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State of the Union Address

Brown Students Join Watson Faculty for State of the Union Watch Party

January 9, 2023

Some might consider State of the Union addresses boring, but for Brown students, they are an opportunity to party. Or at least an opportunity to join a virtual party where they can get real-time feedback from some of the country’s leading political experts.

The Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy hosted its annual virtual watch party for President Biden's 2023 State of the Union address on Tuesday, Feb. 7. Taubman Center director Wendy Schiller was joined by fellow Watson faculty members Richard Arenberg and Jonathan Collins, who offered expert commentary to set expectations before the speech. The trio also offered students a chance to ask questions. Afterward, they analyzed Biden's performance and its potential impact on voters. 

Before the speech, Schiller, Arenberg and Collins all noted that there is a wide gap between Biden's accomplishments and the public's perception of those accomplishments and predicted Biden would use the speech as an opportunity to narrow that gap. 

As Arenberg explained, "I think if you look at what Biden has done from a legislative standpoint, it illustrates the paradox. If we are just taking legislative points scored, I think you'd have to consider Biden's presidency thus far an unequivocal success. But there always appears to be a messaging distance between what he does from a legislative standpoint and the national conversation."

When asked to account for the disconnect between Democratic accomplishments and public perception, Collins cited the diverse nature of the Democratic coalition. "I think the thing that I find myself going back to the most is just the level of decentralization that you see within the Democratic Party relative to the Republican Party," he said. "I think we've seen since the Tea Party movement there has been a bottom-up organizing effort happening on the right where it's very clear what their policy demands and positions are."

Collins noted that, in contrast, "we haven't seen the same consensus on the left. It feels very disparate. There are folks organizing around racial injustice; there are folks organizing around abortion rights; there are folks organizing around income inequality. And it feels like there's a lack of consensus which makes it ultimately more challenging for Democrats to signal a specific set of policy positions that overlap and are coherent."

One of the things Schiller flagged for attention was whether the new Republican Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, would be able to rein in some of the loudest members of his caucus. "I think the stakes are really quite high for the Republicans. They had a contentious Speaker fight, and they looked like they couldn't get along…remember Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene screaming at the president last year? People don't like that, and they vote on things like that."

But Schiller also set the stakes high for the president, "I think this might be the most important speech Biden ever gives in terms of setting a trajectory not only for the next two years…but also in terms of addressing concerns American voters have about safety and inequality."

After the speech, Schiller, Arenberg and Collins agreed the president had performed well. "It was a very moving speech and it was a speech that you felt," said Collins. Schiller concurred, "Biden has a unique ability, given what he's been through in his life, to do that with sincerity and people really believe him." Arenberg added that it "was a very energetic speech" and claimed, "that it addressed the underlying age issue that's always there with Biden." 

Schiller noted that despite the fact that the Republicans occasionally heckled the president, including an outburst from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene that is being lampooned by some on social media, Speaker McCarthy was able to demonstrate some command of his caucus. "When they got a little rowdy and started to heckle, he shut them down. That's something people didn't necessarily expect and I think it's important." 

But Schiller maintained the most critical part of the speech was when Biden managed to "goad the Republicans into being offended by his suggestion that they wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare." "He basically took those two programs off the table by forcing them, in front of 40 million Americans, to stand up and say, 'no, no, no, we don't want to do that,''" she said. "I thought that was pretty remarkable and that's a big, big part of that leverage he needs in negotiating the debt ceiling."

Arenberg agreed, "That's an interesting thing because now, when Republicans have to put a budget on the table, how are they going to make significant cuts without touching Social Security and Medicare?" Collins was also impressed by Biden's maneuvering, "I thought it was fascinating to see him disarm Republican legislators in the way that he did and to do it so publicly," he said. "And it's consistent with the way that he's tried to govern. It's worked for him in the past. Let's see if it works for him with the negotiations around the debt ceiling."

Arenberg was particularly impressed with the president's performance. "I think that was probably the best speech I've seen him give," he said. 

Schiller agreed that "there were some really powerful lines in the speech" but also noted that Biden occasionally stumbled with his wording. But Schiller judged Biden's overall performance as strong and persuasive. "This is a man who will fight for what he believes in until you tell him he can't anymore," she said. "And I think that was the thing that came through tonight." 

Collins expressed his opinion that Biden's strong performance, coupled with the fact that the Democrats will hold their first primary in South Carolina next year, should discourage any Democrats from mounting a primary challenge. "The terrific job that Biden did tonight with the speech really solidified that he is the leader of the Democratic Party," he said.

— Pete Bilderback