As Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union Address, I could not help but think about former First Lady Michelle Obama’s famous assessment of the presidency.
“Being president doesn’t change who you are,” she said. “It reveals who you are.”
Certainly, that was the case with Biden on Tuesday night.
Many of the qualities that define this president, his strengths and his weaknesses, were on display as he addressed a nation and a world worried about the war in Ukraine. He had to speak to those fears and offer reassurance that he and we are up to meeting this challenging moment in history.
Overall, Biden succeeded, but it wasn’t effortless.
Big-event speeches are not Biden’s strong suit. His is not the sort of personality that drains all the oxygen out of the room. He does not radiate charisma.
What he does convey is a basic decency, a determined willingness to try to empathize and understand other points of view.
That quality masks many of his weaknesses as a speaker — his disfluencies and his tendency to step on his own applause lines. But it also prevents him from dominating a room or a moment. A man who does not think it is all about him can struggle to command the spotlight.
Both of Biden’s most recent predecessors in the White House — Donald Trump and Barack Obama — were more commanding personalities than he is. In their different ways, Trump and Obama turned their State of the Union addresses and other big speeches into grand performances in which they sought to bend both the times and events to their will.
Biden lacks that facility. This may be a good thing.
The tragedy of the unjust and evil war in Ukraine has shown the world just how much damage a self-styled strongman who wants to shape history in his own image can do. If nothing else, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated the limitations of the great-man readings of human events. The leader who relies only on his own judgment and his own instincts cuts himself off from the people he is supposed to lead—and serve.
Out of such isolation horrors such as the one unfolding in Ukraine are born.
Joe Biden’s instincts always have been collaborative. That much was clear during the speech, when he shared credit easily and often, ladling praise and thanks on figures as prominently public as a U.S. Supreme Court justice and as private as a boy with diabetes.
This also is why Biden has been the most effective U.S. leader on the world stage in at least a generation. He has managed to pull the other nations around the globe together in opposition to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in a way no other president in recent memory could or did. The result has been that Russia now is isolated and Putin has begun to experience the domestic turmoil he sought to sow here in the United States and elsewhere in the West.
The parts of Biden’s speech in which he addressed the situation in Ukraine were the most effective. He sounded both forceful and reassuring.
Biden’s case for his domestic agenda was prosaic but it may prove effective. He pointed out that his first year as president had been one of unprecedented economic growth and job creation.
He failed, though, to make the connection between such expansion and inflation. That is and will remain this president’s dilemma.
What the presidency has revealed about Joe Biden is that, for all his friendly chattiness, his style of leadership is almost quiet, devoid of hunger for attention.
That’s what his speech showed, too, in ways both good and bad.