Joe Biden pops off a State of the Union like it was a Chinese spy balloon

The Compass of Power, Lucky Episode 13

It’s been an eventful week in politics, so I’m going to give you a two-fer today. As a speechwriting geek, I want to talk about the State of the Union. But we must also talk about the strange spherical object in the sky.

Welcome back to the Compass of Power. I’m Adam Wilson and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what the heck had changed in American politics. I came to the conclusion that it’s a matter of place. What’s going on is the same thing that’s been going on since the country got going, which is that the North is battling the South.

If you look at things that way, I think a lot of bizarre contradictions in our politics snap into meaning. But other things become bizarre.

To wit: Chinese spy balloon

Chinese Spy Balloon oddly spies only on rural America

We all consider this a Chinese spy balloon – although I have seen it called a “suspected” Chinese spy balloon. That’s because China says it’s not a spy balloon. They say it is a very fancy weather balloon.

And what if it’s not a spy balloon or a weather balloon?

What if it was actually built by a reclusive billionaire who likes to wear jumpsuits, and who planned to poison the earth while floating high above the mass extinction in his balloon, only to return later and re-populate the planet using a horde of genetically perfect baby mamas?

Too bad for him! He was stopped by a suave super-spy turned jet pilot!

Wait – that’s the plot to “Moonraker.”

OK, how about this – It IS a Chinese spy balloon. But they cleverly planned to float it in plain sight of millions of Americans!

And they carefully plotted a course over the United States that allowed their sophisticated craft to hover only over the areas most likely to want to shoot it down!

Seriously, look up the track of this thing.

It comes in somewhere over Alaska, floats South through Canada. It maybe touches the tip of north Idaho. Then it moves west through Montana. By then it was hovering over a nuclear missile base — turns out Montana is bristling with nuclear missiles – and the Pentagon decides it’s time to let the president know. And the public. Maybe both, at the same time.

You don’t have to be an expert in geography to imagine that the people of Alaska, Idaho, Montana are not likely to buy the explanation for not shooting down the balloon. Which is, “Somebody might get hurt.” They didn’t really care in Montana.

Faced with an invader, they would rather just start shooting. But the Pentagon said that if we did that, 2,000 pounds of spy mass would be raining down across wherever it was.

The spy balloon, clearly driven by artificial intelligence, continued to float right across the areas of the United States least likely to enjoy the visit.

Staying not-so-safely in the Far West, it floated over the Dakotas, headed South through Nebraska, Kansas, maybe clipped Oklahoma before it turned left. Or maybe it did a flyover of Kansas City to see how football works.

Just to show it was in no way scared, it next buzzed the heartland of Appalachia, where I think it’s safe to say it WAS shot at. But not even the 6.5 Creedmoor is going to have knock-down power on targets in the 60,000-foot rage. At least not straight up.

The balloon trolled Arkansas, or maybe southern Missouri, then Tennessee, right over the Appalachians – the people and the mountains – into the Carolinas.

Finally, once it was over the Atlantic, the military felt it could be taken down without “undue risk.”

Here’s the local reaction to this event as it happened. Remember, shooting down the balloon carried the possibility that the area would be peppered with 2,000 pounds of debris falling from a height of roughly 11 miles:

I love it. At least the people in America most likely to enjoy watching a spy balloon shot down by an F-22 Raptor were the people who actually got to see it happen.

What if the Chinese military had decided they would rather spy on – I don’t know – New York City? Boston? Portland, Maine?

Those folks would not have appreciated the show!

The Chinese authorities insist that their weather balloon has minimal steering capabilities. It is, in that view, pretty much like your neighbor’s dog, who once he gets off the leash is going to do what he wants. He will bark at the chickens. He will run in front of traffic. He will sniff out the nuclear missile silos. It doesn’t matter. You just can’t control the guy once you let him go.

Our experts seemed to feel it did have some steering capability, and was clearly looking for high value military targets. Which, if true, seems to indicate that all of our high value military installations are far, far away from our high value cultural installations.

It seems like a stretch to say that it was a complete coincidence that it floated through the western United States, down along the Mississippi and made its exit through Appalachia, without having once harassed or bothered the good people of the Left Coast or Yankeedom or really, even Pittsburgh.

Maybe the jet stream is negatively correlated with on-the-ground economic activity?

There is undoubtedly more to say there. For example the fact that, having reviewed the records, it turns out that the Chinese have sent perhaps four other balloons into US airspace. We just didn’t realize it at the time. At the time, a few years ago, it seemed like they were alien vessels and therefore were sent to the UFO pile for review. Sorry everybody! Turns out they were not spaceships.

But I want to talk about the State of the Union which followed on the heels of the great balloon scandal of mid February 2023

Joe Biden’s Most-popin’ State of the Union ever

The very best part of the State of the Union was the way it was kind of the State of the Union’s Debate. It featured two people who kind of agreed on the balloon. President Joe Biden wanted to shoot it down, and major and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks it should have been shot down back when Biden wanted to.

