What Biden’s State of the Union Was Missing, According to Young People

What Biden’s State of the Union Was Missing, According to Young People

What Biden’s State of the Union Was Missing, According to Young People

From climate change, to policing, to labor rights, to the Covid-19 pandemic, here are the issues that young people hope Biden will focus on after his SOTU address.

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On Tuesday, President Joe Biden delivered the annual State of the Union address, touting his accomplishments from the past two years and laying out the rest of his priorities as he, presumably, seeks a second term to “finish the job.” But to do that, he will have to win the support of young people. According to estimates from the Center for American Progress, Gen Z and Millennials will make up 40 percent of the votes in 2024. To understand what young people thought about Biden’s speech, we asked StudentNation writers from around the country to highlight the most important parts of his agenda—as well as what was missing. From climate change and policing to labor rights and the pandemic, here’s how young people see the president’s agenda.

In this historic moment, there is a huge need for deliberate and coordinated action to address the crises our nation is facing, especially those related to our natural environment. Drawing upon themes of progress and resilience, President Biden’s SOTU remarks seem to fit the bill.

Biden has made undeniable progress on an array of environmental issues. In his remarks, the president highlighted plans to remove lead service lines from toxic lead pipes servicing 10 million homes and 400,000 schools and child care centers. He recalled the success of the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which has funded tens of thousands of meaningful environmental projects.

This is all extraordinary progress and was rightly commended. However, Biden’s recent actions on climate have contradicted this evident emphasis on progress and resilience. The Biden administration recently advanced the Willow Project, which would allow for the drilling of more than 200 wells in the 24 million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Blocking Willow could prevent over 285,000 million metric tons of carbon from being emitted over its 30-year lifespan—roughly equal to the annual emissions of 75 coal-fired power plants. Further, the Alaska Native tribe of Nuiqsut has opposed the proposal, as it will accelerate climate change and threaten their ancestral homelands, wildlife, and their subsistence lifestyle, demonstrating that this project is a matter of racial and environmental justice.

In his speech, however, President Biden went off-script to concede that oil demand will last for at least a decade, evidently prioritizing oil costs over crucial climate action. But taking action to prevent this project from coming to fruition is crucial for addressing the increasing impacts of climate change. After all, in President Biden’s own words, “The climate crisis doesn’t care if your state is red or blue.… We have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it.… there is much more to do.” For the president, the first step of this work is to start being consistent.

Hannah Reynolds

Princeton University

When President Biden declared in his State of the Union Address that “Covid no longer controls our lives,” he failed to call attention to the “tripledemic” that has affected 40 percent of American households, the one in 13 adults who suffers from long Covid, and the millions of immunocompromised Americans at high risk of infection and death. Biden was, however, correct in identifying that public opinion has shifted on the Covid-19 pandemic, with only 31 percent of Americans reporting that they are worried about getting sick from Covid-19, the flu, or RSV. However, as the Biden administration recently decided to end the Covid national emergency, removing a host of protections including free and widespread access to testing, the White House is now quite limited in its options to mitigate possible future outbreaks.

Biden, however, stressed that “we still need to monitor dozens of variants and support new vaccines and treatments.” The White House has made its position clear: A circulating virus, even one that mutates, is not as much of a concern as the economic and political ramifications of public health precautions. And yet only 28 percent of Americans have received a dose of the updated bivalent booster. It looks increasingly clear that the administration’s laissez-faire approach is leaving the most vulnerable behind, a price most of the public is willing to pay for a “return to normal.” The little time Biden spent in his address on the continuing pandemic both illustrates and informs the current political reality.

–Theia Chatelle

Yale University

There are few events in American politics more obscene than a president’s State of the Union address. Although Trump heightened its absurdity—giving the Medal of Freedom to radio xenophobe Rush Limbaugh—the SOTU has always been an exercise in spectacle. The 2023 address was especially disappointing not because of the things President Biden said but what he failed to say.

Of course, few people thought Biden would make police reform a priority in his speech. Biden’s rhetoric around race and policing is more empathetic than Trump’s—admittedly, a low bar. He quoted Tyre Nichols’s mother in saying “something good must come of this,” but then proceeded to give a standard issue response to the racist violence endemic in our society. As the militarized police apparatus only grows, with forests demolished to accelerate its expansion, this moment requires more from public figures than condolences. The murder of Tortuguita and Nichols stains our collective conscience, and we must dedicate ourselves to overturning the modern law enforcement system.

The president mentioned how he signed an executive order fiddling at the issues’ periphery, banning chokeholds, and limiting use of no-knock warrants, and called for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. In an earlier time, those measures might be enough to placate the public, but the current moment is one defined by white supremacist violence—shown in Buffalo and Minneapolis—and any politician not advocating for a transformation of American policing isn’t acknowledging the true state of the union.

–Zurie Pope

University of Cincinnati

President Biden’s focus on workers was appropriate for a political moment when the majority of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck amid a resurgent support of labor. Naturally, this emphasis connects with young people who predominantly hold minimum-wage jobs and are involved in union organizing.

Biden referred to his presidency as a “blue-collar blueprint” to rebuild America, railing against corporate abuse of the tax system and apathy towards American workers, saying that “for too long, workers have been getting stiffed.” The president spoke about how “we are beginning to restore the dignity of work,” and highlighted a Cincinnati ironworker of the Local 44 union who attended the speech. That dignity includes guaranteeing a living wage, the right to a union, and accessible education.

