Election 2024: President Joe Biden Delivers His Third State of the Union Address
from The Water's Edge

Election 2024: President Joe Biden Delivers His Third State of the Union Address

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Joe Biden will likely stress his domestic achievements over his foreign policy challenges when he addresses a divided nation next Thursday.
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on February 7, 2023.
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on February 7, 2023. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters

Can you get a second chance to make a first impression? Commonsense suggests no, hence the adage. The challenge is especially daunting when your audience has had many opportunities to assess your performance. Nonetheless, Joe Biden will attempt to use his State of the Union address next Thursday night to reset the narrative about his administration—and to implicitly make the case for his reelection.

Biden has his work cut out for himself. The stock market and the economy are both booming. His approval rating, however, is falling. The most recent Gallup poll found that just 38 percent of Americans give a thumbs up to the job he is doing. That is down three points since last month and it’s just one percentage point above his lowest rating. The poll showed that Biden is upside down with the public on immigration (67 percent disapproval), the Middle East (62 percent), foreign affairs (62 percent), the economy (61 percent), and Ukraine (53 percent.)

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Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

To put those numbers in context, Biden began his presidency with a 57 percent approval rating. He hasn’t been above 50 percent, however, since his sixth month in office. Do these numbers tell us anything about November? Well, since scientific polling began, only one president has won re-election with an approval rating below 50 percent: George W. Bush. He had a 48 percent approval rating in October 2004. 

Biden will likely use his address to highlight what he sees as his “’historic’ accomplishments—from infrastructure spending to scrapping junk fees—and make the case for ‘protecting and implementing’ that agenda.” Notably absent from that list is foreign policy. That omission makes political sense. Crises in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere pose great risks to U.S. national interests, but foreign policy continues to be far down the list of issues worrying voters. Just two percent of respondents currently flag foreign policy as the most important problem facing the country.

That political reality won’t stop the calls for Biden to make the case to the American public for his foreign policy. Just this week, Nikki Haley said that “Joe Biden needs to explain to people why Ukraine matters, the same way he needs to explain why Israel matters.” Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration, called for Biden to “give a speech on why it’s so important for us to stand up to Russia,” adding “if he’s not going to do it at the State of the Union, he needs to do it somewhere soon.”

If Biden holds to form and stresses domestic successes rather than foreign challenges, expect to hear complaints after the State of the Union that he “missed his chance” to rally the American public behind his foreign policy. Treat such claims with a sizable grain of salt. It’s not just that most Americans won’t be watching Biden’s speech next Thursday. (For perspective on that score, 27 million Americans tuned into Biden’s State of the Union address last year; roughly 124 million people watched the Super Bowl last month.)

The main problem is that, as much as journalists and politicians love to talk of the presidential bully pulpit, there is scant evidence that it exists. When you think of it, asking one speech—especially one that by its very nature has to cover multiple topics—to persuade people to rethink what they already believe is a stretch. That is all the more so the case in today’s era of intense partisanship in which the positions that many people take on issues depend less on the facts at hand than on what positions the opposing party has staked out. If the other side is for it, then they are against it.

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Biden would certainly be helped if others, and in particular Republicans, made the case for his foreign policy policies. Testimonials from political adversaries typically carry more weight than praise from friends. But in the end, Biden’s success will lie less in what he says and more in what he can show he can get done.

Campaign Update

Trump won both Saturday’s South Carolina primary and Tuesday’s Michigan primary, taking the lion’s share of the delegates at stake in the two races. The Michigan victory was Trump’s biggest one to date. He beat Haley by forty-one percentage points, 68 percent to 27 percent. By comparison, he beat Haley in her home state of South Carolina by just twenty points. Behind the big victories were some troubling signs, though, for Trump. He continued to underperform his pre-vote poll numbers, and he is lagging with moderate Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. The debate is now over whether that weakness will carry over to the general election.

Biden received mixed news from the Michigan primary as well. On the positive side, he won 81 percent of the vote. On the negative side, 13 percent of Michigan Democrats, or 101,436 in all, chose “uncommitted.” Leaders of Listen to Michigan, which urged Democrats to vote “uncommitted” to signal their opposition to “Biden’s funding war and genocide in Gaza,” claimed credit for the strong uncommitted vote. Biden campaign officials, however, noted that the vote share for “uncommitted” was only slightly above historical norms. When Barack Obama ran for re-election in 2012, for example, nearly 11 percent of the vote went to “uncommitted.” Experts are now weighing in on what the Michigan vote portends for the fall.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear Trump’s claim that he enjoys absolute immunity for anything he did while president. The Court scheduled oral arguments for the week of April 22. The Court’s decision to hear Trump’s claim makes it increasingly unlikely that the case that special prosecutor Jack Smith has brought against Trump for trying to overturn the 2020 election can be concluded before November, if trial proceeds at all. The Court’s decision could come any time between the conclusion of oral arguments and the end of the Court’s term in late June.

In a separate legal move, Trump filed seven motions late last week to have the charges that he mishandled classified documents dismissed. The motions will be reviewed by trial judge, Aileen Cannon, who Trump nominated for the federal bench. The case has already been slowed by disputes over how to handle the classified information involved in the case.

A Cook County judge ruled on Wednesday that Trump’s name should be removed from Illinois’s primary ballot because the Fourteenth Amendment bars insurrectionists from taking office. The judge’s ruling gave Trump time to appeal. Illinois holds its primary on March 19.

Marianne Williamson suspended her campaign early last month after winning just 2 percent of the vote in the South Carolina Democratic primary. On Wednesday, she announced that she was “unsuspending” her campaign. This came on the heels of her third-place finish in the Michigan Democratic primary with 3 percent of the vote.

