Friday, March 8, 2024

Biden's barn burner

 I don’t always watch the State of the Union and I wasn’t sure that I would last night. I was the victim of television inertia, however, as the speech followed on the heels of “Ghosts,” the only show that I try to watch regularly. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious. I also had a bit of curiosity about how Biden would perform given the “Sleepy Joe” memes and dementia allegations.

The answer was that he performed extremely well. This was a barnburner of a speech and the president was energetic, vibrant, engaging, personable, [insert your own adjective here]. Biden’s performance last night was everything that Republicans said he couldn’t be.

Photo credit: Twitter screenshot from @ATRUPAR

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In fact, Biden’s stamina in delivering the speech outlasted my stamina in listening to it. One reason that I often skip political speeches like the State of the Union is that they go on way too long and become partisan wish lists of programs that will never become reality. No matter who the president is, I usually end up thinking that we’re probably better off if a lot of these ideas are never implemented. That was definitely the case last night.

But before that, Biden did capture my interest. One of the strongest parts of the speech was at the beginning when Biden drew a comparison between himself and the Republicans on Ukraine, invoking President Reagan in the process:

What makes our moment rare is that freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas at the very same time. Overseas, Putin of Russia is on the march, invading Ukraine and sowing chaos throughout Europe and beyond. If anybody in this room thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you, he will not.

But Ukraine, Ukraine can stop Putin. Ukraine can stop Putin, if we stand with Ukraine and provide the weapons they need to defend itself. That is all — that is all Ukraine is asking. They’re not asking for American soldiers. In fact, there are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine, and I’m determined to keep it that way.

But now, assistance to Ukraine is being blocked by those who want to walk away from our world leadership. Wasn’t long ago when a Republican president named Ronald Reagan thundered, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Now, now my predecessor, a former Republican president, tells Putin, quote, do whatever the hell you want. That’s a quote. [Biden is accurate on this quote. Here’s the context.] A former president actually said that, bowing down to a Russian leader. I think it’s outrageous, it’s dangerous, and it’s unacceptable.

Biden has two very strong arguments for re-election. One is Donald Trump and the other is foreign policy. He laid out both arguments in these four paragraphs in what was an obvious appeal to Nikki Haley voters, national security conservatives who are skeptical of Trump.

Losing Ukraine would be far more impactful than losing Afghanistan, and the contrast between Reagan and Trump is stark. It’s truly a bizarro world when a Democratic president quotes Reagan approvingly and Republicans increasingly reject Reagan and his policies, which include a strong foreign policy with alliances.

But what about Afghanistan, you might ask? I’ll acknowledge that the buck stops with Biden on Afghanistan since he was president, but Republicans don’t get the full benefit of his errors there. Don’t forget that the Trump Administration negotiated the US withdrawal and Trump’s timeline would have included a quicker exit. The fact is that both sides had decided that Afghanistan wasn’t worth fighting for in a rare moment of partisan unity.

But Ukraine is different. Rather than being a backwater, Ukraine is a vibrant, advanced nation with a population that is willing to fight and die for their freedom and independence. One of the most shameful moments of the night was when Speaker Mike Johnson and most Republicans sat on their hands when Biden spoke about NATO and standing up to Vladimir Putin.

There were a few interesting and unscripted exchanges as well. In one, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who never feels bound by good taste and showed up dressed for a Trump rally in a red hat and message shirt, heckled Biden as he discussed immigration. Biden seems to have gotten the better of the exchange as he turned the moment into a lecture on how the current immigration system is broken and needs reform, even mentioning Laken Riley although he did slightly mangle the murder victim’s name.

The immigration section of the speech was effective because the issue is a hot topic, but one that could have been solved. Republicans negotiated a strong border bill and then killed it on Trump’s orders. That fact needs to be put before the voters repeatedly.

When Biden claimed that the immigration compromise was “a bipartisan bill with the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen” and listed provisions of the bill, cameras cut to Senator James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the Republican authors of the bill who nodded in agreement and mouthed the words, “That’s true.”

