Russia’s invasion of Ukraine properly got top billing in President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address last week. It was the leading issue on everyone’s mind. The president’s forceful expressions of support for Ukraine earned applause and nods of approval from both Democrats and Republicans. In the moment, these signs of national unity were a welcome change from the toxic partisanship that has infected politics in our country.
But Biden’s address was very much a speech in two parts. The first part focused on Ukraine, while the second was a more traditional address, focused on domestic policy. Yet, it was the second part of the speech that was most noteworthy. As expected, Biden’s domestic discussion covered a wide range of topics — inflation, paid family leave, prescription drug prices, voting rights and more. And, also as expected, the second part mostly brought Democrats to their feet in applause while Republicans stayed seated. But there were moments that drew bipartisan support, in response to signals that Biden is moving his presidency to the center — somewhat reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s successful triangulation strategy in the 1990s.
For Biden, the subtle shift was natural, as he is moving back to his centrist comfort zone. He talked about things both parties support, such as infrastructure, supporting veterans’ health care needs and conquering cancer. And he spoke about his support for funding the police in the wake of the epidemic of police killings of Black Americans. “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police,” Biden said to resounding applause. “Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training, resources and training they need to protect their communities.”
The pitch was nothing new. Biden was already on record as disagreeing with his party’s progressives who call for a new model for law enforcement that would transfer some public safety responsibilities to other agencies. But his staking out the centrist position of support for law enforcement in his most consequential speech of the year could be significant if it helps bring doubting independents and moderates back into the Democratic fold.
We heard in the SOTU a recognition that putting the priorities of the progressive left over the center has not been a successful strategy. And we hope that the speech signals the beginning of a focused effort to work across the aisle to address important issues that both parties can support.
While we know that a speech is just a speech, it appears that voters are already signaling approval. Historically, presidents do not see a significant bump in their approval ratings after a SOTU address. But a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey showed that Biden’s approval rating went up to 47% after his SOTU address – an 8% jump from his 39% in February. Although some of the bump can be explained by Americans coming together in support of Ukraine, it also demonstrates that Biden was elected as a moderate Democrat, and that’s what the American people want him to be.