Mr. White: “We bow, right?… and we’re off the stage before the applause dies out.”
Jimmy: “Well, what if they want an encore?”
Mr. White: “You unplug and you run, run offstage! Smiling, smiling, of course.”
That Thing You Do (1996 Film)
How is Joe Biden like the infamous spy balloon?
1. Full of hot air.
2. Hovering over America in unwelcome fashion.
3. Maneuvered by China.
4. Ideally subject to immediate removal – except for too-high collateral damage.
This extended simile aligns with key “issues to manage,” as communications professionals would put it, that hung over Mr. Biden like that enemy airship pre-State of the Union:
1. Impugned Integrity: Hunter and filched documents anyone?
2. Deep Disapproval: 18% strong approval versus 46% strong disapproval, per the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. And yikes! 62% believe he has accomplished “not much” or “little to nothing” while in office.
3. Flabby Foreign Policy: That sense of global drift the meandering balloon truly symbolizes: The Afghanistan abomination. The Ukraine “minor-incursion” invasion-invitation. Heaping helpings of humble pie courtesy of China.
4. Imperative Impeachment Insurance: Removal, by resignation or impeachment, is virtually demanded by serial swindling, subterfuge, and deliberate dereliction of duty on the economy, energy independence, immigration, and America’s national security. Joe’s burden cum saving grace: an insurance policy in the form of his callow, cackling veep, the subject of a nicely-timed New York Times hit piece.
And yet: Sleepy Joe woke up last week to a jobs report one stunned economist called “incredibly, surprisingly strong”: a five-decade unemployment low, 517,000 new jobs, longer hours, and wage growth.
So how to handle said situation? The crisis specialist in this commentator might suggest knocking down those “issues to manage” one by one, highlighting – briefly – unfolding solutions.
But one’s Mr. White/impresario side fairly screams: like the film’s one-hit Wonders, play the Top-Ten number – Those Jobs Americans Do! – do the heroes-in-the-gallery tour … then run, run offstage.
And Joe did squarely land an opening salvo featuring the job news: near record-low unemployment, 800,000 new manufacturing positions, and job-creating investment and projects resulting from bipartisan infrastructure and semiconductor-subsidy bills.
A perfect juncture for the plug-pulling, stage-skedaddling stratagem. But you’ve seen enough of these extended extravaganzas to know it weren’t never, no-way, ever gonna happen.
Instead, the lengthy legislative laundry list endemic to the event reared its humdrum head. Insulin price caps. Expanded insurance. Prohibiting “junk fees” and non-competes. Paid leave, childcare, homecare, pre-school, teacher pay, and community-college boondoggles. Woke law enforcement training. More gun control. “Dreamers” citizenship. Roe restoration. The (In)Equality Act. More Ukraine bucks. Antidrug, mental health, and veterans’ assistance spending. Cancer Moonshots.
Yet lo and behold: as the president plowed on, a genuinely entertaining event unfolded: equal parts devious demagoguery, deft drafting – and dramatic defiance involving listeners as well as the lecturer.
The Great Prevaricator shoveled the mashugana – along with deception and division. Laughable “two-P” inflation excuse-making: pandemic and Putin. Class warfare. Blaming debt increases on his predecessor – who rubber-stamped COVID relief served up by Democrats – while claiming credit for no-surprise billing legislation Mr. Trump also inked. Laying into Big Pharma – which his administration lavishes with COVID and Obamacare subsidies – and Big Tech, which obediently deep-sixed Hunter coverage.
Outright inventing a record of toughness vis-à-vis China and border control – with Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s and Senator Ted Cruz’s facial responses to the latter alone worth the price of admission.
Praising cops while burying them as racists and bullies. Paeans to bipartisanship, a “Unity Agenda,” and giving “hate and extremism no safe harbor” – alongside Social Security- and “Medi-scaring,” accusations of GOP Russian roulette on default, January 6 exaggeration and obfuscation, and race-baiting. Even tying a lunatic’s attack on Paul Pelosi to Trumpists’ supposed “unhinged Big Lie.”
And was the plagiarizer-in-chief wise to appropriate his predecessor’s winning line with “places and people that have been forgotten?”
Still, let’s give Biden and his staff props for some inspiring phraseology: new business starts as an “act of hope.” An underplayed but promising “Blue-Collar Blueprint.” Tweaking anti-infrastructure bill Republicans: “I’ll see you at the groundbreakings.” Crowd-pleasing promises of construction materials “Made in America.”
Powerful parallel construction (the speechwriter’s go-to tool) in spiritedly defending Ukraine aid: a “would we stand?” sequence hammered home by the “Yes-We-Can”-invoking declaration, “Yes, we would and yes, we did.” Not to mention the apparently ad-libbed pledge to the nation’s ambassador, “Would you stand? because we’re going to stand with you.”
Moving descriptions of gallery guests: closing the otherwise-checkered police-reform discussion by repeating the insistence of Tyre Nichols’ mother that “something good will come from this.” Observing how a fentanyl victim’s family turned “pain to purpose.” And – coaxing tears from this hardened scribe – revealing that cancer-stricken but recovering “Little Ava” was “watching from the White House, if she’s still awake.”
Meanwhile, serious style points for the repeated money line “let’s finish the job!” (per a Fox commentator, foreshadowing a campaign theme) to punctuate and tie off sections.
Yet even those rhetorical pyrotechnics couldn’t match the morphing of the people’s hallowed hall into a high-comedy House of Commons. Raucous Republicans engaged in unprecedented, unreserved, and unrepentant catcalling at the president’s fabulizing regarding Social Security and Medicare sunsetting, the border, the fentanyl crisis (“It’s your fault!”), and China.
The shocker: the ordinarily somnambulant, slipping octogenarian gave it back as good as he got it. Biden feinted, faked out, and at one point flipped the field on his tormentors, amusingly recasting piercing protests of his exaggerations on old-age entitlements as agreement on their untouchability.
Feisty Joe finished not only on his feet but with a flourish, innovatively saving for last the night’s defining moment: a Reaganesquely optimistic characterization of the State of the Union as “strong” because “the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong.”
As Biden worked the crowd afterward, an off-camera congressman shouted: “Mr. Presiden … That was awesome!”
Well, maybe not “awesome.” But well-enough played that a relieved Democratic Party is certainly hoping for many an encore through 2024.
Bob Maistros is a messaging and communications strategist, crisis specialist, and former political speechwriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.