Of course, these are all correct assessments. American workers deserve a far better deal. However, the lack of truly ambitious ideas made the calls feel lackluster at best and performative at worst. Biden acknowledged the struggles of the working class, but neglected to highlight concrete proposals beyond the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, instead opting to simply call for higher wages. The PRO Act would amend labor laws and the National Labor Relations Board to protect worker unionizing efforts, but the bill has languished in Congress since 2021.

If Biden really is sick of union-busting and wants to strengthen the middle class, his party needs to fight tooth and nail, seeking court injunctions against labor law-breakers such as Starbucks and going beyond $10,000 of student debt relief.

It is true that Biden is the most pro-union president in recent memory, and this State of the Union reflected that, marking a return—at least rhetorically—of politics concerned with workers’ rights. Yet there is a lot of work to be done before Biden’s rhetoric can become reality.

–Porter Wheeler

University of Oregon

In what was arguably one of the most progressive of such speeches in recent decades, President Biden expressed his commitment to making sure the US “at last” steps up to the existential threat that is the climate crisis. Simultaneously, he called out the billionaires and the “wealthiest and biggest corporations” that have for years avoided paying billions of dollars in federal taxes. Climate change, which disproportionately harms the most marginalized communities in the US and elsewhere, is indeed the most pressing existential threat of our time, and it’s true that billionaires and giant corporations, through their failure to pay taxes, are further undercutting the federal government’s ability to respond. The system, as Biden said, “is not fair.”

It is important that Biden, at least outwardly, recognizes this. The problem is his proposed path forward. There is already research showing that the fossil fuel industry is the industry most responsible for driving the climate crisis; over 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced to 100 fossil fuel companies, according to a 2017 report. And yet, while experts (and activists) have shown that the best path towards a livable future is a swift, just transition away from fossil fuels, the president only called out fossil fuel companies for not investing in more fossil fuel projects, a clear misdiagnoses of the problem. “Last year, [Big Oil] made $200 billion in the midst of a global energy crisis,” he said. “They invested too little of that profit to increase domestic production…. Instead, they used the record profits to buy back their own stock.” The solution Biden laid out to raise the tax on stock buybacks only addressed half of the problem. The climate crisis is here, and calling for the expansion of and further investment in oil projects, as the president did publicly in his address, will only exacerbate it.

–Sofia Andrade

Harvard University

Biden claimed that some Republicans are proposing to cut Social Security and Medicare, but failed to explain what these plans are or reveal the culprits behind the scheme. He received jeers and boos from Republicans and a thumbs down from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene.

This move from Biden, however, had a positive effect, causing an apparent consensus to protect both Medicare and Social Security. “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now,” said Biden. “They’re not to be touched? All right. We’ve got unanimity!”

This came after Biden’s opening remarks where he invited Democrats and Republicans to work together. On Biden’s part, this moment could be seen as a reprise of his earlier attempt to unite a divided House of Representatives when his term first began. Of course, this divide can be seen in various scenes of the State of the Union. At times, half the room would stand and cheer during Biden’s address, while others would stay firmly seated. Many times, Vice President Kamala Harris could be seen standing and clapping, while House Speaker Kevin McCarthy remained silent.

Although Biden was able to point to his administration’s accomplishments as gears up for reelection in 2024, he has much more work to do if he wants to unite both a divided government and public.

–Rania Soetirto

University of California, Los Angeles

With numerous studies suggesting that the world will careen past 1.5 degrees of warming within the next decade, the need for serious climate leadership from the world’s largest historically emitting nation is at an all-time high.

Certainly, as he touted in his address, President Biden has advanced such leadership. Between the $369 billion of clean energy spending in the Inflation Reduction Act, $67 billion for zero-carbon industry development and climate-related research in the CHIPS and Science Act, and further funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Rocky Mountain Institute found, 2020–22 saw a historic level of federal investment in climate spending. That spending also accompanied ambitious new emissions reduction goals.

Yet even while denouncing fossil fuel companies for massively profiting off the energy crisis driven by Russia’s war on Ukraine, and calling for wealthy corporations to pay their “fair share” instead of lining shareholders’ pockets, Biden failed to articulate a clear vision for holding oil and gas giants accountable. With his term half-over, a Republican House majority, and a slim Democratic Senate majority, Biden risks leaving the Oval Office a climate laggard—and frontline communities and young people deeply vulnerable—if he fails to go the distance.

From his first day on the job, climate activists have called for Biden to realize the full potential of his executive powers, including by declaring a national climate emergency to unlock new climate spending streams; investigating and prosecuting the companies pursuing “carbon bomb” projects; and rejecting new fossil fuel infrastructure in accordance with IEA findings of what a global net-zero by 2050 pathway requires. Americans don’t need—and young people won’t vote for—a president touting the industry line of a continued need for fossil fuel dependence; we need a president who sees the climate crisis as an imperative for a rapid, just energy transition and understands that we can’t afford to wait for the next mega-drought, forest fire, or storm to hit before taking every measure to stop corporate greed from burning the planet.

–Ilana Cohen

Harvard University

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