U-M expert: Biden’s first State of the Union address comes at critical time

February 28, 2022
Written By:
Jared Wadley


When President Biden gives his first State of the Union Address Tuesday (March 1), it comes at a critical time of his presidency, which has seen its share of highs and lows, a University of Michigan expert says.

Biden, whose approval rating is low, can tout successes with COVID-19 legislation and a bipartisan infrastructure, but his failures include not passing the voting rights bill as well as an economic and climate package (Build Back Better Bill).

Aaron Kall, U-M director of debate and editor/co-author of “The State of the Union is…: Memorable Addresses of the Last Sixty Years,” said this annual address, which is expected to be viewed by tens of millions of people, is critical with the November midterm elections on the horizon.

Why should viewers pay attention to this speech?

It gives him a great opportunity to connect with everyday Americans, something he hasn’t done as much as he should have during his first year of his presidency. He’s done fewer press conferences and media availabilities than many of his predecessors, despite his campaign pledge of transparency.

All presidents use State of the Union addresses to talk about their laundry lists of accomplishments and future agenda items they would like to see passed. Biden will talk about Covid-19 legislation that has passed after he became president, as well as the bipartisan infrastructure legislation that passed several months ago.

There are still several pieces of legislation that he would like to pass Congress before the midterm elections, including the Build Back Better initiative and the China competition legislation, which helps the United States’ semiconductor industry.

How does the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine impact his speech?

This important issue is currently front and center on the world stage and media landscape and must deftly be addressed on Tuesday evening. There will be bipartisan support for even tougher sanctions against Russia, but the President must balance this desire with the risk of higher oil prices and surrounding stock market volatility. Jimmy Carter faced a similar dilemma in his 1980 State of the Union address, which occurred shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Though an urgent and topical issue, President Biden should not let this subject disproportionately dominate the content of his speech, since domestic issues like the economy, inflation, and COVID-19 will be much more important in the minds of American voters heading into November’s important midterm elections.

President Biden also made a historic nomination recently of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is a tremendous accomplishment and should also help him shore up a weakened political base. The President should not let Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overshadow this important achievement and it will be interesting to see if Judge Jackson could be in attendance at the address in the First Lady’s viewing box to achieve a maximum political impact.

What else should viewers keep in mind?

More important than talking about his agenda items, Biden must show empathy with those Americans who have been hurt by increasing inflation and rising prices at the gas pumps and supermarkets. Some Americans have benefited from economic growth, but many have been left behind. He needs to show that he recognizes that and his administration has the policies to lower inflation and solve some of the supply chain issues that have plagued the country over the last several months.

Do you expect the anticipated trucker protest in Washington D.C. – which opposed vaccination mandates and delayed travel into Canada – to impact the speech’s coverage?

This will likely be an irrelevant sideshow to Tuesday night’s important speech. To date, it appears the size and impact of the protest and convoy are relatively insignificant. The Pentagon recently approved an additional national guard deployment to help provide security in the event anything does materialize. The specter of this protest does remind people of the violence in the Capitol on January 6th and President Biden will likely mention this and the ongoing threat to democracy it presents in his address. The President will look to put COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror during the speech, but that will be complicated by the restrictions imposed on the audience, including high-quality masks and social distancing.