President Joe Biden will deliver his third State of the Union address tonight, and it will in all likelihood go according to plan. The presentation will be steady and competent. Not too much drama. After 36 years in the US Senate—eight years as vice president and more than two years as president—Biden knows how to SOTU. He’ll deliver a recitation of recent economic good news, outline policy goals, take a few subtle swipes at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a Republican majority that is functional only in its ability to stall the president’s agenda, and finish with a temperate call to action that reinforces the assumption that he’ll be bidding for a second term in 2024.
Unless the president is interrupted by an outburst from the chamber—as happened to President Barack Obama in 2009—Biden’s speech will be the predictable focal point of the evening. That’s appropriate enough. But it is in the responses to the president’s speech that clashing visions for America’s future will be most sharply delineated.
On one side will be Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who once served as spokesperson for former President Donald Trump and who on Tuesday night will serve as spokesperson for a Republican Party that is struggling to define itself as something more than a tribune for Trumpism. Don’t expect much in the way of fresh messaging from Huckabee Sanders, who will chart a tempestuous course that’s designed to put the best spin on the party’s internal chaos while avoiding any comments that might offend her former boss. If past is prologue, she’ll devote most of her allotted time to attacking Biden, as that’s the only thing Republicans seem to be able to agree upon these days.
The more substantive response will come from newly elected US Representative Delia Catalina Ramirez, an Illinois Democrat who since her election last year has established herself as one of the most thoughtful and engaged members of the current Congress. Her message, honed during the better part of two decades spent working as a community activist in Chicago, will counsel that Democrats can and must offer a bold progressive program as the counterpoint to Republican obstruction and extremism.
“That gives Democrats an opportunity—if we can seize it,” says Ramirez, who will respond to the president’s speech on behalf of the Working Families Party, which argues that Democrats can build voter enthusiasm and congressional majorities by promoting a progressive agenda deeply rooted in commitments to economic, social, and racial justice, climate action, and a just foreign policy. At a time when there is a great deal of pressure on Biden and party leaders in the House and the Senate to veer toward the center, Ramirez and the WFP see a future for a left-leaning Democratic Party that is engaged with the real-life issues that matter for working-class Americans.
“I will be laying out a vision for how Democrats can win working-class voters of all races and nationalities by fighting for a government that has working people’s backs,” Ramirez tweeted on Friday.
The representative argued in a statement that “Social Security, Medicare, abortion rights and comprehensive immigration reform are not political talking points. They’re essential to our nation’s well being.” She added, “We must also show working people how Democrats will deliver for them if they put us back in the majority. That’s our path to a working families majority in Congress.”
That’s long been the message of the WFP, which has claimed time on recent State of the Union nights—with responses by New York Representative Jamaal Bowman in 2021 and Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib in 2022—to urge the Biden administration to renew its push for the progressive proposals outlined in the initial “Build Back Better” plan. Unlike Republican responses, the WFP presentations are not attacks on the president. Rather, they are practical arguments for a more progressive agenda that will excite a multiracial, multiethnic coalition to deliver wins for Democrats.
“We want to make a contribution—productive, in coalition, with the president to ensure that Democrats focus on the issues of working people,” explains WFP National Director Maurice Mitchell. This year, with its choice of Ramirez to deliver the party’s response, the WFP has gone with a newcomer who has made headlines as the first Latina to be elected to Congress from the Midwest.
Not yet 40, Ramirez is already an experienced legislator, having served two terms in the Illinois state House as a bold progressive who has successfully fought to make her state the first in the union to provide Medicaid benefits to families regardless of immigration status. And she didn’t stop there: Ramirez has also fought for humane criminal justice reforms, championed organized labor, and during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, emerged as a forceful advocate for rent relief, eviction moratoriums, and a housing-for-all agenda.
This focus on meeting the practical needs of her constituents is rooted in Ramirez’s experience as a child of Guatemalan immigrants who became a community activist at a young age. She served as the president of a Chicago neighborhood association while still in her early 20s, then took the helm of the Center for Changing Lives, a nonprofit that works to provide shelter to people who are unhoused, and eventually led the innovative Latin United Community Housing Association.
Like another progressive newcomer to the House, Texas Democrat Greg Casar, Ramirez is influenced in every aspect of her service by her experience as an organizer. She takes progressive positions without apology because her years of grassroots work with people who are struggling to get by have taught her that a strong and functional federal government is not just necessary but popular. She recognizes the power and potential of electoral politics, as evidenced by her deep engagement with local, state, and federal campaigns that have advanced women and people of color to positions of power in Chicago. And, as she told me during the 2022 campaign, she sees her position in the House as a platform for getting the Democratic Party and the Congress more involved with those issues that are vital to working-class Americans of all backgrounds.
Responding to the State of the Union address is about more than going through the motions on a night that is characterized by pomp, circumstance, and ritual. The WFP response is vital, says Ramirez, because it’s “a road map to a future that really uplifts working people.”