This year's State of the Union convinced me US presidents should stop doing them

The speech has become a charade that deepens the partisan divide rather than unifying America

US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, on March 7. EPA / Bloomberg
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US President Joe Biden faced heady tasks as he delivered this year’s State of the Union address to Congress. He had to face concerns about his age, voter anxiety about the economy, the dysfunctional environment created by Republican hyper-partisanship, and the continuing threat to America's democratic processes posed by a feared replay of the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

As expected, commentators had differing views as to how successful Mr Biden was at meeting the challenges before the country and his presidency, with partisan Democrats appearing to read from Biden campaign talking points and Republicans glibly finding fault with the US President’s every word.

An honest assessment, however, would suggest that Mr Biden gave Democrats what they needed to campaign for his re-election, but did little to heal the partisan divide or advance any legislation currently blocked in Congress.

It was strange that Biden opened and closed his remarks with Ukraine and Gaza, both of which were dealt with unsatisfactorily

Given the magnitude of the domestic challenges that comprised the bulk of the President’s State of the Union address, it was strange that he chose to open and close his remarks with two foreign policy issues, both of which were dealt with quite unsatisfactorily.

Mr Biden opened his remarks with dire warnings about the war in Ukraine comparing the challenges this war poses to the West’s democracies with the situation in Europe in the lead up to the Second World War. At best, this was an extreme overstatement. The war in Ukraine is most certainly not a threat to the US and poses no serious challenge to any of Europe's Nato countries.

Russia has a particular historical grievance with regard to Ukraine, and while it has been important to defend Ukraine's territorial integrity, it can be done without exaggeration or making inaccurate historical comparisons. And the use excessive rhetoric about how democracies are confronting authoritarianism is off-putting and more than a little disingenuous, since the European “democracies” in question were colonial powers in the 1940s and among the world’s worst violators of rights.

It’s been two years now that the President has been using Churchillian or Reaganesque flourishes to describe his recreation of the Cold War conflict with Russia and China. It may sound good to some in his inner circle, but it isn't registering with voters. A significant percentage of both Democrats and Republicans do not support allocating billions of more dollars to fight a war in Ukraine.

If his Ukraine opening fell flat, the President’s closing remarks on Gaza hit with a thud. While Mr Biden’s re-election effort will not be harmed by his support for Ukraine, results in some of this year’s early primaries make it clear that his continued arming of Israel and refusal to condemn its devastating policies in Gaza may cost him votes in November. As a result, Mr Biden felt compelled to address the issue, but his approach was, at best, confusing. The problem was that he tried to square a circle.

On the one hand, the US President continues to pledge total support for Israel and its reputed “right to defend itself”, while on the other, attempting to temper this support by also calling on Israel to demonstrate more concern for Palestinian civilians – calls that Israel has repeatedly acknowledged but ignored for months.

Despite Mr Biden noting Israel’s responsibility for the humanitarian crisis created in Gaza, instead of calling for a ceasefire and demanding that Israel pull back its forces, he pledged instead to build a floating port to bring needed supplies into Gaza.

For the most part, this proposal drew scorn. It was seen as unnecessary, since the problem of getting supplies into Gaza could be more easily solved by joining international calls for a ceasefire. It has also been noted that in the two months it would take to get the port operational, thousands of Palestinians will have died of starvation.

Regrettably, I’m joining the camp of those who want to end the annual ritual of the State of the Union address. It neither honestly describes the state of the nation, nor does it serve to unify Americans to confront the challenges they face.

Rather it has become a patently partisan affair, complete with heckling, or a campaign event with repeated and unnecessary applause. It does more to deepen the partisan divide than to unify the country to serve the common good. Seen in this light, Mr Biden’s address probably served him well with some in his party but did little to unify the nation.

Published: March 11, 2024, 2:00 PM