Little known Ryan Binkley, who said God told him to run for president, suspended his presidential campaign on Tuesday. In announcing his decision to depart the race, the pastor and businessman from Richardson, Texas, said: “I have seen our party struggle to find a place for a new vision while weighing the corrupt allegations and indictments against President Trump. He will need everyone’s support, and he will have mine moving forward.” Binkley failed to top 1 percent of the vote in Republican Party’s first six nominating events.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s effort to use the Libertarian Party as a vehicle to get his name on the ballot in all fifty states and the District of Columbia may have hit a snag. He picked up just one of the ninety-five ballots cast in a straw poll held last Sunday by the Libertarian Party’s California convention.

The AI-generated robocall that sought to discourage New Hampshire Democrats from voting for Joe Biden in the state’s January primary was created by Paul Carpenter, a New Orleans-based magician. Carpenter says that a strategist working for the Dean Phillips campaign commissioned him to create the audio file in Biden’s voice. Carpenter added that he was paid $150 for his time and that it cost just $1 to impersonate Biden. The incident is under criminal investigation by state and federal authorities for possible violations of election law.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Biden and Donald Trump made dueling appearances on the Texas-Mexico border yesterday. Trump was in Eagle Pass, Texas, where he called the crisis on the U.S. southern border “the Joe Biden invasion” and said, contrary to what the evidence shows, that the United States is “being overrun by Biden migrant crime.”

Three hundred miles to the southeast in Brownsville, Biden stressed Trump’s effort to sink the Senate’s bipartisan border security bill.” He then challenged Trump:

Here’s what I would say to Mr. Trump: “Instead of telling members of Congress to block this legislation, join me—or I’ll join you—in telling Congress to pass this bipartisan border security bill. We can do it together. You know and I know, it’s the toughest, most efficient, most effective border security bill this country’s ever seen. So instead of playing politics with the issue, why don’t we just get together and get it done?”

Trump spoke at CPAC 2024 last Saturday. Most of his comments consisted of attacks he has made many times before. The headline news was that he called himself a “political dissident.” On the foreign policy front, he argued that “declining, crooked Joe Biden... will soon have us losing World War III... These are the stakes of this election. Our country is being destroyed, and the only thing standing between you and its obliteration is me. It’s true.” 

The former president also argued that he terminated Nordstream II, a pipeline designed to carry Russian natural gas to Germany, “and then Biden comes in, and within three days, he approves Nordstream, but he kills Keystone pipeline... And then they say, ‘Trump is too nice to Russia...’ Putin would say, ‘if you’re being nice, I hate like hell to think what you would be if you were not nice.’” Trump wanted to kill Nordstream II. However, he didn’t manage to do so.

Haley was asked on NBC’s Saturday Today what the risk was to America’s national security from Trump’s refusal to condemn Putin over the death of Aleksei Navalny. She answered: “When Trump went and said that he wanted Putin to invade our allies, that immediately made our allies vulnerable, it emboldened Putin... and it put all of our military men and women in those areas at risk.” She added that “there should be a vote on [the $60 billion aid bill for] Ukraine. We should give [Ukraine] the equipment and ammunition we need to win.”

Biden made news on the Israel-Hamas conflict when he told reporters at a stop in New York that he expected work out a temporary ceasefire within a week. Biden had just given an interview with Seth Meyers of Late Night, which was aired that night. When Meyers asked about a possible Palestinian state and the safety of Gazans, Biden answered: “First of all, the hostages being held must be released... We’ve got a principal agreement that there will be a [temporary] ceasefire while that takes place. Ramadan is coming up, and there’s been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan as well in order to give us time to get all the hostages out.” Both Israeli and Hamas officials, however, quickly expressed doubt that a temporary ceasefire would be easily reached. Yesterday, after Israeli troops fired on Palestinians scrambling to get food from an aid convoy in Gaza City, Biden acknowledged that it would take longer than he anticipated to put a temporary ceasefire in place.

 What the Pundits Are Saying

Politico’s Erin Banco and John Sakellariadis spoke with eighteen former officials who worked in the Trump administration about what a second Trump term might mean for the U.S. intelligence community. Their topline conclusions were that Trump would “likely to use a second term to overhaul the nation’s spy agencies in a way that could lead to an unprecedented level of politicization of intelligence,” and that he would “push even harder to replace people perceived as hostile to his political agenda with inexperienced loyalists.”

Politico’s Nahal Toosi argued that Biden’s unwillingness to overtly pressure Israel to change course in Gaza reflect the fact that “Biden is not—fundamentally—a human rights president.” Over the course of his career, “Biden has been willing to de-prioritize human rights, even if it means he looks uncaring. He’s often explained that he’s serving the U.S. national interest, but he also appears keenly aware of the politics involved: voters rarely reject a candidate over a human rights issue.”

What the Polls Show

Gallup released a poll yesterday showing that Americans continue to support NATO. A near majority (47 percent) say they want to keep the U.S. commitment to NATO at its current level, while 20 percent want to increase it. Sixteen percent said they would like to decrease the U.S. commitment, and just 12 percent favored leaving NATO. Self-identified Republicans are the most likely to favor decreasing the U.S. commitment or ending it entirely. Even so, 46 percent would keep the current commitment and 7 percent would increase it.

A Chicago Council on Global Affairs released on Wednesday explored U.S. attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the poll’s many findings was that “a majority of Republicans now say the United States should take Israel’s side (56%) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while majorities of Democrats (62%) and Independents (60%) continue to say the United States shouldn’t take either side.”

The Campaign Schedule

The State of the Union address is six days away (March 7, 2024).

The start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee is 137 days away (July 15, 2024).

The start of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is 171 days away (August 19, 2024).

Election Day is 249 days away.

Inauguration Day is 325 days away.

Sinet Adous assisted in the preparation of this post.

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