2021 STATE OF THE UNION
China and the US economy loom large as Joe Biden reflects on 99 days in power
President Joe Biden’s speech to a congressional joint sitting set out key markers to judge the success of his administration. He focused on the new economy, but he framed much of his vision on a growing competition with China and the challenges ahead. Can he move enough Republicans to go along with his proposals to see them passed into law?
On Wednesday, 28 April, US President Joe Biden gave his not-quite-a-State-of-the-Union speech to a joint session of the US Congress. Technically, it was simply an important speech, at the invitation of Democratic Party congressional leaders to come to Capitol Hill and address both houses of Congress on the progress of his agenda, and on his vision, hopes and plans for the future.
This is the world of Covid, however. Accordingly, the House of Representatives chamber that is usually jampacked at such speeches was definitely not as usual. There were precious few outside guests and spouses, just one Supreme Court justice, one senior general, the minimum of pomp and ceremony, and the relative thinness of applause, because instead of 1,200 or so attendees there were only around 200 in attendance — far fewer than the combined number of representatives and senators.
Regardless of the precise definition of what this event was, nevertheless it was the new US president, live on television and many online platforms, addressing the nation and the world. In an unprecedented, historic moment, two of the three people at the dais in the front, both the speaker of the House and the vice-president, were female, a point the president drew attention to, right at the beginning of his speech.
At that 100-day mark (well okay, one day short of that number), Biden pointed to several major successes such as the stimulus package, a fair number of even bigger items at least in the works, and a major to-do list that awaits real action.
This “100 days” thing is actually just a term of political art, a rhetorical device, rather than any feature of law. It first came into use in the US at the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term of office (yes, there was also Napoleon’s “100 days” after his return from Elba in 1815 until he met his Waterloo, but that was a different circumstance), amid the worst days of the Great Depression in 1933. The idea of Roosevelt’s 100 days was that circumstances were so parlous that big, bold, imaginative, aggressive action was needed. Consequently, this initial three-month period of vigorous presidential action has, in the ensuing years, become a benchmark for measuring a new president’s mettle and success.
As The Washington Post’s Power Up noted, “What David Axelrod [the former close aide to Barack Obama] once referred to as ‘an odd custom, the journalistic equivalent of the Hallmark holiday’ is here once again. President Biden will hit his 100th day in office on Thursday — an artificial milestone that presidents and their administrations have subscribed to since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency.”
Generally, by virtue of winning the election, a new president gets a brief honeymoon period from the opposition party on the reasonable grounds that the people having spoken and elected the new chief executive, his (or her) plans and proposals, at a minimum, deserve a decent and respectful hearing, even if not necessarily an automatic and easy passage into law. But given the prior president’s dog-in-the-manger, jejune, and hostile behaviour, and the resulting 6 January insurrection over the lie that the election had been stolen, for Biden, the honeymoon has largely not happened.
But, applying this now-traditional measuring stick of the 100 days, just how has the Biden administration fared so far? As he took the reins of government — after that awkward, truncated transition period that had been made shorter and less collaborative than usual because of the poisonous pique of the then president, a second impeachment trial, and the 6 January insurrection that attacked the Capitol at the goading of the then president — the Biden agenda is huge, in the face of a deep economic malaise and the pandemic. While the current twin economic and disease crises faced by this president may not be quite as compelling as the near-existential ones Roosevelt’s nation confronted, taken together the present remains extremely daunting for the nation and the new president.
Already on the success side of the ledger, the massive stimulus package and a Herculean effort to get vaccines produced and Americans vaccinated — with at least 40% of the country now inoculated — represent big wins. Moreover, despite a combative Republican congressional caucus and their members’ suddenly developed, principled objections to increasing government debt or budget deficits — following four years of insisting that was of no importance as long as nice, juicy tax cuts reached the rich and the favoured corporations — the new president has already engineered an emotional sea-change in the way he and his team speak to national issues and with his interlocutors.
In the Biden administration lexicon, there has been no ranting; there is no screaming; there has been no snarling, intemperate name-calling or information-free accusations; there are no chunks of rhetorical red meat being flung to enrage further already angry crowds; and there are no angry, vicious, grammatically and spelling-challenged social media messages pouring from White House electronic devices in the wee hours of the morning. For some commentators and columnists, still bruised from the previous administration’s outrages, this adult behaviour can almost be boring. But surprisingly, it is much more like the way government used to be carried out pre-2017 — and the way it should be done.
Biden’s speech ran a bit over an hour, (you can watch it here in full). In the address, Biden spent much of his time appealing directly to the fostering of a greater sense of US joint national purpose. In effect, he was asking Republican members of Congress to join a team effort that already includes the slender Democratic congressional majorities in both houses (when you count the vice-president’s tie-breaking vote in the Senate) and the more substantial majority of the nation that largely agrees with many of the measures being proposed by the president.
Throughout his speech, Biden put the challenge of recharging the economy via a wave of new green energy-style jobs and infrastructure building and rebuilding, free education at the pre-school and post-high school community college levels, improving tax equity by going after high-income earners and those tax-avoiding major corporations. These, and others are measures coming from the Biden White House as part of a roadmap towards an economically equitable, democratic state that will respond effectively to the challenge from China’s technocratic authoritarianism. Or, as Biden argued, there is no reason renewable energy wind turbine blades or solar panels cannot be manufactured just as efficiently in Pittsburgh as “they are in Beijing”.
