Biden's Bridge to Nowhere

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 07: U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol on March 07, 2024 in Washington, DC. This is Biden’s last State of the Union address before the general election this coming November.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
March 7, 2024

Back in 2020, Joe Biden addressed concerns that he would be the oldest president in history. "Look," he said, "I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else." Four years later, as Biden delivered his election year State of the Union address, I found myself pondering where, exactly, Biden's bridge leads.

Not to a younger, spryer, less compromised Democratic nominee in 2024, it would seem. Biden is convinced that he is the only candidate who can beat Donald Trump. Barring a health emergency, he will be on the ballot in November—despite majorities in his own party and supermajorities among all Americans telling pollsters that he is too old for another term. The country is faced with a choice that it does not want, between two candidates it views unfavorably.

Biden's bridge doesn't connect to a healthier politics. The State of the Union illuminated the stark divide between Democrats and Republicans. I can't recall a more partisan State of the Union address, nor a State of the Union where the president's predecessor was invoked so frequently. Biden painted Republicans as unserious about the border, as radicals on abortion and IVF, as threats to American democracy, and as useful idiots for Vladimir Putin. Today's Republicans do not stand idly by when attacked, and they responded in the tetchy and feisty way to which we have become accustomed. No one who listened to the State of the Union can believe that the general election will be any less vitriolic and inflammatory than 2020 or 2016.

Nor will Biden's bridge carry us to a safer world. Since Biden took office, America has retreated in disgrace from Afghanistan, desultorily assisted Ukraine to resist Russia's invasion, and watched in horror as Hamas murdered, raped, and kidnapped Israelis—including American citizens. Under Biden, America has behaved ambivalently as the Middle East descended into regional war, and watched China, North Korea, and now Haiti with worried eyes. Inflation and neglect have eroded America's defense industrial base just as Russia and China ramp up defense spending. Millions of illegal immigrants have crossed the southern border, including individuals on the FBI terror watch list and hardened criminals. Terrible crimes like the murder of Laken Riley have put illegal immigration top of mind for voters.

Rather than bridge the gap between the Silent Generation and the Millennial Generation, between one Democratic Party and another, between a nation rocked by the early decades of the 21st century and a more hopeful future, Joe Biden has left the country at an impasse. Americans doubt his capacities and say his policies have hurt not helped them. They do not believe in "America's comeback" and, if they do sense improvement in their lives, do not credit Biden for it. Consequently, Biden has the worst job approval of an incumbent president since Jimmy Carter and is running behind Donald Trump in national and swing state polls.

The DNC speech that the president called a State of the Union address won't change things. Biden may have talked more rapidly and more loudly than usual, but he did not say anything new. He bragged about lower inflation, but hardly dwelled on higher prices and interest rates. His most original policy initiative was his call for the U.S. military to "lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the Gaza coast that can receive large ships carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters."

This is insane. I would like to have been a fly on the wall when the Gaza pier found its way onto the whiteboard. Who will be on the receiving end of the pier? What will they do with the aid? How will we know that the food and fuel won't be stolen by or funneled to a terrorist army with genocidal aims? A terrorist army that killed 34 Americans and are holding 6 Americans hostage? Did anyone ask these questions? Or did they ask Google Gemini to design their Mideast policy?

The passage on Israel and Hamas revealed the true purpose of this year's State of the Union. Biden's emphasis on aid to the Palestinians in Gaza, and on pressuring Israel to conduct a just war according to an impossible double standard, was a panicked response to divisions on his left. Indeed, the whole speech was a panicked response to divisions on his left. The Biden high campaign must believe that its problem is the Democratic base—and that the way to boost turnout among the Democratic base is through progressive messaging.

I have no doubt that Democrats will be pleased with the result. But I am also skeptical it will persuade independents and working-class men and women of all races that Biden has the answers to America's problems. And if something doesn't change for Biden soon, he will be the bridge from one Trump term to another.