Biden Can Shout, but He’s No Truman

March 14, 2024

America’s octogenarian president delivered a 67-minute State of the Union address last week. Joe Biden did it with what the press called “high energy,” a synonym for lots of shouting. His address was punctuated by Democrats chanting “Four more years, four more years!”

Mr. Biden did what he had to do. He exceeded the low expectations many Americans had for his performance. He calmed—for the moment—Democratic bed-wetters concerned about his stamina, energy and ability to deliver a message.

Still, it is far from clear he changed voters’ fundamental concerns. He is too old. He has memory problems. He does lack stamina. And shouting or no, Americans know it.

Polls in the coming weeks are likely to show little or no positive impact of Mr. Biden’s State of the Union performance on his standing on the issues or with voters. The Democratic nervous Nellies may start hyperventilating again.

Some Democrats hope Mr. Biden’s delivery last Thursday foreshadows a rip-roaring performance like the one that propelled President Harry Truman’s come-from-behind 1948 victory. I doubt it. The president won’t be able to rest at Camp David for several days before every big election appearance as he did for the State of the Union. It will be a long, frenetic campaign. Mr. Biden is unlikely to handle that pace and pressure well.

Even if the president can summon his inner Truman—who in 1948 was 17 years younger than Mr. Biden is now—and take a 2-by-4 to Donald Trump as Truman did to his opponent, Mr. Biden will find it a much harder task.

Truman’s surprise victory was possible only because he ran circles around the Republican candidate, New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. Dewey felt “all he had to do was refrain from making mistakes,” A.J. Baime observes in “Dewey Defeats Truman: The 1948 Election and the Battle for America’s Soul” (2000). In “Truman’s Triumphs: The 1948 Election and the Making of Postwar America” (2012), Andrew E. Busch argues that “staying above the fray” and pursing a “strategy of caution” were central to the Dewey campaign. The Republican focused on “minimizing risk and avoiding sharp edges,” Zachary Karabell writes in “The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election” (2000).

Mr. Trump is different in most every respect from Dewey 76 years ago. Mr. Trump is bold to the point of being reckless. He constantly breaks the rules of normal political discourse, relishes conflict and name calling, and is hyperactive and bombastic. He has an instinct for grabbing attention and energizing his followers so fervently that he holds them in thrall. While Dewey tried turning his back on Truman’s assaults, Mr. Trump won’t ignore Mr. Biden if he comes at him.

Moreover, while Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address provided a momentary appearance of momentum, he undermined his most critical asset—his position as president of the United States. Mr. Biden needlessly insulted, baited and offended important political players at a critical moment for our country, diminishing himself as he belittled them.

Some subtle political comments are expected in an election-year State of the Union. But did Mr. Biden need to open his discussion of aid to Ukraine by attacking Mr. Trump? How hard was it to raise the issue of abortion without a partisan assault on the Supreme Court? Did he need to pummel Mr. Trump over Covid, saying he’d “failed the most basic presidential duty,” “the duty to care”? This was especially small since Mr. Trump’s Operation Warp Speed program produced Covid vaccines in record time, making possible the success for which Mr. Biden credits himself.

Read More at the WSJ

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