Almost every president in modern history has begun the State of the Union address (SOTU) with the following adjective: strong, as in “the state of the union is strong.”
Other adjectives have included “better” (Ford), “sound” (Carter, twice) and “much improved” (Reagan). We have to go back to 1975 to find the last time a single positive word wasn’t used, when President Ford was refreshingly honest; he knew how to read the room and the country during an address that came after President Nixon resigned in disgrace and as the country was divided over the Vietnam War and battered by rising inflation, an energy crisis and out-of-control spending.
On Jan. 15, 1975, Ford said:
“I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good: Millions of Americans are out of work. Recession and inflation are eroding the money of millions more. Prices are too high, and sales are too slow. This year’s Federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year’s probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion. Our plant capacity and productivity are not increasing fast enough. We depend on others for essential energy. Some people question their government’s ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual.”
Fast forward nearly five decades and the state of our union is eerily similar. Wages are increasing but not keeping up with inflation, which is at a 40-year high. The U.S. is on pace to allow more than 2 million illegal migrants to enter the country illegally.
The murder rate hit a 25-year high in 2021.
Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinCyber officials urge federal agencies to armor up for potential Russian attacks Rick Scott: Putin a ‘murderous thug,’ will ‘continue to try to swallow up more and more territory’ Biden says Putin is ‘producing the exact opposite effect that he intended’ MORE has invaded Ukraine while dismissing sanctions leveled by the U.S. and NATO allies. The Kremlin is also warning the West that interference in the invasion may result in “such consequences that you have never encountered in your history,” so apparently nukes are now on the table.
And according to a recent NBC News poll, just 22 percent of Americans believe the country is on the right track. When only about one-in-five Americans believe things are going in the right direction, that’s not just a problem, it’s a public confidence crisis.
But when President BidenJoe BidenTrump tears into Biden as he moves toward 2024 campaign Biden says he hopes his legacy ‘is that I restored the soul of this country’ Cyber officials urge federal agencies to armor up for potential Russian attacks MORE steps before a joint session of Congress on March 2, he’s expected to insist that the state of our union is, in fact, strong.
We got a preview of what’s to come in the SOTU – which, if recent history is any indication, will be watched by somewhere in the range of 30 million people – from White House chief of staff Ron KlainRon KlainPhotos of the Week: Ukraine, Super Bowl LVI and penguins Joe Biden’s tone-deaf presidency The Hill’s 12:30 Report: Western leaders regroup as Ukraine invasion increasingly likely MORE.
Per The Hill on Feb. 18: “Klain told senators that Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress next month will tout the president’s accomplishments from last year, which many Democrats believe are being undersold, and set a clear agenda for the rest of the year.”
The figurative message to the nearly 60 percent of Americans who disapprove of the president’s performance thus far is something along these lines: “Look, you ungrateful citizens — you really need to appreciate everything this administration has done for you in the past year. Forget the fact that everything you buy is more expensive, and the cost to fill up your car or to heat your home is something you’re really feeling or may not be able to afford. Ignore that fear of feeling less safe walking the streets or in your homes or cars. Put aside that fatigue you have from COVID and our resistance to lifting mask and vaccine mandates. And more than a few of you parents are unnecessarily upset about how your kid is being educated more about race than about reading, math or science. We’re actually doing a fine job, and here are the reasons why you’re just not informed or intelligent enough to understand this.”
In other words, Biden plans to ignore reality. Biden can’t blame former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump tears into Biden as he moves toward 2024 campaign Former Trump national security adviser condemns Putin at CPAC GOP senator dodges question over whether Trump should condemn Putin MORE anymore. There is no “Republicans are being obstructionists” game here since Democrats control Congress. One can’t play the victim when holding all the cards.
Instead, President Biden would be smart to do what former President Ford did: Acknowledge all the challenges and pain the country is facing, and signal that he’s willing to work with the other party. As in 1975, the state of our union is not good. An overwhelming majority of Americans know this.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.