Facing a Divided Congress, Biden Takes a Populist Stance

Facing a Divided Congress, Biden Takes a Populist Stance

Facing a Divided Congress, Biden Takes a Populist Stance

In his first State of the Union address since last year’s midterms, the president upheld a program of economic justice and stood firm against GOP obstructionists.

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It’s fitting that the State of the Union address falls in the last week of pre–Super Bowl hype. Both events feature ballyhooed clashes of prime-time rosters and often fail to deliver much in the way of meaningful conflict. And each spectacle ultimately succumbs to the agendas of behind-the-scenes commercial interests that dwarf the action on the field. Still, both marquee attractions sit there on the early February calendar, soaking up forensic press attention while the American public is left to its own devices to work out just what all the fuss is about.

As it happens, last night’s presidential address to both houses of Congress and the nation at large came at a genuinely fraught moment in America’s rickety self-governing compact. And Biden himself succeeded in plainly and urgently spelling out the public’s stake in the political struggles ahead, highlighting the wayward right-wing assault on basic income supports and the mandate of making wealthy Americans and big corporations accountable and taxable again. These key themes were more than just matters of political calculation—they underline the administrative challenges ahead for the Biden White House.

As the administration moves ahead on the implementation of big-ticket initiatives, such as the infrastructure and inflation reduction acts, the president also confronts the first divided Congress of his tenure in office. Republicans are keen to depict any political or policy missteps as evidence of an agenda of left-wing redistributive social engineering running on autopilot—as Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders stressed in her mostly desultory Republican response to Biden’s speech. The challenge ahead for Biden is less to shepherd big new legislative packages through a recalcitrant House than to remind Americans in real time of the measures the government has taken, and will continue to pursue, in order to improve their daily lives.

Conventional pundit wisdom had held that Biden wouldn’t do much to bait the Republican opposition, since State of the Union addresses are meant to showcase the above-the-fray and statesmanlike mien and messaging of the chief executive—and since Biden himself is an ardent institutionalist, committed to the ideals of bipartisan comity. But Biden has belatedly acquired a well-honed sense of the real stakes of policy-making in Washington: a more level playing field for ordinary Americans. Introducing a plea for robust antitrust enforcement, Biden said of bad corporate actors, “Look, here’s the deal: they’re not just taking advantage of the tax codes, they’re taking advantage of you the consumer. Here’s my message to you; we have your back.” He returned to a theme he has sounded before, saying, “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism; it’s extortion, it’s exploitation.”

As Biden’s assured and plainspoken performance last night made clear, the political challenges ahead play to his greatest strength: positioning himself as an advocate for working-class Americans suffering the injustices of a top-heavy socioeconomic order designed by and for a plutocratic oligarchy. Admittedly, this image is frayed around the edges, as we saw in the Biden White House’s blockade of a threatened rail strike earlier this winter. Still, Biden has much good economic news to tout: Defying the glum prophecies of austerity hawks like Larry Summers and Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, the jobs economy is continuing to thrive. The January jobs report showed a 3.4 percent unemployment, the lowest since 1969, in the balmy heyday of the postwar economic boom. Inflation also appears to be failing to live up to its billing as the first-order existential menace of the austerian imagination—a development that may help Biden continue to successfully navigate the pending debt-ceiling showdown with congressional Republicans.

The debt-ceiling feud was behind the speech’s most dramatic moment, when Biden correctly noted that a faction of the House GOP caucus wants to provoke a government shutdown, and a likely broader economic crisis, in order to extort cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Georgia GOP Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a hard-right provocateur only notionally engaged with the work of legislating, heckled Biden from the House floor, shouting “Liar!” Biden gladly pushed back from the podium, and as the Republican shouting continued, he seized the moment: “So we all agree: Social Security and Medicare are off the books now,” he cheerfully announced to enthusiastic Democratic applause. “All right, we’ve got unanimity.” Again taking up the threatened cuts, he struck a mischievous note: “If anyone tries to cut Social Security, which apparently no one’s going to do, and if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them.”

