Biden's fiery State of the Union has given him a decisive edge over Trump

The US President's speech, in tone and substance, was the perfect launchpad for his re-election campaign

US President Joe Biden exhibited a fire and fighting spirit in his State of the Union address in Washington last week for which Democrats have been deeply yearning. EPA
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“Dark Brandon” the nickname coined by Joe Biden’s supporters to describe his formidable side was in full effect last week as the US President launched his re-election campaign in a barn-burning State of the Union address before Congress.

Republicans have been painting the 81-year-old President as a doddering octogenarian with pronounced dementia and rapidly decreasing, if any, ability to govern. Huge blunder.

This foolhardy caricature sat uneasily beside its even more grotesque fraternal twin in the right-wing echo chamber: Mr Biden as the mastermind behind a global network of corruption, siphoning millions from as far afield as Ukraine and China into his family coffers.

Although absolutely no evidence supporting these apparent fantasies has been discovered despite intensive investigations by Republican House committees, American conservatives are constantly told that the President is simultaneously a near-vegetable and a modern Alexander the Great of multinational larceny.

Creeping senility was always the more potent and politically valuable charge. It taps into understandable concerns about Mr Biden’s unprecedented age for an American president stoked widespread perceptions, while framing him as a criminal kingpin had little traction beyond committed right-wingers.

Even many Democrats shared doubts about his age and fitness, leading to widespread liberal nail-biting and cold sweats before the address, especially since Mr Biden has been an ill-spoken, self-declared “gaff machine” for his entire half-century in politics.

Both sides, as so often, were badly misled by the same casual assumptions. Mr Biden took to the lectern and gleefully demolished any thought that he is past it.

Dispensing with the usual thanks to House Speaker Mike Johnson, he immediately tore into Republicans over the military support for Ukraine that Mr Johnson is blocking. The President didn’t spell it out, but he didn’t have to: the only reason Kyiv is being abandoned is Mr Johnson’s refusal to allow a vote on military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, which would easily pass.

Biden addressed his advanced age, saying that the real question is the age of one’s ideas, and thereby painting the Republicans as wanting to drag the country back into darker times

Mr Biden also didn’t need to state bluntly that the Speaker is merely acquiescing to the longstanding anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia sympathies of former president Donald Trump. Throughout, Mr Johnson wore the expression of someone in extreme physical discomfort.

While Mr Biden’s speech was neither subtle nor especially artful, he deftly wove together numerous apparently disconnected strands into a coherent tapestry representing his essential re-election narrative.

By starting with an invocation of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1941 State of the Union speech when American democracy was simultaneously threatened by aggression abroad and subversion at home, he sought to paint Republicans in general, and Mr Trump in particular, as threats to personal and political freedoms and national security.

Mr Biden slurred some words and stumbled over a few passages that a younger and more eloquent politician would have nailed with ease. But he has always been a poor public speaker. He’s also showing his age, and battling the return of a significant stutter he overcame as a youth – which was nauseatingly mocked by Mr Trump over the weekend.

But the President exhibited a fire and fighting spirit for which Democrats have been deeply yearning, and surely eliminated any thought of replacing him at the party convention this summer. Mr Biden is evidently and understandably eager to debate “my predecessor”, whom he mentioned 13 times but never by name.

While Mr Trump claims to be similarly enthusiastic, despite refusing to take part in any Republican primary debates, based on Mr Biden’s performance he can probably be expected to find some excuse.

Mr Biden wasn’t simply reading from a teleprompter. He did that, of course, but he also ad-libbed – considerably more than any previous president ever has in State of the Union addresses – and seemed to lay rhetorical traps for Republican heckling. These he met with largely effective, mocking rejoinders designed to trap Republicans into positions on key issues, such as the budget deficit, taxation and border security, about which they prefer to remain ambiguous.

The President’s folksy, faux-incredulous responses to Republican booing – “Oh, you don’t like that bill, huh? … that conservatives got together and said was a good bill? I’ll be darned” – illustrated that Mr Biden was not merely quick-witted on the evening but also thoroughly enjoying himself.

He concluded by directly addressing his advanced age, saying that the real question is the age of one’s ideas, and thereby painting Mr Trump and the Republicans as wanting to drag the country back into darker times, especially on abortion, contraception and reproductive rights.

He warned the assembled Supreme Court justices, quoting their recent ruling that eliminated the fifty-year-old constitutional right to an early-term abortion, that “you’re about to realise just how much you were right about” the “electoral or political power” of women.

Most Americans didn’t watch this prototype of his campaign stump speech. But the 32.2 million who did were reminded that Mr Biden remains sharp and combative, despite the memory lapses he shares with the 77-year-old Mr Trump, and that he’s an adept and polished politician who especially relishes the give-and-take in Congress.

When confronted by an irate Marjorie Taylor Greene – the Republican rabble-rouser from Georgia who was bedecked head to toe in garish red Trump/Maga paraphernalia – Mr Biden reacted with evident and even indulgent amusement.

His decades of congressional experience help explain how Mr Biden has been so successful, particularly on domestic legislation, in his first term. At last, he didn’t hesitate to blow his own trumpet.

While most Democrats were left ecstatic, some Republicans were reduced to complaining that “Jacked-Up Joe” was so energetic and forceful that he must have been given amphetamines, or at least that his speech was overly partisan and disturbingly confrontational.

The President’s efficacy was verified by their evident frustration, which was surely exacerbated by an overwrought official response from Alabama Senator Katie Britt who appeared to instantaneously oscillate between near-fits of histrionic laughter and distraught weeping. It was almost unanimously hailed as the worst-ever State of the Union rebuttal, comma and she's been removed from most shortlists of potential Trump vice-presidential running mates.

The presidential campaign is barely under way, but the key themes are already clear. Mr Biden has energised and delighted his base, and gone a long way towards dispelling doubts about his age and fitness.

Neither he nor Mr Trump has yet solidified a winning 2024 coalition. But Mr Biden has unquestionably increased his already robust re-election chances.

Published: March 12, 2024, 9:00 AM