In Washington

Biden will be scrutinized as much as he will be listened to during his State of the Union speech this Thursday. The American president spent last weekend at the Camp David residence, in Maryland, preparing with his advisers the traditional speech that he must deliver to the two houses of Congress together. The stakes of this speech are enormous for Joe Biden.

As is customary, the president must present to the Americans the achievements of his Administration and its objectives. But he knows that he will also be carefully observed. A candidate for his own re-election, already at 81 the oldest president in American history, Biden is raising questions about his fitness to hold presidential office for four more years.

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Republicans have long presented him as a senile old man. Social media is flooded with video montages where he barely seems able to articulate a sentence. But, beyond the caricatures, the signs of the president’s decline are visible. And they translate into worrying figures for his re-election. According to a New York Times/Siena College poll released this week, 73% of registered voters surveyed believe Biden is too old to be an effective president, including 61% of those who voted for him in 2020. All surveys say so also several points behind Donald Trump.

As the prospect of debates with the latter seems uncertain, he will probably have, during his speech, the largest television audience before the election on November 5. The public and their opponents will be on the lookout for the slightest hesitation, the slightest slip of the tongue. The most virulent Maga elected officials will undoubtedly try to interrupt him. His speech will be the act of an acrobat without a net.

There is no shortage of topics for his speech, in this last year of the presidential term. Almost all are crises, current or potential. Abroad, there is the war in Ukraine (a country that the United States is abandoning in the open countryside under pressure from Trump and the Maga movement in Congress), the carnage of Palestinian civilians in Gaza (which is fracturing the electorate of Biden without the latter having the slightest influence on Netanyahu’s Israeli cabinet) and the rivalry with China (which continues to threaten Taiwan).

On the domestic front, the illegal immigration which is surging along the Mexican border, a theme on which Biden is hardly comfortable, should also be mentioned. If only to try to justify his past procrastination, by highlighting the cynical use that his adversaries make of this problem when they refuse measures to contain it. Abortion, restricted two years ago by the conservative Supreme Court, which has become a Democratic campaign theme, will be mentioned by the president, as will undoubtedly the rather positive economic figures, even if he does not succeed in convincing them. opinion.

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But it is above all the State of the Union which will be at the center of the presidential address. The speech is particularly well named in the year 2024, which sees the great return of Donald Trump. The former president, again a Republican Party candidate after trying to sabotage the presidential transition in 2020, is once again creating an open divide in a deeply divided country. This return of his nemesis is an almost personal insult for Joe Biden, his predecessor having never recognized his legitimacy as president. But, at the same time as a real threat, Trump is also, for the Democratic president, his best, and perhaps his only, chance of re-election.

Because beyond his political achievements, Biden will above all try to play on the theme of the institutional threat that Donald Trump poses to the country. And to thus repeat his bet of 2020, which had propelled his candidacy in the Democratic primaries and had allowed him to realize his presidential dream, at the age when others retire.

His speech, in the writing of which historian Jon Meacham once again participated, should remind us how crucial the challenges of 2024 are, recalling the crises experienced in the past, and in particular the Civil War, which cut the country in two. But, even if a majority of Americans are convinced of the problem posed by Donald Trump, Biden himself weakens his message by using it to get re-elected.

By imposing his candidacy despite very poor polls, he is taking a big risk, for himself and his political legacy, but also for his party, and especially for the United States. Some Democrats are already comparing him to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who refused to resign during Obama’s presidency despite knowing she had cancer. His death, a few weeks before the November 2020 election, allowed Trump to appoint a third justice to the Supreme Court. This Republican super-majority then overturned the ruling on the right to abortion Roe vs Wade.

Signs of concern are increasing in Democratic circles. Analysts point out that no outgoing president has ever been re-elected so far behind in the polls. But Biden nevertheless seems confident. He is sure of his political instincts, and convinced that he has always been right against predictions, winning the Democratic primaries in 2020 when he was considered the loser; then avoiding the rout predicted in the mid-term elections in 2022, defying all predictions.

“Since entering politics, President Joe Biden has thrived on a volatile mix of confidence and insecurity,” writes journalist Evan Osnos in a recent profile of the president in the New Yorker magazine, titled “Joe Biden’s last campaign”, where the president appears completely sure of himself. “Now that he has reached the pinnacle of power, he exudes a conviction that borders on serenity, a little too much serenity for Democrats who wonder if he can still beat the man with whom his legacy will forever be linked .”

Because the main theme of the State of the Union speech will ultimately be that of the major institutional crisis into which the Trumpist populist wave has plunged the United States for eight years. Biden appeared in 2020 as the one capable of containing it and protecting American institutions. He will have to convince a majority of Americans that he is once again the only alternative to a Republican Party that has become that of one man.

But the reception of a speech by its audience is rarely predictable. If Biden is capable of being eloquent, he also happens to be a pitiful orator. And the theme “me where chaos” can suddenly sound like the attempt of an old man consumed with ambition to cling to power, rather than like a historical challenge to be taken up.