Greene walked around the Capitol on Tuesday with a white balloon, a clever bit of theatrical prop work. You see, it was just a white balloon, as she said on Twitter. But that was a clever reference to the fact that, while she actually did only have a white balloon, the big white balloon in the sky was not just a white balloon. It was a spy balloon.

I am so glad that she came to the state of the Union address. Do we remember way back when, when a fellow Wilson, Joe Wilson shouted at Barack Obama?

Obama was trying to give his State of the Union address and this is back in 2009, when you did not shout at the president. Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You Lie!” at Obama. That was the news for like a month afterwards. We asked ourselves, “Have we come so low that we’re shouting at the president while he’s trying to give the state of the union?”

Yesterday’s new low is today floating high above us, like a balloon. Still, I honestly enjoyed it. It was good.

Listen, this is the Joe Biden superfan podcast. Because I am a super fan. I think that the state of the union was possibly Joe Biden’s best speech ever. And he’s given some good ones. Certainly, it was the best state of the union speech in a decade. I would have to go back and revisit some of the early Obama state of the unions to see if he did better, because Obama was a very gifted speaker.

And Full disclosure here guys, I’m a speechwriter. You know, I often say and when I’m introducing this podcast that I work in politics? Well some of that work, the work I continue to do, is speechwriting for politicians. I am a student of the game.

Obama obviously was an incredible speaker. And frankly so was Donald Trump. A completely different style, but one does not build up the rabid fan base that Trumpistas became without being able to effectively communicate to people and to hit the right notes.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, is not known for soaring oratory or for inspiring mob action.

He spent most of his career in the Senate and it is in that environment, when he is talking to fellow members of Congress that he is at his very best.

I could talk a long time about the politics of the policies he talked about. I loved the economic populism. I love that he talked about the working class, the middle-class, infrastructure, job creation, unions, junk fees – that’s all good

I loved what he did not talk about. He did not engage on the left’s most progressive slash divisive social issues. He stuck to areas where Americans most likely broadly agree.

He did that, at least in part, because he is from Delaware. Delaware may be part of the Northern coalition in American politics, but it is not like Massachusetts or Coastal California. It is not part of the “progressive” wing of the coalition.

So Biden focused on economics, and took on social issues with a more humanitarian and less moralizing way.

In fact, his most effective single line in this was probably when he was talking about the need for police reform. It’s easy to cast this as a pro or anti cop area of policy. Either you think all cops are bad or you think blue lives matter.

That paradigm would certainly help Republicans politically. In the middle of an uptick in crime nationwide, people are hoping for more police protection.

But Biden did a beautiful job of humanizing everyone. He introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols, who was killed by police officers in Memphis last month. And here’s his money line:

“Just as every cop who pins on a badge in the morning has a right to come home at night – so does everybody else out there.”


It paints a picture. It hits you in the heart, two times. You can’t disagree with that.

That may have been the best line, but there was also “Blue-collar blueprint.” Nice phrase. It was a well-written speech. Lots of focus on the working and middle class, with simple statements of principle like, billionaires should pay at least as much in taxes as teachers and firefighters.

The most telling sign that it was well-written was that Biden felt so comfortable with it. He felt confident.

In fact, I think some of his delivery was actually hampered by his confidence. He was at times sort of rushing ahead, plunging head-long. And that would cause him to skip over words or phrases.

Nevertheless, his confidence and energy were shining through.

And that meant Biden’s best moments in that speech – which, again, could be some of the best moments in a career of public speaking dating back to the 1970s – were the unscripted moments.

And then he actually got to argue with some of the far-right Republicans.

Here, we talk about place in politics. So, just so we all remember, Biden is not from a particularly antagonistic part of the country. He’s from Northern Delaware, where the culture there is pretty laid back. Related to the Quakers and the Dutch.

We covered all this in a previous episode on the classified documents scandal.

So Joe Biden does not go to his speeches looking for fights. On Tuesday he made a point of being friendly with Republicans, who have a narrow majority in the House.

He not only was friendly with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, an inland-California Republican, he did McCarthy a favor.

Apparently McCarthy had requested Biden not go after what Joe calls “MAGA Republicans,” the hard right.

And Joe obliged. He not only avoided the phrase “MAGA Republicans,” he took pains to say some of the positions he didn’t like were not an official or even majority opinion.

He was still going to take on the far-right’s ideas. Not because they are going anywhere.

Rhetorically speaking, Biden is presenting himself as the reasonable center. He nods to progressive causes, but avoids anything that smacks of the far-left. Then he holds up far-right ideas and argues with them.

Presto – he’s the reasonable man in the middle.

But Joe’s trying to set up this rhetorical strategem without offending moderate Republicans or the speaker of the house. And something once considered unbelievably rude habits. He gets interrupted. He gets heckled.

And because the speech is so good and Joe is feeling very confident he stops and he stays in that moment and it is a magic bit of American oratorical history here. Let me play a clip

Watch the 2023 State of the Union Address ( (Watch starting at 33:12)

This is great from a purely political sense because Joe Biden has said you wanna do such and such which in this case is cut Social Security and he characterizes it using some proposal that nobody else agrees with but he’s saying it’s out there and he gets booed.

