WASHINGTON — In good times or bad, American presidents come to Congress with a diagnosis that hardly differs over the decades. In their State of the Union speeches, they declare “the state of our union is strong” or words very much like it.
President Joe Biden’s fellow Americans, though, have other ideas about the state they’re in and little hope that his speech Tuesday can turn anything around.
America’s strength is being sharply tested from within — and now from afar — as fate, overnight, made Biden a wartime president in someone else’s war, leading the West’s response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine that exacerbates all his other problems.
The state of the union is disunity. It’s a state of exhaustion from the pandemic. It’s about feeling gouged at the grocery store and gas pump. It is so low that some Americans, even prominent ones, are exalting Russian President Vladimir Putin in his attack on a democracy.
Measures of happiness have hit a bottom, with fewer Americans saying they are very happy in the 2021 General Social Survey than ever before in five decades of asking them. This is what a grand funk looks like.
Four decades ago, President Jimmy Carter confronted a national “crisis of confidence” in a speech describing a national malaise without using that word. But Vice President Kamala Harris told an interviewer last month “there is a level of malaise” in this country.
Today’s national psyche is one of fatigue and frustration — the malaise of our time. But the divides run deeper and solutions may be more elusive than the energy crisis, inflation and sense of drift of that time.
Take today’s climate of discourse. It’s “so cold,” said Rachel Hoopes, a charity executive in Des Moines, Iowa, who voted for Biden. “It’s hard to see how him talking to us can break through when so many people can’t talk to each other.”
Yet after Russia’s attack on Ukraine last week, an old reflex kicked back in as lawmakers projected unity, at least for now, in the confrontation with Moscow. “We’re all together at this point,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “and we need to be together about what should be done.”
Politics didn’t stop at the water’s edge but it paused. Though not at Mar-a-Lago at ocean’s edge in Florida, where Donald Trump praised Putin’s “savvy,” “genius” move against the country that entangled the defeated American president in his first impeachment trial.
Polling finds that Biden faces a pessimistic public. Only 29% of Americans think the nation is on the right track, according to the February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
After two years of a pandemic that has killed more than 920,000 in the U.S., majorities put masks back on and avoided travel and crowds in January in the sweep of the omicron variant. Now, finally, a sustained drop in infections appears to be underway.
Meanwhile, the risk from a changing climate has been answered, like so much else, with partisan gridlock.
White House officials acknowledge the mood of the country is “sour,” but say they are encouraged by data showing people’s lives are better off than a year ago. They say the national psyche is a “trailing indicator” and will improve with time.
With Biden so hemmed in by political realities, it’s hard to imagine a single speech altering the public’s perception of his course, said Julia Helm, 52, a county auditor from the burgeoning suburbs west of Des Moines and a Republican.
She said: “You know what could change how people feel? And pretty fast? What they pay at the pump. I hate to say it. But gas prices really are the barometer.”
Biden suggested last summer that inflation was a temporary inconvenience. But it’s snowballed into a defining challenge of his presidency.
Consumer prices over the past 12 months jumped 7.5%, the highest since Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, as many pay raises were swallowed up and dreams of home ownership or even a used car became prohibitively expensive. Gas prices climbed over the past month because of Russia’s mounting moves on Ukraine, but that came after a year of steep increases.
The inflation was a side effect of an economy running hot after the devastating first chapters of the pandemic, when Biden achieved the kind of growth that Trump and President Barack Obama could not deliver.
The prime engine for both the gains and the inflation appears to be Biden’s coronavirus relief package, which pushed down the unemployment rate to a healthy 4% while boosting economic growth to its best performance since 1984.
Still, Americans in polls have largely overlooked those gains.
Hoopes, 38, the Des Moines charity executive, finds Biden to be a “nonthreatening” leader, “someone it seems you could talk to.”
But the most she could say about Biden’s State of the Union speech is that “it can’t hurt.”
That’s about the most that historians say about it, too.
“Inaugural addresses sometimes do have an impact because they are big picture, far horizon speeches,” said political scientist Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University. “State of the Unions rarely do because they tend to be listy rather than thematic.”
Among presidents of the last half century, Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump repeatedly declared “the state of our union is strong” while Bush’s father took a pass and Gerald Ford confessed: “I must say to you that the state of the union is not good.”
Whatever phrase Biden chooses, he must promote an agenda and plausibly claim credit for positive developments “without a ‘mission accomplished’ moment,” Jillson said. “It’s delicate to claim credit for the economic recovery … and still acknowledge people’s pains and fears.”
Biden comes to Congress with some missions actually accomplished, such as his infrastructure package, as well big dreams deferred.
He still wants to “Build Back Better.” In the funk of these times, Americans just seem to want someone to wake them up when it’s all over.