Last night, President Biden displayed some political strengths that had been obscured by political turbulence. Empathetic and instilled with the gravitas of a long career, Biden appeared to be, rather than a flailing first-term president, a commander-in-chief worthy of the admiration of fair-minded Americans. His speech was colloquial in its prose and informal in its delivery, but in content and tone it provided the Biden administration with the boost it needs to get back on course.

The most significant portion of Biden’s State of the Union Address was the section addressing the crisis in Ukraine. In this passage, Biden projected resolve and firmly aligned the United States with the forces of democracy in Europe. His passion elicited cheers from both Republicans and Democrats. If there is anything that can help Biden fulfill his promise to unite the country, it is a crisis in which an old adversary is trying to overrun a weaker country that aspires to join the West. Biden has handled the Ukrainian crisis with the skill of a veteran negotiator, and it stands to reason that Americans will contrast this aplomb with the dictator-worshiping clown show of Joe Biden’s predecessor.

Further along in the speech, Biden recalled themes that are crucial to Democratic-Party success but had been largely discarded as the party’s activists focused on cultural issues, where Democrats stand on much weaker ground. Biden delivered a speech laced with economic-populist themes, speaking directly to voters in communities devastated by deindustrialization and a model of corporate globalism that has damaged the American worker. Like the best Democratic rhetoricians, he connected populist economic proposals with the daily lives of Americans like his father. Biden has always been at his best when he draws from his deep well of empathy and experience with hardship.

He likely won’t receive much benefit from his tributes to bipartisanship. Though Biden genuinely believes in working across the aisle, “Let’s Go Brandon” has become the quasi-official governing doctrine of his Republican opponents and he can expect little but obstructionism until such a time as Republicans are satisfied with their political recovery. They may never be. Their base hates the man. And the Biden administration is unlikely to gain by contrasting his open mind with Republicans’ clenched fist. Barack Obama tried again and again to hold Republican obstructionism against them, but they stayed militant and paid little political price.

President Biden’s administration–and his party–were in deep trouble earlier this winter. But like effective wartime presidents throughout history, Biden has met his calling and brought most of the American people along with the endeavor. His State of the Union address conveyed the precise themes that made him president in the first place–steady leadership, competence abroad, and a deep well of empathy that made him a grandfatherly figure for millions of Americans disgusted with the nastiness and ubiquitous hatred that permeated nearly everything about Donald Trump’s presidency. An economic populist with a big heart, a patriotic American leading the Free World against a vicious Russian thug, Joe Biden is, to put it simply, back.

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