Biden’s unusual State of the Union tied his foreign policy to defending democracy at home

Foreign policy played a prominent part in Biden’s efforts to distinguish his vision from Donald Trump – in a campaigning and fiery speech.

Expert comment
3 minute READ

After one of the most important weeks in the US political calendar, there is a little more clarity on what to expect from the United States, but not much. Super Tuesday ushered in Nikki Haley’s departure from the race and confirmed President Biden and former President Donald Trump as the presumptive nominees for their parties.

If things go as is currently expected, one of these men will become a second term president. The polls continue to suggest that this election is likely to be very close and difficult to predict. American voters are divided but some of the most critical blocs of voters are so far not especially enthusiastic about either candidate. In an election that hinges on voter turnout, this matters.

As much campaign speech as presidential address, it seemed as fitting for the times as it was unusual for a State of the Union. 

Biden’s State of the Union was hardly reassuring. While tame by parliamentary standards, for a US audience accustomed to formality and unity on this day, the shift in tone was palpable. 

The president was energetic and combative. Throughout his speech Biden referred repeatedly to his ‘predecessor’, the focal point and target of this address, but never once by name. As much campaign speech as presidential address, it seemed as fitting for the times as it was unusual for a State of the Union. 

No consensus

Biden’s speech emphasized his stark differences with Donald Trump, and the polarization between their respective parties. The knife edge on which the 2024 election appears to be taking place matters, since America’s two leading candidates present a contrast not only in their world view, but also on some of the most urgent issues of foreign policy.  

In an unanticipated turn, a speech that is usually long on domestic priorities and short on everything else began with foreign policy.

Biden did not attempt to create a fiction of unity, or consensus, across this great divide. On the contrary, the president said little about the one point of relative agreement, that of China – the most consequential geopolitical challenge facing the US.

In an unanticipated turn, a speech that is usually long on domestic priorities and short on everything else began with foreign policy. Biden proclaimed the urgency of the battle to defend democracy in Ukraine.

He also cast aspersions on his opponents in Congress – after Trump pressured Republicans not to vote for a recent spending bill that combined border security with support to Ukraine.  

Ukraine and the threat at home

This was not the first time that a State of the Union has been used to define a foreign threat. In 2002, President Bush referred to North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as the ‘Axis of Evil’ in an effort to mobilize support for what became the ‘war on terror’.

But Biden’s decision to begin with Ukraine was different, animated less by the desire to vilify a foreign adversary, than call out his domestic opponent as the primary threat to democracy in both Europe and the US. 

After denouncing Putin’s actions and underscoring the importance of defending Ukraine, the president connected the struggle almost seamlessly to the assault on democracy in America.

And in a play on his own age, Biden condemned his predecessor for seeking to infuse the US with the ‘oldest of ideas’, those of ‘hate, anger, revenge and retribution’ rather than with the values of ‘decency’ and of ‘democracy’. 

It also sent a clear signal that Biden’s economic strategy will continue to be dominated by what many Europeans see as a form of economic nationalism.

The State of the Union was long on the president’s economic policy, its focus on the working-class, on job creation, and on taxing corporate America and wealthy Americans. 

It also sent a clear signal that Biden’s economic strategy will continue to be dominated by what many Europeans see as a form of economic nationalism, a strategy that emphasizes US manufacturing, and US jobs.

Article 2nd half

Politics were central throughout, and the effort to thread the needle of the US policy in the Middle East in the context of a country increasingly divided over the war in Gaza continued.

American hypocrisy

In a subtle moment that should not go unnoticed, the US president also spoke to the problem of American hypocrisy, but this time, at home, confirming the gap between ‘the very idea of America, that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally’ with a sharp qualifier that ‘we’ve never fully lived up to that idea, but we’ve never walked away from it either.’

The context for the 2024 election is very different from 2020 on multiple dimensions. Upheaval like the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, and issues like the fear of rising crime drove many US voters to the polls in 2020 – all have now abated. 

For now, it almost feels as if Europe is more worried about the outcome of the US election than many Americans are.  

This week in US politics will do little to ameliorate that fear, but may give it renewed urgency.  The State of the Union is one sign that, in the months ahead, both presidential candidates will be trying to instil that same sense of urgency in the American electorate.