Another heckler was removed from the House chamber after heckling Biden later in the speech. NBC reports that Steve Nikoui, the father of a US Marine killed in the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate airport in Kabul in the closing days of the Afghanistan withdrawal was removed by security after yelling, “Abbey Gate” during the speech.

Let me just interject here that I don’t like such theatrics at serious speeches, whether it is from the right or the left. Some, like Nikoui, may be emotional and authentically angry. Others, like MTG, are just looking for a soundbite to get them on Fox News so they can send out fundraising appeals to their supporters. In either case, the hecklers look bad, like protesters who block roads, especially when the speaker handles their heckling smoothly.

If there was stuff in the speech that I liked, there was also stuff that I didn’t. I can’t get behind a lot of Biden’s agenda, from gun control to abortion to transgender equality, but for things that are bad ideas and controversial, there is always the filibuster. If the past four years have proved anything, it’s that Biden isn’t a lawless authoritarian eager to bypass Congress and impose a progressive agenda. Even with student loan forgiveness, where he stretched the law, he accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling.

As an aside, I’ll point out that despite Biden’s rhetoric, the last major piece of gun control was enacted by Donald Trump, acting without Congress, to reinterpret existing law to unilaterally ban bump stocks. Politics really isn’t as simple as picking a side and saying everything my team does is good and your team is always bad. That’s especially true in these days of realigning political interests. The only people who always agree with either party are the partisans, and if “hypocrite” isn’t a synonym for “partisan,” it should be.

One of the most intriguing proposals in the speech was that after offering strong support for Israel, Biden directed the US military to “establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters.” I’m not sure how this will work since “no U.S. boots will be on the ground,” but I’ll be looking for further details.

Even though the war in Gaza is justified, it is also a humanitarian crisis. There are legitimate questions about how the US and the rest of the world can offer humanitarian aid without unintentionally aiding Hamas or getting caught in the crossfire. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, however.

There will be a lot of discussion about how much Biden referred to Donald Trump as well. It is unusual for a president to deliver so many direct attacks on his opponent, but Donald Trump is an unusual person and these are unusual times. Personally, I think it’s important to keep reminding people how badly - how unlawfully - Trump acted both while he was in office and since.

I hate the perennial comparisons of elections to Flight 93, but Donald Trump is the only president to ever send his supporters to attack Congress to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power and the only major party candidate that I know of who has ever run on a platform of revenge and retribution. Voters shouldn’t be allowed to forget these facts.

And that’s where I disagree with Biden. In his closing remarks, Biden was optimistic, saying, “The state of our union is strong and getting stronger.”

Our union is not strong. We are deeply divided and a large part of the country favors a “national divorce.” I’m not optimistic that we can get past this election without worse violence than we saw after Trump’s 2020 loss.

I disagree with a heckuva lot of Biden’s agenda, but I disagree with the Trumpist Republican vision even more. The best way to strengthen the union is to defeat and discredit MAGA so that we can start building a new conservative alternative to the progressives. We need two parties who will work together for the good of the country.

In the end, Biden did what he needed to do. He showed vim and vigor without embarrassing gaffes that would cause more questions about his mental acuity. What he said is less important than how he said it, and he said it well. (And without, as Steve suggested yesterday, turning off his microphone.)

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REPUBLICAN RESPONSE: If I seldom watch the State of the Union, I even seldomer watch the opposition response. Last night, Rep. Katie Britt (R-Al.) delivered the Republican remarks. I didn’t watch it, but the clips I’ve seen this morning are… interesting. Even many Republicans are panning the speech and Britt’s delivery, which was simultaneously cheerful and teary. One internet wag compared Britt’s speech to the old ASPCA commercial with Sarah McLachlan, and adding the music absolutely nails it. Look for a sendup of Britt on “Saturday Night Live” soon.

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