Those with a favorable opinion of Joe Biden will have found plenty to like about his first State of the Union address.
In the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden’s speech retained the general thrust of his domestic agenda and reiterated his commitment to key Democratic priorities — offering a laundry list of appeals attractive to the party’s base. Notably, the president again endorsed the potentially transformative PRO Act. He called for a $15 minimum wage and the extension of the poverty-fighting (though recently expired) Child Tax Credit. He talked of voting rights and called on corporate America and its wealthy to pay their fair share. He spoke about reproductive justice and the ongoing offensives against Roe v. Wade and the basic dignity of transgender people.
The force of these remarks, it must be said, was somewhat blunted by a more emblematic streak of triangulation — most visibly around the issue of policing, which saw Biden quite brazenly default to the law and order rhetoric that has often defined his political career. More importantly, though, it was a speech heavy on liturgy but lacking a compelling overall narrative. Biden did sound progressive notes and alluded to real injustices. But his remarks failed even to hint at any overarching story about where they came from and why they persist.
In Biden’s telling, climate change is real and Americans deserve better health care and cheaper prescription drugs; working families need a raise and corporations need to pay higher taxes; America’s democratic institutions are under threat and police departments need to be more accountable. Yet in each instance, the president’s words seemed to come with a qualifier or omission that sapped their effect.
Who or what, it could reasonably be asked, is actually causing climate change? By the same token, what is it about for-profit pharmaceutical companies that encourages price-gouging and deprives desperate people of urgently needed drugs? Wealthy Americans have been pampered with useless tax cuts, but Biden took pains to assure those with cash-strapped incomes of $400,000 a year that they won’t pay a cent more and the same corporations he otherwise suggested were engaging in monopolism that he wasn’t out to “punish anybody.” He alluded to the Disclose Act and the need “for Americans to know who is funding our elections” yet said nothing about the very corporate capture of Congress responsible for stifling his own agenda or the obstructive institutions currently empowering the Right and suppressing democratic majority rule.
This is not ultimately an indictment of Biden’s speechwriters, but rather a deeper statement about the contradictory posture of American liberalism and its political vessel, the Democratic Party. In the contemporary liberal imagination, disparate problems and injustices exist but, with systemic diagnoses more or less ruled out, their roots and causes must remain forever ethereal.
Steeped in deference toward the inherent wisdom of the market and the intrinsic nobility of standing institutions, Biden’s brand of centrist progressivism can thus imagine lower drug prices and recognize the pain caused by long illness but cannot fathom a system in which health care is a right removed from considerations of profit altogether. It can acknowledge the science of climate change yet cannot identify extractive capitalism as its root. It can declare the need for transparency about the special interests that have long funded both major parties but stops well short of demanding any actual end to the corruption. It can grasp the grotesque brutality of police chokeholds but has no conception of alternatives to the bankrupt law and order politics of the 1980s and ’90s. It can softly indict large companies for price-gouging or union-busting but cannot single out the financial incentives driving them as the ultimate cause.
In short, it’s a style of politics incapable of embracing the means necessary to realize even its own stated ends. For some, Biden’s election signaled nothing less than a new era of American social democracy and a presidency in the reformist mold of FDR. At the zenith of the Great Depression, Roosevelt called on Americans “to become fairly radical for a generation” — channeling a populist ethos that has found no analogue in a Biden White House and proved entirely absent from his first State of the Union.