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President Biden takes the bit in his teeth but it’s unlikely to change things

President Biden takes the bit in his teeth but it’s unlikely to change things
US President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union Address in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on 1 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Jim Lo Scalzo / Pool)

In America’s grand annual political ritual, the president’s state of the union speech, Joe Biden delivered a rousing address to Congress, the American people and the world, even if what was in the speech doesn’t really change the facts on the ground.

Every year, fulfilling a constitutionally defined duty, the president is required to report to Congress on “the state of the union”. For the early years of the republic, this annual report was a printed state, rather than a public speech. But in the modern era, American presidents have fully embraced the pomp and ceremony of this moment to stake out a claim for what their administrations have done, as well as what they hope to accomplish in the future. 

In many ways, any state of the union speech represents a renewal of an administration’s promises, as well as an exhortation of the challenges yet to be addressed, much more than it is a detailed litany of the specifics of policy proposals. That information comes along in more detail in the later budget message and all the other statements that come along later, even if Congress ends up enacting few of these ideas in the ways a president intends them to be enacted as law. In fact, in recent years, Congress has generally been unable to pass a complete federal budget, and instead has relied on a variety of interim measures to keep the government lights on.

This time, Joe Biden put foreign policy and the current foreign challenges – specifically the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine – right at the beginning of his address. This part of the speech has, apparently, been undergoing continuing revisions as the actual facts in the combat arena have kept evolving, and as the international responses – especially the growing economic and financial isolation of and pain on Russia – has increasingly come together from Nato members and many other nations. In this circumstance, even Switzerland has joined in such efforts. Accordingly, Biden’s speech included a list of measures already undertaken and measures in the works, such as the decision to declare a no-fly rule over America for Russian aircraft. An impromptu, added message to Vladimir Putin was clear: “He has no idea what’s coming.” But this message was paired with a pledge not to send US military forces to Ukraine itself, but to Nato members to bolster the allies, in case things begin to spiral out of control. 

As Biden said: “Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people. From President Zelensky to every Ukrainian, their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, inspires the world. Groups of citizens blocking tanks with their bodies. Everyone from students to retiree teachers turned soldiers defending their homeland. 

US President Joe Biden delivers his state of the union address to a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 1 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Saul Loeb / Pool)

“In this struggle, as President Zelensky said in his speech to the European Parliament, ‘Light will win over darkness’. The Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States is here tonight. Let each of us here tonight in this Chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world.” 

He went on to say: “Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and Nato wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready. Here is what we did.   

“We prepared extensively and carefully. We spent months building a coalition of other freedom-loving nations from Europe and the Americas to Asia and Africa to confront Putin. I spent countless hours unifying our European allies. We shared with the world in advance what we knew Putin was planning and precisely how he would try to falsely justify his aggression.  

“We countered Russia’s lies with truth. And now that he has acted the free world is holding him accountable. Along with 27 members of the European Union including France, Germany, Italy, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and many others, even Switzerland. 

“We are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine. Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever. Together with our allies, we are right now enforcing powerful economic sanctions. 

We are cutting off Russia’s largest banks from the international financial system. Preventing Russia’s central bank from defending the Russian ruble, making Putin’s $630-billion ‘war fund’ worthless. We are choking off Russia’s access to technology that will sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.”  

Then came a pivot to domestic concerns, arguing this foreign challenge has an obvious echo in domestic needs. Here the president praised passage of the infrastructure law to reinvest in the bright hi-tech future and all those “good jobs”. 

Or, as he said: “In fact, our economy created over 6.5 million new jobs just last year, more jobs created in one year than ever before in the history of America. Our economy grew at a rate of 5.7% last year, the strongest growth in nearly 40 years, the first step in bringing fundamental change to an economy that hasn’t worked for the working people of this nation for too long.  

“For the past 40 years we were told that if we gave tax breaks to those at the very top, the benefits would trickle down to everyone else. But that trickle-down theory led to weaker economic growth, lower wages, bigger deficits, and the widest gap between those at the top and everyone else in nearly a century. 

“Vice-President Harris and I ran for office with a new economic vision for America. Invest in America. Educate Americans. Grow the workforce. Build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down.  

“Because we know that when the middle class grows, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy do very well. America used to have the best roads, bridges and airports on Earth. Now our infrastructure is ranked 13th in the world. We won’t be able to compete for the jobs of the 21st century if we don’t fix that. That’s why it was so important to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – the most sweeping investment to rebuild America in history. This was a bipartisan effort, and I want to thank the members of both parties who worked to make it happen. 

“We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks. We’re going to have an infrastructure decade. It is going to transform America and put us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with the rest of the world, particularly with China. 

“As I’ve told Xi Jinping, it is never a good bet to bet against the American people. We’ll create good jobs for millions of Americans, modernising roads, airports, ports and waterways all across America. And we’ll do it all to withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice. 

“We’ll build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, begin to replace poisonous lead pipes, so every child, and every American, has clean water to drink at home and at school, provide affordable high-speed internet for every American – urban, suburban, rural and tribal communities – 4,000 projects have already been announced. And tonight, I’m announcing that this year we will start fixing over 65,000 miles of highway and 1,500 bridges in disrepair.”

