't have the big Democratic majorities in Congress that LBJ enjoyed. The president must be animated — look alive! — but even more, his message must be animating for voters. He must make them want to stick with ol’ Joe.

So far Biden hasn’t come up with such a message. Since 2020 he’s flitted among themes: restoring the nation’s soul post-Trump, protecting democracy, reviving the economy and the middle class after a pandemic-era recession, restoring America’s alliances and countering the post-Dobbs assaults on reproductive rights. He needs a forward-looking theme that encompasses it all. It doesn’t have to be so simplistic as “MAGA,” but something that fits on a bumper sticker would be nice.

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This year’s State of the Union address is his chance for a reset, in prime time. Biden must tell a story that showcases his accomplishments, draws a clear contrast with Trump’s dark, dictatorial vision and gives younger and better-spoken Democratic surrogates something to echo every day, all day, from now to November.

“You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose,” Mario Cuomo famously said. Biden has the governing part down. But when it comes to the all-important performative part of the presidency, poetic he’s not. (Get the surrogates out there, fast!)

The stakes for Biden were underscored by a passel of polls over the last week showing him trailing Trump in a match-up and in voters’ perceptions. His job approval rating remains mired in the high 30s, the lowest at this stage of a presidency since Jimmy Carter. The Democrats in his audience Thursday will be a panicky bunch, desperate for reassurance about both the man and his message.

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A New York Times/Siena College poll showed that nearly three-fourths of registered voters agreed “strongly” or “somewhat” that 81-year-old Biden is too old to be an effective president, versus 42% who said that about 77-year-old Trump. An AP/NORC poll found that roughly six out of 10 adults said both Biden and Trump lack the mental capacity to be president. But among independents — who can decide elections — 80% expressed doubts about Biden's capabilities, compared to 56% who did so about the unhinged Trump.

Nearly six in 10 adults said the economy is worse than when Biden took office, though it’s plainly not — as metrics and economists attest. Yet voters’ perception, whether of the economy, the candidates’ ages or something else, is what matters. And the risk for Biden is that his State of the Union performance could reinforce negative impressions about him as easily as it could dispel them.

The only sure thing is that Biden won’t pull an LBJ and bow out.

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Both he and Johnson came from scrappy backgrounds, honed their political skills in the Senate and vice presidency, realized a lifelong ambition to be president and believed that they did the job better than anyone. That certainty didn’t last for Johnson, as the war abroad and strife in the streets took its political toll. But it endures for Biden and keeps him in the race, as the Osnos piece in the New Yorker captured.

Osnos wrote: “I asked Biden if there was ever a time when he doubted that he would run again. ‘No,’ he said.” And Biden volunteered this: “I’d ask a rhetorical question: If you thought you were best positioned to beat someone who, if they won, would change the nature of America, what would you do?”

If only the rest of us Trump phobics could be so confident that Biden is indeed “best positioned to beat” the former president, failed insurrectionist and current criminal defendant. But confidence is too much to ask; I’ll settle for some reassurance in this State of the Union about the state of Joe Biden.


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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.