Ukraine aside, Biden’s union is increasingly divided
According to reports, US President Joe Biden last week hastily rewrote parts of his State of the Union address to take account of events in Ukraine following the Russian invasion.
He had planned to use the annual occasion as his springboard for the midterm election campaign that will now gather momentum ahead of November’s vote. This election is widely seen as a crucial test for his administration and its ability to implement the program that got him elected in 2019.
In the event, he used the opening 15 minutes of his speech as a rallying call against Russia and he must have felt that was the right decision as Congress, on both sides of the aisle, gave a rapturous reception to his stance in support of Ukraine and against President Vladimir Putin.
But the fact that the bipartisan unity effectively ended after the Ukraine section of his address illustrates the task Biden faces at home over the next eight months. Over core issues, the American electorate appears as divided as at any time over the past four decades and, so far, the Biden administration has not proven capable of addressing citizens’ vital concerns.
On the top priority — the economy, stupid — his record is decidedly mixed. The voters’ top concerns are economic well-being, employment and inflation, and the signs are not encouraging.
Biden missed the moment to reset his presidency, especially on the domestic issues that will define the rest of his term
His first year benefited from soaring growth rates as the US economy rebounded from pandemic lockdowns and revived consumer demand. But that has stalled as the jobs market proved unpredictable and global supply bottlenecks caused problems for manufacturers and consumers alike.
Perhaps the most concerning matter is the rising cost of living in the US, with inflation recently hitting a 40-year high of 7.5 percent. In his address, Biden said he could tame this beast by increasing the productive capacity of the economy — effectively trying to outpace inflation — but the global situation could hamper these plans.
On energy in particular, where his administration has dithered and vacillated, US consumers will not be won over when they are paying more at the gas pump and carrying the other associated higher costs of oil at $100-plus a barrel.
Biden’s other big election pledge was to finally bury COVID-19. There were few masks and fist-bumps in evidence in the Capitol, it is true, but the administration — after several false declarations of victory over the coronavirus were confounded by new variants — is still emphasizing the need for vaccination and adherence to public health guidelines, rather than the end of the pandemic. The US could yet cross the threshold of 1 million COVID-19 deaths on Biden’s watch.
The commentators’ consensus on the address was that Biden had put on a good show of unity in the face of foreign foes, but that he missed the moment to reset his presidency, especially on the domestic issues that will define the rest of his term.
The impression, viewed from the Middle East, is of a president who is facing enormous challenges at home, but who risks being blown off course by events abroad, over which he has little real control.
Beyond the midterms, there is the presidential election in 2024. One expert, the historian Niall Ferguson, made a telling comparison between Biden and the fate of one-term President Jimmy Carter in 1980, who was defeated by Ronald Reagan after international humiliation by Iran over the Tehran Embassy hostages. We will have a better idea how accurate that analogy is in November.
- Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai.