I’m still trying to figure out what to make of President Joe Biden. He wasn’t my first choice for the office, or even my fourth, so I can’t sit here and prattle about being disappointed. At this point in the Obama administration, I felt entirely betrayed, which is what happens when you get your hopes up around big-time politicians, I suppose.
After more than four years of Trump, one thing I do appreciate about Biden is his relative patience and stillness; the man’s demeanor is like a lava lizard, breathing once every two minutes, unblinking eyes taking it all in. I’m not sure if it’s eerie or soothing, but it’s quiet.
I hope these traits serve him tonight upon the occasion of his first State of the Union speech. Biden spent 36 years in the Senate and tried for the White House three times before finally breaking through. “Always” by Atlantic Starr was number one on the pop charts the day he declared his candidacy for president the first time in 1987. If you don’t remember the song, that’s OK; nobody remembers that campaign, either.
Twenty years later, Beyonce owned the top slot with “Irreplaceable” the day Biden went for the White House again. The voters found him entirely replaceable, and his second presidential campaign was done in a year. Seven months later, President Barack Obama tapped him for the vice presidency, and Biden spent eight State of the Union speeches ceremoniously clapping and standing at the proper moments, possibly wondering all the while what it must be like to commandeer that middle-front podium in front of the largest shark tank in the world.
Tonight, he finds out. Writing politics these days too often lends itself to excessive overstatement, so I will carefully state that as far as I can remember, no president has ever been as deep in the hurt locker as Biden is today. His predecessors have dealt with a few of the life-and-death dragons breathing down on him, but not so many at once. For God’s sake, some of the voters who supported Biden’s opponent in the general election stormed the Capitol building — arm in arm with a number of GOP congresspeople who will be in the room tonight — trying to keep him out of office. That hasn’t been on anyone’s bingo card since the disgraceful Hayes/Tilden crunch in 1876, and it’s just one item on the list.
The climate is collapsing, but Biden can’t do anything about it because one West Virginia coal Democrat won’t let him. The same goes for a whole kaleidoscope of domestic issues Joe Manchin has put the hammer to, leaving Biden’s first-year scorecard unsettlingly barren of accomplishments.
Vladimir Putin has unleashed an unjustifiable, horrific and devastating invasion of Ukraine. Some fear it may expand into a daunting nuclear showdown between the U.S. and Russia. Biden gets to stand there all high and mighty about Putin’s criminality while hoping nobody notices the ashes of Afghanistan and Iraq clinging to his trouser cuffs.
Year three of the COVID-19 pandemic is still infecting more than 60,000 people a day, and killing almost 2,000 more, while a quarter of the country disdains science in order to own the libs. The economy is doing pretty well unless you ask actual people about it; no credit for Joe there, either. Roe v. Wade is about to disappear, and Mr. Manchin just did his part to further denude the right to choose. Many schools are being forbidden from teaching history because it might make white kids feel bad, and books are being stripped from library shelves.
This is a nation on the brink. Of what, I would not dare to say. The best lack all integrity, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity, and the lies get halfway around the world on social media before the truth can tie its shoes. The people are in a fearful crouch, waiting for the 17th damn shoe to drop, they are angry, they are frightened, and nobody thinks clearly toting that volume of emotional baggage.
That is who Biden has to reach tonight, who he has to find across a gauzy ocean of mistrust and resentment and deep-seated despair. Some pundits believe tonight will provide him an opportunity to reset and restart his presidency, and bully for him if he pulls it off. He has waited decades for this moment, and now it is upon him. May the road rise to meet him, because at this point, not much else has except trouble.
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