Right now, the White House is gearing up for the president’s first State of the Union address. His speechwriters are churning out drafts, gathering guidance from strategists and senior aides and contending with fervent pleas from every agency of the federal government for a paragraph in the speech — even a sentence — about their good works.
The speech will command the largest television audience the president is likely to enjoy this year, and the temptation will be, as it always is, to herald his achievements and declare that we have navigated the storm.
But, Mr. President, proceed with caution. Talk about the things you and Congress have done to help meet the challenges Americans are facing, for sure. Lay out your goals for the future, absolutely. Offer realistic hope for better days ahead. We desperately need it. But recognize that we are still in the grips of a national trauma. Polls show that the vast majority of Americans believe we are on the wrong track, and people will have little patience for lavish claims of progress that defy their lived experiences.
Even if we are, objectively, in a stronger position than we were a year ago — closer to the end of this ordeal than the beginning — Americans are not celebrating. Millions have lost loved ones; many continue to struggle with the effects of the virus. Kids lost valuable time in the classroom, and parents have struggled to cope. Health care workers are in crisis. And we all have felt the profound cost of our relative isolation, away from family and friends, offices and colleagues.
Unsurprisingly, incidents of suicide, drug overdose deaths and violence in our homes and on the streets have grown dramatically. Frustrations with masks, mandates and shifting rules have deepened our political divides. Jobs have come roaring back, raising wages. But those wage increases have been eaten up by inflation, the likes of which we have not seen in four decades. And all the while, the rich have gotten richer.
The state of the union is stressed. To claim otherwise — to highlight the progress we have made, without fully acknowledging the hard road we have traveled and the distance we need to go — would seem off-key and out-of-touch. You simply cannot jawbone Americans into believing that things are better than they feel.
At a news conference on the eve of his first anniversary in office, President Biden tried. He energetically sold a litany of achievements — record job growth; a massive and complex vaccine mobilization; a historic rescue act and a landmark infrastructure bill, forged with bipartisan support. He did acknowledge the trials this country has endured, but only sparingly. He got the emphasis and proportions wrong, spending more time pitching his successes and touting progress than he did recognizing the grinding concerns that have soured the mood of the country.“