You are not supposed to Boo anybody while they’re speaking in Congress. What do you think we are, the British House of Commons? No!

By engaging with the hecklers, though, Biden seems to be negotiating with them. It appears to be a debate and he ends up by saying, well, I think we’ve got agreement here. No one’s going to cut Social Security. And even if they tried, I would veto it.

Now there may have been like 12 people that actually wanted to cut Social Security in that room. I don’t know, I didn’t look it up. But Joe has just played that minority of people into hamstringing the whole Republican majority on what they’re able to do on Social Security. At least rhetorically.

The other people are not actually able to debate, because all they can do is stand up and shout “Boo.” They don’t have microphones.

It’s not a fair fight. But they shouldn’t have picked a fight in the middle of the state of the union anyway. So, them’s the breaks.

Since we like to talk about the politics of place, I will now give you 3 guesses where the hecklers came from.

If you guessed Iowa, I think you are wrong.

If you guessed Michigan, I will say they may be feisty there but that’s not it.

Did you guess the South? I don’t know, maybe the Appalachians?

It’s a reasonable guess. The South and the North are the two big political blocks of the United States. The North is dominated by Democrats like Biden from Delaware.

The South is dominated by Republicans like, I don’t know… Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Yes, that’s right. The Congresswoman with the white balloon is from Georgia. More specifically, the northwest corner of Georgia – Appalachian territory.


I do feel like this is a little magic trick I perform.

Because the political universe presumes, we are dealing with differences in ideology, in political philosophy. So we call these folks “far right.”

Lately, advance thinking holds that these are actually identities – amalgams of race, gender and education.

And that may all be true, but those differences are downstream from regional cultural differences. That is, politicians get their orientation to all those things – the parties, the ideological spectrum, the role of race and education – based on the culture in which they were raised.

For example, there are, in fact, White, male Democrats from the Northern bit of Appalachia. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia comes to mind. But he’s not like the white, male Democrats from New York state.

When you are at the State of the Union Address, in the halls of Congress, and someone shows up in a white fur coat, starts shouting at the President of the United States and giving him the thumbs down for the cameras, and generally challenging the whole thing –

I’d guess you have someone from Greater Appalachia in the house.

That’s all I’m saying.

The actual South also includes the planter cultures we call the “Deep South” and Tidewater.

Tidewater is where the spy balloon splashed down, to great applause.

The Deep South would include most of Florida, home state of Senator Rick Scott, the Republican to whom Biden was referring when he said some Republicans want to cut Social Security.

Now, what Scott proposed was a sunset on all federal legislation, meaning that every five years, Congress would have to re-up the programs.

Which, of course would be a complete reversal for Social Security and Medicare, which go on forever and to which Americans have a presumed right – an entitlement.

And yes, Scott was one of those shouting at Biden on Tuesday.

Listen, the coverage of exactly who was doing all the shouting is a bit spotty. Mostly what we got were stories about the flamboyant Appalachian Greene.

Nonetheless, Senator Scott had some company in generally shouting “no!” and “Boo!” on occasion.

We should talk about the Southern Coalition. Just as places that are geographically South on the West Coast are aligned with the old Union North, places in the west are aligned with the Southern political dynamic.

This is true especially when we look at the folks who at first blocked McCarthy’s bid to become speaker – check out that episode – many were from the dry west.

That means the West, but not the coast. Arizona, Utah, and so forth.

And among our “No!” shouters is Senator Mike Lee of Utah. In 2010, Lee said it was his “objective to phase out Social Security.”

Was it all members of the Southern Coalition yelling at Biden? I’m sure it was, mostly.

But that’s not who Biden went after the next day on his road trip. He spent the next day in Wisconsin.

Republicans in the North are generally part of the underclass, meaning that Democrats dominate and Republicans – when they win – are elected to fight the system. They may not be Southern in their world views, but they are allied with the Southern elite in their battle with the Northern elite.

Which brings us to Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. He has proposed something a little lighter than his Southern and Western counterparts. What he suggested is that social Security and Medicare be made discretionary spending, rather than entitlements.

Sensing an opportunity to use his economic populism to return Wisconsin to the Northern orthodoxy, Biden went there the day after his State of the Union address. Biden mentioned Johnson’s plans there, and Johnson, too, sensed blood in the water – his.

“President Biden is lying about me. He lied last night, and he lied again today,” Johnson said in a statement to The Washington Post. 

I would argue that Johnson is the politician actually caught out by all this.

Yes, Biden successfully baited the most rambunctious, Appalachian elements of the Southern coalition.

But where they come from, their actions are not out of line. Heck, Joe Wilson – from South Carolina – was censured by Congress for shouting “you lie” at President Obama in 2009.

He’s still representing the Columbia area in Congress. It was not a bad moment for him, politically.

And nobody is going to censure every representative and senator who was shouting at Biden on Tuesday.

Their way is ascendant in the South.

But Johnson is left to explain his Southern-like views to his Northern constituents. And Biden went to his home state, not to Georgia or Florida.

All right, got to call it a wrap, see you next week.’

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