A presidency that’s been short on galvanizing TV gets an infusion of energy from a feisty speech.
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By James Poniewozik
It’s a rare speech where you go onstage hoping to get booed.
Look, folks — to borrow a much-repeated phrase from Tuesday night — I can’t know what was in President Biden’s mind during the State of the Union address. I’m not sure if he or his advisers planned the speech thinking that sparring with members of the new Republican House majority would make the opposition look more unhinged or confer on him a useful image of feistiness and vigor.
But his adversaries obliged regardless, in a prime-time speech that began with optimism and comity, then devolved into the most overt heckling we’ve ever seen at a State of the Union.
And I don’t think the president minded.
In the day’s cable-news walk-up coverage, there was almost as much attention to the audience as to the speaker. In its brief tenure, the new Republican House majority has not been known as drama-free.
There was, of course, the endless story of George Santos, the serial-fabulist representative from New York, who maximized his visibility on camera by nabbing an aisle seat along Handshake Row as Mr. Biden entered the chamber and had some tense words with an irritated Republican senator, Mitt Romney of Utah.
Then there was the question of how well the new House speaker, Kevin McCarthy of California, could control a narrow majority that had turned the normally pro forma speaker’s election into a nail-biting, backbiting TV serial. Reportedly, Mr. McCarthy had urged his delegation to remember that cameras were on them at all times, and to behave.
Biden’s State of the Union Address
Their newfound discipline lasted minutes. Mr. Biden, who opened the speech with an upbeat report on the economy and a list of achievements, got applause from both sides of the chamber for citing bipartisan legislation.
But when Mr. Biden accused some Republicans of wanting to use the debt ceiling to force cuts to Social Security and Medicare, GOP representatives hooted and howled. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia — easily spotted in a white, fur-lined coat — called out, “Liar!”
When Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled “You lie!” at President Barack Obama at a 2009 address, it necessitated an apology and rebuke. Now it’s just the warm-up.
As Republicans continued to jeer, Mr. Biden seemed to enjoy ad-libbing responses: “Look it up!” When Mr. Biden later addressed a father in the audience whose daughter had died from a fentanyl overdose, a lawmaker shouted, “It’s your fault!” (Among the other guests were the parents of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after being beaten by police officers in Memphis.)
Mr. McCarthy was left to visibly shush his colleagues over and over from his seat behind the president. He spent much of the speech glumly leaning back like an assistant principal at an unruly school assembly.
Mr. Biden came into the event with his own challenges and points to make. He is expected to decide soon whether to run for a second term, and at age 80 he faces doubts even among his supporters about whether he’s up to the demands of six more years in office, not to mention the campaign trail.
Of course, the State of the Union is about policy proposals and a report on the health of the country. As far as the Constitution is concerned, it an email could suffice. But as a speech watched by millions on TV, it is meant to send messages not just about substantive goals but about the person at the podium.
This address seemed written and practiced with energy in mind. Mr. Biden delivered it fast and loud, punching words like “unbowed and unbroken.” The sentences and phrases were tight; Mr. Biden, who has dealt with a stutter, stumbled only occasionally. His speech had more “folks” than the Newport festival. And the back-and-forth with hecklers gave it juice — not to mention, clips bound to be played and replayed on the next day’s news.
Mr. Biden’s presidency has not exactly been known for galvanizing TV. Josh Tyrangiel, a television news producer (and my former editor), recently suggested in The New York Times that Mr. Biden shake up his address with a multimedia production, as the Jan. 6 committee so effectively did.
Mr. Biden loves the traditions and glad-handing too much to reboot the State of the Union. But also, after defeating a predecessor who for four years treated the presidency like an agitating 24/7 reality show, part of Mr. Biden’s value proposition was giving people permission to change the channel.
Still, politics is an attention game, especially with a campaign looming. You don’t get extra points for making it look easy. And while one speech is not going to take years off your age or silence your doubters, it can help you create the contrasts you prefer. In 2020, Mr. Biden couldn’t out-glitz Donald J. Trump, but he benefited from his opponent’s gift for generating bad attention.
At least for one night, Mr. Biden may have found another collective foil in his high-volume hecklers. After his address, the Arkansas governor (and former Trump press secretary) Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave a Republican response that fully embraced culture war. The choice today, she said, is “between normal or crazy.”
I’m not sure Mr. Biden or his advisers mind that framing. They’d just disagree about who’s who.
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