If counseling President Joe Biden on the strategy for tonight’s State of the Union address, I would advise that he focus on the primary challenge facing the future of global democracy: the poisonous partisan divisions within America eating away at our national core. That said, such would have to be done obliquely. He should seek to leverage Americans’ overwhelming support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia by devoting more than half of the speech to the Russian invasion, and assert that the attack is on the freedom of all democracies, an assault on all free peoples. As I suggested in an earlier note, he must make it “real” for Americans: what Russia is doing is the same as if Canada simply decided to take Alaska; I would remark that I had seen a commentator compare Ukrainians’ toughness to Texans, and note what would happen if somebody tried to invade Texas – intentionally invoking the support of two of our states politically inhospitable to him. I would quote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s declaration, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” He should note how he and his team have worked with our NATO allies to stand up to a ravenous aggressor. He should note how the Western nations’ combined economic sanctions are crippling Russia, and that we are shipping Ukraine all the military equipment we can. Then – creeping up on the point – he might declare that no matter where an American might stand on gun rights, abortion rights, vaccines and masks, or whatever, these are differences of opinion that a free people can have – as contrasted with the Ukrainians’ fight for actual freedom: that they’re throwing themselves under Russian tanks to slow the Russian advance; that they’re ready to die rather than be swept back behind the Iron Curtain; that they want real elections, not Russian mockeries. I would recommend that he be so bold to declare that anyone that defends Vladimir Putin or the Russian actions is providing aid and comfort to tyrants. He should tell our citizens that he was going to talk straight with them: that although his Administration will do all it reasonably can to soften the impact of inflation – and call on Congress to suspend the federal 18-cent gasoline tax through the remainder of 2022 — it is likely that while this battle rages inflation could worsen. We cannot commit soldiers to the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom, but we can do this.
While he should make references to his Build Back Better Plan, to COVID, to Climate Change, to his recent nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, he shouldn’t dwell on these or other domestic issues. He needs to evoke Americans’ visceral feeling for freedom. If he can keep the majority of Americans on his side on this critical point, it creates a rallying point, something for all of us to be against – Russian aggression — that we desperately need.
Fiery, inspirational speeches are obviously not Mr. Biden’s forte. Frankly, I’d have him spend the last hour before the speech watching clips of John F. Kennedy’s delivery and of President Zelenskyy’s recent speeches from bunkers.
I have no illusions that this crisis or even the best speech of Mr. Biden’s life will be a panacea for what besets us; our partisan divisions are too deep. Even in much more congenial times, George H. W. Bush was defeated for re-election after a term that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and a resounding military victory in Desert Storm. That said, if Mr. Biden can use this moment to get at least some of our people to recognize the difference between real freedom and the faux freedom now at the center of our domestic strife, and to focus us as a people on a common and true enemy, it’s a start.