The State of the Union address is one of Washington’s most cherished, and simultaneously pointless, traditions.
Theoretically, its purpose is simple: The president is fulfilling a constitutional duty to give Congress an update on the state of the union. While that’s come to mean a speech in recent years, with most of Congress – as well as the executive and judicial branches – assembled in the House chamber, it doesn’t have to be a speech. Today, though, in the age of social media and 24-hour cable news, it’s hard to imagine a circumstance under which a president might forgo that opportunity, so here we are.
Last week’s address was particularly crucial for President Biden. He’s gearing up to run for reelection, even with approval ratings stubbornly below 50% and a distinct lack of enthusiasm among his own party for his candidacy. Despite all of that, and the generally mixed mood of the country, there’s no indication that he’ll face any significant primary opposition: Democrats seem to be organized and unified, despite their minor discontent.
He also faced the prospect of addressing a Congress that is no longer under his control, with the Democrats having lost the House in the midterms. Since he didn’t suffer a stunning, large-scale defeat like the Democrats did in 2010, he didn’t have to attempt a complete reversal, nor did he even have to admit a certain responsibility for the “shellacking,” as President Barack Obama did. Instead, with the Republican Party controlling only one chamber, narrowly, and facing its own internal divisions, he can still be in full lecture mode. That was abundantly clear this past week.
No matter what he says, it’s unlikely that Republicans will be much in the mood to negotiate on anything, let alone hot-button issues like immigration, guns, taxes or climate change. That’s not because Republican leadership is necessarily completely unwilling to work with Democrats on any of those issues: Republicans were willing to have discussions on some of those topics during the last Congress, especially in the Senate. Indeed, Biden was able to gain bipartisan support for a gun control bill last session, and he should be grateful to have notched even a single victory in that area in his first term.
Now it’s a completely different story. A slim Republican majority in the House makes any sort of substantive compromise even less likely than it would be if the Republican Party had made sweeping gains. Had they accomplished that, then Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy would be in a position of greater strength to ignore the fringes and instead work towards deals on a whole host of things. As it stands, Senate Republicans might be willing to try to get a few things done on those aforementioned issues, but it won’t be any grand sweeping reforms.
Any major immigration change, for instance, is likely dead on arrival in the House, since hardliners who oppose any compromise on the issue will have enough sway to sink any deal. Democrats, moreover, won’t have much motivation to compromise and pass some kind of half-measure on any controversial issue this Congress when they have a good chance of regaining full control. Mentioning these issues at all Tuesday was a simple effort to win reelection and boost Democrats, not sway any minds in Congress.
If Biden wants to accomplish anything substantive for the next two years, he needs to instead focus on the few areas where there’s bipartisan agreement. While it might seem hard to believe, there are still a couple of those, and one of them is China.
Although many Republicans criticized his response to the balloon incursion, there’s a bipartisan consensus that we need to counter China, and the administration ought to try to build on that rather than deflate it.
Another is increasing regulation on big tech companies. Many members of the House and Senate in both parties have concerns about the powers of Big Tech, and there’s room for some sort of agreement there – even if it winds up being modest in scope.
Unlike with some of the more partisan, controversial issues that President Biden mentioned Tuesday, in these two areas there’s a chance for real progress this Congress that could be the foundation for more to come, rather than poisoning the well for decades. If there are enough cool heads in both parties at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who realize that, something might actually get done in the next two years, besides avoiding defaulting on our debt.
Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
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