Will He? Should He?

Today’s is kind of a “what if” article based on a life experience. Please read on and then ponder.

The background/catalyst for my thinking: I know where I was on the evening of March 31, 1968. I was at home watching then-President Lyndon Johnson address the nation on TV. At the conclusion of his address, in a surprise to everyone with the possible exception of himself, he announced that he would not seek reelection. (The background and backdrop was brilliantly depicted in Robert Caro’s 2012 book, The Passage of Power, which is on the Recommended Reading List.)

President Biden is scheduled to give his State of the Union address on February 7th. The White House has announced that he will not make an official statement on whether he will run for reelection prior to that. What if his announcement was his conclusion? (I have no inside information but am among those who feel he will run. We are a large group.)

As the title of this piece indicate the questions are: Will he, and should he?

Let’s tackle whether or not he will first. I have no idea if he will. It would make for a dramatic and historical moment. It would also make all the scribes’ jobs easy. Biden may care about the former but I’m certain he couldn’t care less about the latter.

Now the political thinking hats come on to explore the issue of if that would be a wise political move. A political advisor’s fear would be that an announcement at the conclusion of the speech would overshadow it. I think that would actually be a good outcome.

My first though is controlling a news cycle (which is about 24 hours in American political news.) The State of the Union inherently dominates a news cycle regardless of the president or the content of the address. People like Sam Alito and Joe Wilson provided distractions but that was still centered around the address itself and you can’t cover it and ignore the speaker.

As to this year’s address I’m not really expecting a lot. Often State of the Union Addresses are a combination of touting achievements, challenging Congress and giving every constituency the president cares about a mention. Biden needs to tout the legislative, health and economic achievements of his first two years. They are many and most Americans don’t realize them. Then he needs to challenge Congress while addressing at least one concern of every interest group that make up his party’s big tent. With the zany House Republican caucus in the 118th Congress good luck on getting any meaningful legislation passed but at least he threw out the good intentions and concerns.

Other than being an infomercial I don’t expect much out of the speech. (I will still watch it, I’ve missed very, very few in my adult lifetime.) The Republican response should be interesting depending on who gives it. The intra-party and congressional chamber fight over the speaker is will be interesting! In any event I’ll skip it and catch the “highlights” down the road.

If Biden were to announce his candidacy at the conclusion of the SOU that would dominate the reporting for the rest of the week and the ensuing weekend. In any event a president, by virtue of his position, can dominate almost any news cycle if he wants to. Trump did it by just being himself (read: stupid).

We are getting into the area political operatives call earned media. If that term is unfamiliar just think of it as what it really is – free media. Trump was the master of it during the 2016 campaign. He received tons of coverage because the media simply never knew what outrageous thing he would say and they wanted to beat the competition to cover it. Why would you cover Clinton or Sanders talk policy when you could cover Trump being outrageous?

Last, I’ll look at the candidate’s relative strengths and weaknesses. I think Biden is as sharp as ever – and that’s a high bar – but he is far, far from being a Lincoln or Obama level communicator. (He is as likable as Reagan and that talent was largely responsible for his two terms.) I don’t know that he will, but I think he should announce his reelection bid at the conclusion of the SOU with the eyes of the world upon him. After LBJ’s March 31, 1968 speech the conversation was all about the ending and that is what it is remembered for to this day.

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