A disarming appeal to economic populism ran through Biden’s address. The speech’s signature line—“Let’s finish the job”—cannily foregrounded the defense of labor while also needling the GOP with the first-person plural, since Biden well knows as a veteran lawmaker how little of his agenda will survive determined Republican opposition in the House. It also shaped the speech’s structure, as former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet notes: “Wisely, he structured the speech so that he talked about jobs, wages, health care, and the social stability that comes with a fair economy—young people not having to leave their hometowns to get good jobs—before addressing climate change, police reform, and Ukraine. He presented producerist populism (jobs and wages) before consumerist populism (against overcharges and rip-offs).”

That approach also dictated the speech’s pacing. Instead of leading with the traditional applause line that has opened nearly all modern State of the Union speeches—”the state of our union is strong”—Biden withheld it till the closing moment, so he could portray that strength as an earned collective good, and not a managerial presumption: “Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the state of the union is strong.”

Biden seems to have been mindful of the failures on matters of political economy from the Obama White House, where he served two terms as vice president. In the throes of his own debt ceiling crisis, Obama expended immense political capital in the pointless quest for a “grand bargain” with the benefits-slashing congressional right, while also failing to punish the vast corps of economic bad actors who brought about the 2008 meltdown. Biden, by contrast, has wisely refused to open negotiations with bad-faith GOP leaders on the debt ceiling, forcefully calling their bluff in last night’s speech. At the same time, his antitrust appeal focused chiefly on the abuses of the monopoly platforms of Big Tech—a cause that, unlike many of his other proposals, could garner significant GOP support in Congress.

In diverging from the playbook of his former boss and most immediate Democratic successor, Biden is putting forth a fundamentally different vision of the country’s political economy. While touting the achievements of the infrastructure law, he made a point of stressing their economic nationalist implementation against the reflexive free-trade dogmas of the Democratic mainstream: “When we do these projects—again, I get criticized for it, but I make no excuses for it—we’re going to buy American. It’s totally consistent with international trade rules.”

He also paused here, as at several other key junctures in the speech, to render the upshot of this policy shift in unabashed emotional terms.

We’ll be investing in people and places that have been forgotten. Too many people have been left behind, treated like they were invisible. Maybe that’s you at home.… You wonder if a path even exists anymore, for you and your children to get ahead without moving away.

While Biden depicts himself as an indefatigable optimist, these evocations of displacement and fractured hopes ground his appeals to the country’s soul and ingenuity in a deeper awareness of tragedy and loss. At times, though, this tendency can become a rhetorical crutch. One of the most moving passages in the speech occurred when Biden introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols, and delivered an impassioned account of “the talk” that Black and brown parents give their children about police encounters. ”Imagine having to worry like that every time your kid steps into a car,” he marveled. But Biden didn’t connect that moment with any criticism of the structural forces enabling lethal police predation on Black and brown citizens, such as qualified immunity. Instead, he promoted a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants—useful but decidedly piecemeal measures in the country’s racialized policing crisis.

That gap—between Biden’s laudable aspirations for a more equal and just political economy and a dedication to a dubiously operational system of bipartisan governance—will likely determine the ultimate fortunes of his administration after a surprisingly successful first two years. It’s satisfying political theater for him to get the better of bigoted zealots like Greene and Boebert, but new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy spent much of the evening alternately smirking and shaking his head behind Biden’s applause lines.

Then again, McCarthy wasn’t the intended audience here; Biden managed to overcome his own predisposition toward institutional deference and clearly positioned the GOP House majority in an enemy posture. It was a far cry, admittedly, from Franklin Roosevelt’s candid appraisal of his fellow lords of capital in his 1936 nomination speech: “I welcome their hatred.” But it was also a far cry from Bill Clinton’s State of the Union capitulation to a new Republican congressional majority in 1996, when he proclaimed, “The era of big government is over.”

Biden may have an entirely different era in mind, says Kusnet: “Some MAGA intellectuals talk about ‘knowing what time it is.’ Joe Biden is betting his presidency that it’s 1947, a year after the Republicans won the House and the Senate—a low-unemployment but inflationary economy, with international crises. As with Truman, he is presenting as an economic populist, pro-worker and pro-labor, an un-elitist social liberal and a defender of democracy abroad. In 1947 and 1948, Truman challenged congressional Republicans on bread-and-butter issues, and we know how the 1948 election turned out.”

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