by Patrick Murray
This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed on nj.com on February 9, 2023 and was published in the February 12 edition of the Star-Ledger.
Let’s make one thing clear about President Biden’s State of the Union speech. It will not change public opinion. Very few presidential addresses do. What these speeches can indicate, though, is a future direction in either policy or messaging the presidential administration wants to take. On this level, Biden’s intent was fairly clear. He wants to win over working class white Americans who have departed the Democratic Party.
His focus on “build and buy American” is a classic trope in political rhetoric. It appeals to both patriotism and the bread and butter issues that have historically been a pivot point for public opinion. The Biden administration faces two hurdles in getting this message to penetrate – one self-inflicted and one largely out of their control.
The self-inflicted problem is that the White House and the Democratic leadership have not been able to maintain a concise and coherent economic message. Part of the problem with a large tent party is the tendency of various constituencies to spin off in different directions with their own priorities. The administration has not been successful in corralling all these messages under one umbrella, thus allowing the Republican opposition to portray one bloc’s priority as representative of the entire Democratic Party’s focus. The administration, to date, has tried but has only had limited success at sustaining a steady drumbeat on their main priorities.
The other problem facing Biden in his attempt to control the terms of debate is that bread and butter economic issues are secondary to cultural identity as a primary driver in how Americans today view politics. The partisan tribe we belong to and how strongly we identify with that tribe is more important than having at a somewhat consistent set of policy beliefs. A recent Monmouth University poll of Republican voters finds that how strongly they identify as a member of the party is more important to their choice of candidate than whether they are very conservative, somewhat conservative, or moderate in their policy views. This idea of in-group identity has become predominant in our political discourse.
Indeed, most Americans may claim they value political compromise, but in the end they have a much more deep-seated fear of what the “other side” might do to the country if they get hold of the reins of power. It’s not surprising that in this current environment, most Americans see Biden’s declaration that the state of the union is strong as wishful thinking.
We even see the supremacy of partisanship when we ask Americans about what should be objective evaluations, such as their own family’s financial stability. Over the past few years, the response to this question in polls has become linked more to partisan identity than to a dollars and cents reflection of one’s own financial status. Specifically, when a Democrat is in the White House, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they are falling behind financially regardless of their actual economic situation. The opposite is true when presidential control flips to the other party.
It wasn’t always this way, but it is the new reality of American politics. Biden’s working class message is likely to fall on deaf ears, as it has through most of the first two years of his presidency. However, there has been one shift in Biden’s messaging that suggests he knows what he’s up against.
During his first year and a half in office, Biden seemed to cling to the misplaced belief that he would be able to bring back the kind of civility and compromise that characterized Washington when he first arrived in there 50 years ago. That was an obvious pipe dream to anyone who has paid close attention to steady disintegration of Congressional norms since the 1990s and the rapid entrenchment of partisan tribalism over the past decade.
However, Biden now appears to be taking a different tack. His America first message was tied to an acknowledgement that our democratic norms are under threat. We saw this shift in his thinking back in September, with his speech in front of Independence Hall. Biden finally recognized that the power of his personality would not be enough to correct the nation’s current trajectory.
If he realizes this fundamental problem, then what was the point of delivering an economic message on Tuesday? I think it is a byproduct of Biden’s innate optimism. The current political divide, where partisan identity is linked more to cultural fear than economic need, cannot last forever. When that dam finally breaks, Biden hopes that the American public will be more willing to respond to messages around policy rather than identity. That remains to be seen, but it may be the best we can hope for as well.