In a NYT guest essay, former Obama campaign strategist and senior advisor David Axelrod has some advice for Joe Biden’s speechwriters for the upcoming State of the Union address — lay off the happy talk:
The state of the union is stressed. To claim otherwise — to highlight the progress we have made, without fully acknowledging the hard road we have traveled and the distance we need to go — would seem off-key and out of touch. You simply cannot jawbone Americans into believing that things are better than they feel.
At a news conference on the eve of his first anniversary in office, President Biden tried. He energetically sold a litany of achievements — record job growth; a massive and complex vaccine mobilization; a historic rescue act and a landmark infrastructure bill, forged with bipartisan support. He did acknowledge the trials this country has endured, but only sparingly. He got the emphasis and proportions wrong, spending more time pitching his successes and touting progress than he did recognizing the grinding concerns that have soured the mood of the country…
What Americans want to hear is genuine understanding of what we have been through, together and a clear path forward — less about Mr. Biden’s accomplishments than about the heroic, unsung sacrifices so many have made to see their families and communities through. They will want to hear less about his “transformative” legislation than the specific, practical steps Mr. Biden has taken, and is recommending, to help reduce inflation, curb violent crime and, of course, effectively confront any future waves of the virus. They want it to be less about him than us.
Axelrod says Biden is uniquely suited to strike the right tone because he’s known for being empathetic. Biden also has the life experience of growing up in a family that was barely clinging to middle-class status, and that’s an asset, according to Axelrod.
Is Axelrod right? I don’t know. I think he’s correct when he notes that the Obama admin had to walk a tightrope as the country pulled out of that economic crisis. It was important to let people know about the real progress the country had made, but a lot of people weren’t feeling it, so there was a risk in doing so.
I’m not sure we can draw any super-useful lessons from past eras (even fairly recent ones) to apply to our current state. If there was a divide in 2011, it’s a yawning chasm now. This was brought home to me anew this weekend when I dined with some Trumpy relatives and we spent about 90 seconds discussing politics.
They live in an entirely different reality than the one I inhabit. That’s always been the case — they were Reaganauts and then Bush Republicans. But since Trump lost, they’re even more unmoored from reality, which I didn’t even think was possible. And yet it is so.
Of course, nothing Biden could say would reach them, but people who are neutral toward or in favor of Biden are also in a profoundly shitty mood. I don’t know what else Biden can do to fix things that he’s not already doing (or willing to do if Congress gets its shit together), and there’s probably nothing he can say that will mollify people who aren’t strong supporters already.
There’s record job growth and higher pay, but people are rattled by inflation, high gas prices, the endless pandemic bullshit, etc. But — and I may be projecting here — I suspect there’s more to it than that: a sense that things are falling apart, that the center (not the political one, the civic core of America) cannot hold. And I don’t think there’s a policy fix for that.