In fact, China, Chinese competition, and the Chinese challenge was a significant feature of the speech. This points to one of the ways the Biden administration hopes will help reunify the nation. In setting out a challenge not totally unlike the “Sputnik challenge” from the old Soviet Union in the late 1950s that energised the US’s participation in the space race, reconstructed science and math curricula for the nation’s schools, and helped give a serious boost to technological innovation more generally, the Biden administration wants to pull the nation towards joint endeavour and away from the older, partisan squabbles.
It is certain that this emphasis will be noticed carefully in Beijing, especially since the Chinese government increasingly disparages the US as a future global leader and China is one of the few places on the planet where US popularity and respect — already low — has been dropping since Biden took office.
Aaron Blake of The Washington Post, reflecting on Biden’s speech, argued there were four key takeaways from it. The first was the appeal to a much more inclusive stance, building on the repeated use of the phrase, “all of you”. As Blake argued, “Listening to parts of Biden’s speech, you wouldn’t necessarily know Congress is stuck in gridlock. While no Republicans supported Biden’s coronavirus stimulus and the party is balking at the size of his infrastructure package — among many proposals — Biden spoke almost as if Congress had put up a united front.” Or, as Biden said, with “the overwhelming support of the American people — Democrats, independents and Republicans — we did act together. We passed the American Rescue Plan, one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history.”
It wasn’t just the stimulus plan where this trope was repeated. Speaking of the Covid vaccine, Biden said, “Senior deaths from Covid-19 are down 80% since January — down 80%, because of all of you.”
And further, “We will have provided over 220 million Covid shots in those [first] 100 days — thanks to all the help of all of you. We’re marshalling — with your help, everyone’s help — we’re marshalling every federal resource.”
Blake observed, “It was an interesting rhetorical tactic. Beyond an appeal to Republicans to support various gun restrictions, Biden didn’t dwell much on his opposition. And even when making that appeal, Biden seemed to almost apologize for his tone, ad-libbing from his prepared remarks: ‘Look, I don’t want to become confrontational.’ (Neither of Biden’s references to ‘all of you’ appeared in his prepared remarks, either.)”
Perhaps the subliminal point is to Republicans that if they bend a bit and shuck off a rigid rejection of everything Biden proposes, he will be happy to share some of the credit, as they jointly save the nation.
Second, as noted above, was underscoring US renewal with a focus on the challenge of China.
In Blake’s thinking, Biden is consciously trying to recast his predecessor’s antagonisms towards China away from the racialised messaging of before, rephrasing this as a competition about governmental/societal/economic organising principles and the investments Biden hopes to make in the US future.
As Biden said, “He’s [Chinese leader Xi Jinping] deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and other autocrats think that democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies — it takes too long to get consensus. To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.”
The third focus was a frank embrace of the need for some big spending to do the job properly. Per Blake’s view, the president used his speech “to propose massive spending — but generally focused more on bread-and-butter issues that have high levels of bipartisan support than the liberal true-believer ideas that conservatives have turned into bogeymen. But the speech did demonstrate a president who seems less and less concerned about risking that kind of reputation.”
Blake observed, “While Congress is still considering Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure and jobs bill, Biden detailed a new $1.8 trillion American Families Plan that would include significant expansions of government spending on education and the social safety net. Combined with the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus plan that already passed in Congress, that brings Biden’s proposed spending near $6 trillion.”
That is a lot of money, but the Biden bet is that the times, concerns over social and economic equity, and the need for a real jolt to the country’s economic trajectory demand such spending now.
Blake added, “It remains to be seen how much the still-percolating ideas will be paid for rather than financed through deficit spending. Biden is calling for tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, for example, along with funding the IRS to more aggressively audit their tax returns, which he claims could bring in hundreds of billions. And he’s pitching these ideas as spurring huge growth, rather than simply giveaways. But what’s clear is that he’s proposing a huge expansion of government the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.”
At the minimum, contrary to the rap on him during much of 2020, these are the hallmarks of a president who wants to play it safe, something that seems to be buoyed by the strong public support for the programmes passed and proposed so far. Regardless, Biden has thrown down the gauntlet for three years of legislative battles, and there is the unknown factor of just how much new spending the public will support, once the current public health crisis has largely been surmounted and the economy begins to heal
Allied to that third element is resetting the national debate about taxes. Biden has been emphasising tax changes will not touch the middle class (that term is a near-infinitely fungible term in the US that usually includes full-time, unionised workers in both income and aspirational terms). Instead, these tax changes will affect big corporations that have avoided federal income taxes and people earning above $400,000 per year. Or, as the president said, “Let’s start with what I will not do: I will not impose any tax increase on people making less than $400,000.”
Moreover, “We’re only going to affect three-tenths of 1% of all Americans by that action — three-tenths of 1%.” And, “When you hear someone say they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% of corporate America, ask them whose taxes you want to raise instead.” The Biden bet is that with polls showing Americans strongly favouring those specific types of tax increases, he is on the right side of history, even if the Republican caucus is not — or, at least, not yet.
Naturally, much — perhaps most — of his agenda remains a vision or paragraphs in position papers. In some cases, the actual legislation has yet to even be drafted as formal proposals. Given the power balance in Congress, the Biden administration will need to work in overdrive to leverage public support to chivvy at least a handful of Republicans to come on board and support many elements of this agenda.
Still, the country’s struggling economy is improving, unemployment claims are dropping and new job openings and hires are rising. There are analysts who predict 2021 may even be in for a major growth spurt — although there is still ground to make up to reach pre-Covid levels. All of that may make the public agree there is space to spend, but it also may lead some to believe the big, new spending is now unnecessary.
Much will now depend on how the Biden administration frames its arguments, and how obdurate the Republican caucus insists on being. All that, in turn, will be part of the calculations politicians make facing the 2022 mid-term election. DM