As far as inflation is concerned, the topic that seems to have ignited much of the national angst, the president said: “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control. 

“Look, our economy roared back faster than most predicted, but the pandemic meant that businesses had a hard time hiring enough workers to keep up production in their factories. The pandemic also disrupted global supply chains. When factories close, it takes longer to make goods and get them from the warehouse to the store, and prices go up. Look at cars. Last year, there weren’t enough semiconductors to make all the cars that people wanted to buy. And guess what, prices of automobiles went up. So, we have a choice. 

“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I have a better plan to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America. Economists call it ‘increasing the productive capacity of our economy’. I call it building a better America.” 

And, of course, there have been the inevitable appeals to efforts to cut prescription drug costs, energy costs, and push for tax credits for better insulation, as well as to bring down the cost of childcare. In tandem with arguments for greater efficiencies, making things in America, and measures to encourage greater competition, he announced measures to enhance criminal prosecutions of fraud in all those measures that were used in combating Covid-19.

And here was another segue, this time addressing the compassion fatigue towards Covid 19. As the president said: “For more than two years, Covid-19 has impacted every decision in our lives and the life of the nation. And I know you’re tired, frustrated, and exhausted. But I also know this. Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines. 

“We’ve reached a new moment in the fight against Covid-19, with severe cases down to a level not seen since last July. Just a few days ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, issued new mask guidelines. Under these new guidelines, most Americans in most of the country can now be mask-free. And based on the projections, more of the country will reach that point across the next couple of weeks. 

“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, Covid-19 need no longer control our lives. I know some are talking about ‘living with Covid-19’. Tonight I say that we will never just accept living with Covid-19. We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard.” 

Of course he also had to address the possibility of yet further Covid variants and how that could affect the economic recovery. Here the president said that, of course “…we must prepare for new variants. Over the past year we’ve gotten much better at detecting new variants. If necessary, we’ll be able to deploy new vaccines within 100 days instead of many more months or years. And, if Congress provides the funds we need, we’ll have new stockpiles of tests, masks and pills ready if needed. 

“I cannot promise a new variant won’t come. But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”

The president also went through the well-known litany of not-yet-enacted legislation on voting rights, gun violence and firearms regulation. There was also the required mention of better securing the country’s borders and managing immigration processes with new, streamlined visa requirements and regulations, casting them as policies supportive of economic growth and efficiency. 

Naturally, too, there were references to protection of the provisions under threat of the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion, and measures for LGBTQ equal rights protections, along with a long list of other measures advocated, but not yet enacted. There were also evergreen moments as he spoke passionately for better care for veterans and further support of cancer research to “turn cancer from death sentences to treatable diseases”. Few would have objected to those points, for sure. The appeal here, clearly, was that there was no “partisan edge to any of those things”, he said.

Heading into his peroration, Biden said: “Now is the hour. Our moment of responsibility. Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself. It is in this moment that our character is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged. 

“Well, I know this nation. We will meet the test. To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity. We will save democracy. 

“As hard as these times have been, I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life. Because I see the future that is within our grasp. Because I know there is simply nothing beyond our capacity. 

US President Joe Biden went through the well-known litany of not-yet-enacted legislation on voting rights, gun violence and firearms regulation during his state of the union address before Congress on 1 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Shawn Thew / Pool)

“We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity. The only nation that can be defined by a single word: possibilities. 

“So, on this night, in our 245th year as a nation, I have come to report on the State of the Union. And my report is this: the State of the Union is strong, because you, the American people, are strong. We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today. Now is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time. And we will, as one people. One America. The United States of America. May God bless you all. May God protect our troops.” 

A listener could just about hear the patriotic music welling up as the president’s final words were spoken. What this speech did not do, however, was announce bold administrative steps to confront inflation, perhaps because there are not many steps a president can actually take to squash inflation at a time when it is baked into the recovery, rising fuel costs and supply chain knots and blockages. 

The Republican response from the governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, hammered away over a crime wave as if Biden had personally encouraged hardcore criminals to pillage their way across the landscape, and to denounce those roundly disliked mask mandates in schools or study-at-home decisions (even though the president is not really in charge of education system decisions taken all across the nation.) 

Similarly, the Republican response argued that the president has been weak in leading from behind on foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine, Russia and Vladimir Putin. This critique was offered even though it seems pretty clear that allowing European and other allies to consolidate their measures and for Biden to nurture and support that very unanimity has been key to achieving a new focus and resolve on the part of Western allies. One other critique will come from Ukraine where people there would have been hoping for a more vigorous response against the Russian advance, such as declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine. But that is something that could easily result in some direct US-Russian conflict, and who knows where that would or could lead.  

On balance, Biden’s address was a strong one. It was heavy on optimism amid all the difficulties, but it had areas that will generate obvious disagreements and obstructions by Biden’s domestic opponents. It got applause and generated some heat and enthusiasm, but, on balance, it may not have moved the dial very much. DM

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/9226″]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Lorinda Winter says:

    The song in ‘My Fair Lady’ springs to mind ‘Words, words I’m so sick of words …’ Meanwhile in Ukraine people are dying while watch on TV. Sickening.

  • J.F. Aitchison says:

    I find it difficult to believe that the USA still supplies potable water through lead pipes.the

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