This was not a normal State of the Union Address in its middle of spring timing or, due to COVID19 and post-riot restrictions, the size of its audience. Attendance was limited to one/eighth the norm, a strange sight somewhat familiarized to those who watch televised sports and awards shows. But the speech was in its purpose a report on the state of the union, an exercise in mood and agenda setting. President Biden turned the dial to optimistic and went all in on behalf of what he framed as a global competition between democracy (the US and its allies) and autocracy, a direct pitch over the socially distanced heads of Congress to blue collar men and women, and a reprise of his 2020 campaign assertion that when Americans act together nothing can stop them.
Three themes. Three bills. Six trillion dollars.
Not for nothing did Joe Biden put a big portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on display in the Oval Office. However, in terms of rhetorical style Biden is more of a Harry S Truman than an FDR: instead of a jaunty patrician, a folksy plebian given to making a big deal out of anniversaries (Check out “Turnip Day”). Along with his lowballed First Hundred Days deadline to administer one hundred million vaccines, proudly announced as more than doubled this ninety-ninth night, Biden has wagered that July 4 2021 will be “COVID Independence Day,” that 9/11 twenty years after will be the deadline for American troops to leave Afghanistan, and, late in this speech, that Congress should pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act reform bill by the 1st anniversary of his death this May 25. Biden may, like Truman, enjoy poker, but he punches a chess player’s time clock.
Biden also projects an empathetic rah-rah persona that none of his predecessors has proferred. He loves the simple speaking device of repeating words and phrases for emphasis:
Together, we passed the American Rescue Plan, one of the most consequential rescue packages in American history. We’re already seeing the results. We’re already seeing the results.
The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America. That’s what it is.
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. That’s why I introduced the American Families Plan tonight.
Autocrats will not win the future. We will. America will. And the future belongs to America.
Biden related anecdotes about a single mother in Texas and a grandmother in Virginia who averted family disaster thanks to Rescue Plan checks. In normal speeches, they might have been applauded by the chamber (the Democrats, at least) as they stood from their seats near the First Lady in the House Gallery, but this year they went unseen and unnamed. The president sought to rebut the idea that these checks were free lunches awarded to freeloaders:
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t ever think I would see [mass hunger and food lines] in America. And all of this is through no fault of their own. No fault of their own, these people are in this position.
In an aside Biden made it clear to Congress that the beneficiaries were part of his primary audience:
We’re also providing rental assistance — you all know this, but the American people, I want to make sure they understand.
Biden termed the Jobs Plan “a once-in-a-generation investment in America itself. This is the largest jobs plan since World War II.” That’s more like once in a lifetime. He leaned hard into his party’s priorities loaded into the infrastructure plus bill while endeavoring the muster votes from the other party’s ranks. For instance, he thanked “Mitch” [McConnell] for his 2016 suggestion, which he never forgot, that a boost in cancer research be named after “my deceased son.” The Senate as an extended family –but Dad warned that the rest of the world was not waiting for them to come to an agreement.
The Families Plan introduced in this speech consists of four main planks. First, Biden proposed to extend public education from 12 to 16 years, with K through 12 sandwiched between two years of Pre-K and two years of community college. Second came child care subsidies to enable more Americans (women, mainly) to work. Third was paid parental leave. And fourth was expansion of the child tax credit to 2025. Except for the last item, the president did not explain how many years each component would entail; reference to a White House web page with charts and graphs would have helped here.
To pay for this third bill Biden outlined tax increases on the wealthiest 1% and corporations. He pointed out that the tax cut of 2017 did not pay for itself, that it just increased the deficit while CEOs got even richer. Trickle down has never worked, said the president, to Senator Sanders’s evident delight. Biden did not sound like a “far leftist” or “socialist,” as Republicans charge. Still, he is moving in that ideological direction.
The climate change portion of the agenda mostly eschewed scientific exigency in favor of thematic consistency:
For too long we’ve failed to use the most important word when it comes to meeting the climate crisis: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. For me, when I think climate change, I think jobs.
Biden talked about foreign policy by referencing what he had already told world leaders. This approach contrasts with laying out a Doctrine, as James Monroe did in the 1823 State of the Union message, and with spinning imagined conversations about what he will say to them, as his immediate predecessor enjoyed doing. Biden dwelled on the rationale for the Afghanistan pullout. And while he was on the topic, he characterized domestic white supremacy as terrorism.
The president discussed immigration without particular attention to asylum seekers, an aspect of the issue on which he had just wheeled 180 degrees and which will recur as 9/11/21 approaches and more of the world’s petitioners hail from Afghanistan.
The last issue module of the speech concerned “the sacred right to vote.” Biden urged passage of the Democrats’ voting rights bills as essential to democracy. The autocrats of the world are betting we can’t preserve it, he said. But they’re wrong and let’s prove it.
In his close Biden returned to the vaccination success and democracy’s survival of the January 6 riots. Then, having made throughout the address an elaborate economic pitch to voters once known as Reagan Democrats, he tried to close the deal by disputing the Gipper’s core principle:
It’s time we remembered that “We the people” are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force that we have no control over. It’s us. It’s “We the people.”
Responding to a presidential address is inherently a poor speaking opportunity. Even so, Senator Tim Scott made the least of it. He tried to combine the opposition’s response with a campaign autobiography, and as a consequence his transitions were choppy. He rushed at times. He neglected the obvious criticism of the high price tag for Biden’s plans, using hot-button attack words in lieu of raising red flags about the possible impacts on private-sector investment and inflation.
Scott was at his best pointing out that public schools should have opened months ago. But he was incoherent about race, saying he had experienced the pain of discrimination but then claiming that America is not a racist country. I knew what he meant in terms of his autobiography, that his family story went from picking cotton to serving in Congress. But as a critique of the Democratic positions much was left oblique. His defense of the controversial Georgia law on voting procedures and election administration was extremely selective.
Scott sounded petty and divisive compared with Biden. He impugned the president’s character at the start, saying that he “seems like a good man.” He attacked Democrats at every turn, where Biden warned Republicans about inaction but offered to listen and compromise on key aspects of the legislative agenda, including those where Scott has been an able negotiator.
The Republicans will need to do better in their public statements as the Biden bets take shape and his deadlines approach. Their capacity to do so depends in no small part on how they deal with the man whose name was never uttered by either speaker last night.