The State of the Union address is what historian Daniel Boorstin called a pseudo-event, a speech endowed with special meaning because of its pageantry and pervasive news coverage. Such addresses rarely have a big impact on public opinion. Gallup has found that since 1978, the State of the Union has led to just an average 0.4-point improvement in a president’s approval rating. President Biden’s speech Tuesday was typical of the genre.
It had high moments, as Democrats and Republicans alike stood to applaud when the president introduced the Ukrainian ambassador and told an impressive story about the West’s response to Russian aggression.
But this is unlikely to reverse Mr. Biden’s poll numbers. Moscow’s belligerence is bolstering the approval rating only of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an authentically heroic figure.
After detailing efforts by the U.S., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union to retaliate for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Biden’s speech went downhill. He turned self-congratulatory, extolling his American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill as leading to record job creation. If those measures could move voters, they’d have pumped up the president’s numbers last year when they were approved.
Mr. Biden also repackaged his Build Back Better plan, thinking that “building a better America” would be a superior label, and sold it as an anti-inflation measure. Neither tactic will work, but the second is particularly laughable. Voters aren’t likely to believe inflation can actually be reduced by massively expanding government spending through social programs such as universal pre-K or green boondoggles like more subsidies for purchasing electric vehicles.
Some Americans have difficulty handling child-care costs, of course, but most families experience inflation at the grocery store or service station. They don’t see more government spending as the answer. Further, suggesting climate measures will lower prices makes little sense to consumers who know the way to make energy more affordable is to increase the supply.
Mr. Biden’s speech then descended into a mind-numbing list of big-government proposals including a global minimum tax, a pandemic fraud prosecution chief, more apprenticeships, the Paycheck Fairness Act, a $15 minimum wage, more Pell grants, a child tax credit extension, community college grants, the PRO Act and more—each offered without priority or particular passion.
Mr. Biden made two notable course corrections. He heralded new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by declaring that “most Americans in most of the country can now be free” from masks and said “we can end the shutdown of schools and businesses.” He also argued the answer to racial injustice “is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with resources and training.” Apparently the White House pollster convinced the West Wing that masking forever and rampant crime aren’t political winners.
While the State of the Union will probably play little role in the coming midterm elections, two other events Tuesday highlighted the challenges Mr. Biden and his party face this November.
First, there was the response to his speech offered on behalf of the left-wing Working Families Party by Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.). She excoriated Mr. Biden for failing to support the defund-the-police movement or ban further fossil fuel development on federal land and in federal waters. Her criticism was echoed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) who belittled the president’s address as “a lost opportunity.” This lack of left-wing passion may hurt Democrats in swing districts and states where the party needs a strong turnout from all corners.
Second, Republican enthusiasm was on display Tuesday in Texas, in the country’s first 2022 primary. Four years ago, 1,068,463 Democrats voted in the Texas primary while 1,549,573 Republicans did. This week, with a few scattered ballots still to be counted, 1,057,664 Democrats have voted while 1,935,321 Republicans turned out, an increase of more than 23% for the GOP over 2018.
Turnout for Republicans seems to have exploded in largely Hispanic South Texas. With almost every ballot counted, the GOP turnout was up 162% in Cameron County over 2018 and 113% in Hidalgo, both of which lie in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Republican turnout was also up 50% in Nueces County, dominated by Corpus Christi, and up 51% in El Paso. Hispanics joining the GOP will hurt the Democrats badly in Texas and outside it.
For all its pageantry and drama, Mr. Biden’s somewhat mediocre State of the Union will likely be all but forgotten a week from now. But the Democrats’ midterm election problems aren’t going anywhere. They may even get worse.