State of the Union 2023: Can President Biden rebound with a second term?

president biden speaking into microphone delivering the state of the union address
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. AP Photo: Jacquelyn Martin

President Joe Biden delivered Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address—his first before a newly divided Congress—seemingly at warp speed, touting several keystone legislative packages that have helped define his first term. He also touched on everything from the state of the economy, health care and the debt ceiling debacle, to the scourge of gun violence, police reform efforts, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the U.S.’s unstable relationship with China.

The president’s primetime address to a deeply polarized nation comes amid a particularly fraught political moment, as was evidenced by the repeated Republican-led heckling during his speech. The shouts from the right elicited a direct response from Biden, who fended off his critics with considerable poise and humor, says Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department.

headshot of joan fitzgerald (left) and costas panagopoulos (right)
Left to right: Joan Fitzgerald, professor of urban and public policy, and Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science. Photos by Alyssa Stone and Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“He handled the unprecedented heckling by certain Republicans very effectively, I thought—and often with humor,” he says. “I think it was notable how he still stood his ground and defended his positions. It was clear he wasn’t going to back down and kowtow to Republican extremists.”

Many observers have noted that Tuesday’s speech provided a definitive answer with the regard to the 80-year-old Biden’s political future. Touting his administration’s accomplishments and outlining a series of initiatives, Biden repeated the phrase “finish the job” more than a dozen times throughout his speech, apparently signaling his intentions to run again despite the fact that his approval rating is now at a low point.

Just 37% of Democrats say they support a Biden second term as of this week, which is down from 52% in October 2022, polling shows. Despite such widespread disfavor, Biden doubled-down on the need for bipartisanship, leaning into his prior reputation as a “unifier” by highlighting his collaborative successes—most notably, the trillion-dollar investment in the nation’s infrastructure.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” Biden said. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere.”

Though State of the Union speeches “rarely move the public opinion needle,” Panagopoulos says Biden’s showing may have yielded the Democrats some hard-fought and unexpected momentum heading into the 2024 election season. This might also be due, he says, to a visibly fractious Republican caucus—one that nearly turned Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speakership on its head—and former President Donald Trump’s loosening grip on the party.

“I think it was a very effective State of the Union speech, he delivered a very forceful summary of his key accomplishments,” Panagopoulos says. “The real question is: what actions will he take now? How is he going to overcome this deficit of approval?”

Panagopoulos had some harsh words for McCarthy, who he says “conveyed little authority” over his side of the aisle during the evening’s proceedings.

“In my view, [McCarthy] came across as one of the least polished speakers of the House that I’ve observed,” Panagopoulos says. 

On paper, Biden’s key accomplishment might be the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which has earned him high marks from climate experts who cite the package’s focus on “energy transition,” such as funding for grid projects and climate resilience. 

Joan Fitzgerald, professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern, notes that the bill could well be the main highlight of his tenure. That fact was on display earlier this month when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined Biden in Kentucky to celebrate infrastructure projects there that will break ground using the new federal funding. 

The visit was a rare show of bipartisanship among high-ranking officials during an era of divided government. These showings, Fitzgerald says, “should play well politically the more [Biden] is able to demonstrate” that government can “get things done.”

“Trump talked about infrastructure all the time but, in truth, he didn’t do anything on that front,” she says.

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.