President Biden walked into last night’s State of the Union address facing a major communications challenge: persuading the majority of Americans who think he has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” that he has — as his record shows — actually moved a lot of meaningful policies in his two years in office.
Going too far the self-congratulatory route was not going to be well-received. Despite record-low unemployment, a very small share of voters describe the economy as “good” or “excellent,” or feel like they’re better off financially since he took office.
And with Republicans in control of the House and Kevin McCarthy’s disapproving presence in the background, Biden clearly made the calculation that he needed to deploy a so-called “unity agenda” to appeal to the electorate’s “reasonable middle” with an eye to re-election. Here’s how we progressive communicators think President Biden fared.
A clear understanding that “the people at home” were his main audience. Biden clearly understood his address as a televised exercise and stayed laser-focused on addressing viewers directly, largely side-stepping lawmakers in attendance (with the exception of his masterful back-and-forth with Republicans). He physically leaned on the podium toward the camera, deployed his folksy personality and relatable stories, and repeatedly mentioned the “folks at home” for good measure. It felt far more genuine and casual than any address given in recent memory by his predecessors — and the voters invited as guests did not feel like pawns for cheap political points.
“Finish the job” as a positive take on the work that still needs to be done. President Biden’s first priority last night was changing the perception that he has not delivered for the American people. He couldn’t be too celebratory, but also couldn’t undersell his many accomplishments, either. “Finish the job” was a simple tagline that alluded to the real progress his administration has made without ignoring the real difficulties many voters face while they await *some* relief from policies that have only recently become law.
A surprisingly strong ad-libbing performance when countering Republicans. While Biden fumbled a few words here and there, he scored his best points when reacting to Republican heckling on the spot with both great deft and humor. There were reports of high-fives in the White House following the President’s back-and-forth with Republican lawmakers. We, too, loved seeing GOP members trip over themselves on Social Security and Medicare all while Kevin McCarthy clearly got annoyed at his own caucus for getting rowdy and giving Biden the perfect split-screen moment between the two parties.
Reproductive rights and gun safety as an afterthought. Both issues got far less air time than they deserved, especially in light of very broad support for both abortion rights and common sense gun measures in blue and red states, and following the recent mass shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park. Glazing over the impact of abortion bans and crackdowns on contraceptives, along with the unchecked flowing of guns and weapons of war across the country, felt tonally off. Particularly when gun violence was mentioned, the tone felt far too celebratory and lacked both the seriousness and true urgency the issue warrants.
The reluctance to forcefully call out extremism. Those of us who worked to protect our elections and democracy against the scourge of election denialism last cycle were bracing ourselves for democracy and voting rights to go unmentioned. While the President did the right thing in calling out political violence and recognizing the attack on Paul Pelosi, he stopped short of naming the MAGA extremists responsible for peddling the very harmful rhetoric and lies at the root of the problem. This pattern of ignoring the root of the problem was noticeable across a range of “controversial” issues where we needed the president to call out these scourges on society and how we are going to fix them.
A vague take on police reform that left neither side satisfied. When it came to police reform, everyone got a little something to clap about, but nothing substantive was named that will get us on a path to address unchecked police violence and reimagining public safety in this country. “Something good has to come out of this” just wasn’t good enough — and even if Congress is completely gridlocked on police reform, the president should have used his bully pulpit to both show he understands the stakes and give political cover for decision-makers across the country to push for a clear justice agenda.
Special mentions from SOTU night
- We especially enjoyed lawmakers’ use of pins to bring visibility to their priority issues. Special mention to the many Congress members who not only sported crayons to call out the need for child care, but did a superb job of promoting that call to action on social media.
- The nod to Vice President Kamala Harris, which was sorely needed in light of the torrent of negative press she has been facing just over the last few days. With that said, the president hasn’t done a particularly good job of elevating his VP over the last two years, so this may be too little too late.
- Final special mention to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders for delivering one of the most unhinged SOTU responses in recent memory — marrying a forced accent with extreme rhetoric that painted the perfect picture of just how toxic the GOP brand has gotten.
Image credit: @taliaswlcek
André Ory is a Vice President at Fenton, where he serves as a political communications strategist for leading national and state advocacy groups, coalitions, and nonprofits in the progressive space. André has led successful media and integrated communications campaigns to protect the 2020 election and results from President Trump’s attacks, advance democracy reforms to make our government work for everyone, and promote the Green New Deal and meaningful climate action, among others.
For any questions about this blog or inquiries about working with Fenton, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.