Biden Just Delivered a Top Career Performance. He Needed It.

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By the time President Joe Biden made his way around pro-Gaza protesters that jammed the typical path to the Capitol, navigated the packed halls of Congress, and negotiated his way through the glad-handing lawmakers who gathered Thursday for the annual State of the Union circus, it was clear he was primed to have a good night. The grin was as wide as ever, the step carried a bit of bounce, and he looked plenty rested. And despite the calls for him to step aside for a less elderly nominee who might spark more inspiration among young voters and those of color, the chants of “four more years” seemed sincere, if offered only from Democrats.

“If I were smart, I’d go home now,” Biden improvised as he prepared for a speech that arrived with almost impossibly high stakes. When someone on the Republican side responded with “Do it!”, Biden gave a little smile before launching into a feisty and combative address that lasted over an hour and was filled with moments in which he seemed to be addressing those questioning his political chops. When hectored by Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Biden turned a troll into a foil, calmly reaching down and picking up a button she had handed to him featuring a photograph of Laken Riley, a college student slain by an immigrant in the country illegally, and daring MTG and other conservative hold-outs to actually act on the bipartisan immigration package still waiting on their support. And when Republicans erupted at Biden calling out their plan to change Medicare and Social Security, the President vamped without missing a beat: “I kinda’ thought that was your plan,” he deadpanned.

For Republicans who for months have sought to cast Biden as a doddering old man, Thursday’s speech was a sharp rebuke to that hit. For liberals who are still not sold that the 81-year-old Biden deserves their nomination, his red-meat calls for gun bans, marijuana leniency, and higher taxes on billionaires and corporations gave them the jolt they needed. And for Americans who are staring down the march to November with little enthusiasm—or as TIME’s Charlotte Alter calls it, The Dread Election—the clarity in American foreign policy aims as delivered by Biden made obvious the choice they’re facing between him and former President Donald Trump.

If Biden’s showmanship at the Capitol is a tease for the pathway forward, maybe—just maybe—this election season might be less substance-free than imagined. Maybe this may yet shape up to be more than simply a double referendum on two of the most unpopular figures in politics, hinging on a vibe and little more. And maybe, if Thursday is a preview, Biden might finally be able to put to bed the notion that he isn’t up for the job. 

Put simply: Biden understood the assignment and aced it.

Biden thrice Thursday evening took on his age, making clear he understands those concerns. “I know it may not look like it, but I’ve been around a while. When you get to be my age, certain things become clearer than ever,” Biden said, turning a potential weakness into a flex. “The issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old are our ideas? Hate, anger, revenge, and retribution are the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas.”

It was a final, subtle jab against Trump, whom Biden never deigned to call by name. “My predecessor” came up 13 times. Standing in one of the holiest of places in this secular democracy, Biden gave a sermon that laid bare the differences between a Trump administration and Biden’s. The very primacy of democracy and the threats of autocracy, the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions to save the environment, and the threats unfurling against reproductive rights all powered Biden through a feisty speech that showed he has plenty of fight left in his tank. Directly taking on Republicans and their picks for the Supreme Court—with the Justices sitting beneath him to his right—the President made clear that he would act if a Democratic Congress were to send him a bill reversing the court’s ruling that ended federal protections for abortion rights. And with Republicans to his left slouched in their seats and shaking their heads in frustration, Biden essentially called them political hacks more interested in heeding Trump’s orders than serving constituents. “We can fight about fixing the border, or we can fix it,” Biden told them, explaining to Americans watching at home how a border security deal negotiated by one of the most conservative Senators ran out of steam once Trump decided it would be an advantage to Biden’s re-election odds.

Indeed, much of Washington for the next eight months will be overshadowed by the presidential race, not to mention Congress’ own contests.

In that, Biden appeared ready to prove he still has it. When he mentioned Republicans’ proposals that would change Medicare and Social Security, the President had a simple promise: “I will stop you.” He pledged to keep supporting Ukraine to fight back against Russia’s ongoing assault, despite Trump’s opposition to anything that stands in Vladimir Putin’s way. And he directly went after those Republicans who are trying to rewrite or even erase the violence that unfolded in the very chamber where they all sat back on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to keep Trump in office. “​​You can’t love your country only when you win,” Biden said in a flourish that may have been his strongest rejoinder to his rivals. “Political violence has no place in America,” Biden said, giving voice to a sentiment that seemed universally understood until a pro-Trump mob sacked the Capitol.

That’s not to say Republicans and their allies in the conservative media would shelve their rhetoric. “Right now, our commander in chief is not in command. The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader,” Sen. Katie Britt said in the Republican response to Biden’s speech that began with the aside that Biden has been in office longer than she’s been alive. Over on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, the host dubbed him “Jacked-up Joe.”

Ultimately, Americans select their candidates not on the skills required to do the job, but rather on how they perform when the cameras are turned on and the set pieces put in motion. For instance, Presidents don’t spend their days debating rivals in 60-second sound bites any more than they give hour-long speeches to a joint session of Congress on the regular. But voters have decided it’s their most efficient yardstick for fitness to do the job. And, in that, Biden understood that this was one of his biggest nights of national exposure before the Democrats’ nominating convention in August. Ever a sharp political mind, Biden calibrated himself into a sparring-ready figure up to the task. Grasping the need for that might have been as much a qualifying event as the actual delivery, and Biden on both fronts just signaled that the campaign ahead might be many things, but if this pace is sustained, it will be far from sleepy.

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