On the midwinter evenings when presidents go to the U.S. Capitol to speak before a joint session of Congress, the state of the union is almost always said to be strong, even when it doesn’t seem so. The line was delivered again Tuesday, near the very end of President Joe Biden’s first formal State of the Union address, despite the frayed condition of the union and the peril around the globe.
The SOTU event, with its special guests of honor, gratuitous rounds of generally partisan applause and (wink) oratorical rules of three, has become so predictable as to court irrelevance. Yes, the coming year’s policy priorities are presented and correlate to a budget proposal, but the general shape of those things is known in advance, with battle lines well-etched.
Even so, the address felt acutely consequential this year. A presidency is what happens when the leader of the free world is busy making other plans. Though Biden’s purported torpor is an overused trope of his detractors, every president must demonstrate the intellect and energy to adapt to the whirl of events, and the State of the Union is a prime opportunity to do so. On Tuesday, Biden rose to the occasion in his way. As is typical of his speeches, he stumbled over the connective tissue and rushed the transitions in his enumerated lists, but presented moments of true conviction with a patented combination of certitude and sotto voce.