There were Congressmen and Senators waving miniature Ukrainian flags. At one point the crowd actually broke out into a spontaneous chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” It was that kind of night.
During the long opening section of his State of the Union address last night, Joe Biden sounded like nothing so much as a president delivering a State of the Union address at the outset of a war between the United States and Russia. Four sentences in, he was declaring an “unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny” — a line that brought the gallery roaring to its feet.
At the end of the speech, Biden said, “God bless our troops” and then, in an apparently impromptu flourish, added what was probably supposed to be “go get ’em.” I’m sure he meant that as a general expression of enthusiasm for America’s military machine “getting” various enemies around the world — but in the most disturbing of a great many verbal stumbles over the course of the evening, it sounded like he said “go get him.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who had the momentary nightmarish thought that “him” might mean Vladimir Putin.
It’s true that tensions between the superpowers are at their highest point in many decades. It’s also true there would be a significant risk of a major war in the aftermath of significant escalations like the establishment of a no-fly zone in Ukraine, which the Biden administration says they have ruled out, but Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and American elected officials from both parties will likely continue to request. As of this moment, though, it’s unlikely that the United States will be at war with Russia.
That’s a very good thing. As President John F. Kennedy put it the last time the United States and Russia came this close to the brink, “even the fruits of victory” in such a conflict could very well be “ashes in our mouths.”
Given that Biden is not actually going to elevate himself to the politically untouchable status of a wartime president, then, what kind of presidency is the rest of his term shaping up to be?
In Biden’s first year, he passed another round of temporary COVID relief, following up on what Trump had already done, as well as an infrastructure bill which was sufficiently Chamber of Commerce–friendly to enjoy broad bipartisan support. As far as domestic policy goes, that’s just about all he actually got through — and he stopped even talking about some of his more ambitious campaign promises. It’s a dismal record, and it’s getting harder and harder to imagine him avoiding an electoral catastrophe in the midterms.
What he offered last night, once he turned his attention away from Eastern Europe, sounded like more of the same. There were bits and pieces of populist economic rhetoric, but that rhetoric sounded an awful lot like the kind delivered by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, with lots of emphasis on infrastructure and education and producing a better workforce to win “the economic competition of the twentieth-first century,” and relatively little about structural changes to make life better for the workforce we already have.
In the 2020 election, as Bernie Sanders was putting forward a democratic socialist program to improve the lives of working people, Biden ran as an unapologetic moderate. Like several of the other centrist candidates, Biden rejected Medicare for All and embraced the compromise proposal of a public health care option that would compete with ordinary private plans. Unlike most of the others, Biden didn’t bother trying to split the rhetorical difference between the two proposals with some awkward formulation like Medicare for All Who Want It. He just called it a “public option.”
He did campaign on providing that option, though — a fact that you wouldn’t have guessed from the speech he gave last night. He said that anti-viral COVID pills would be offered for free, which is wonderful. But when he talked about insulin, he merely said that the price should be “capped” at an affordable rate. Biden didn’t even try to explain why the same principle shouldn’t be applied in both cases.
He briefly talked about raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but he didn’t mention that the Democrats already made a half-hearted attempt to do exactly that last year. When the Senate parliamentarian, a low-level staffer who issues nonbinding opinions, absurdly claimed last year that they couldn’t include it in a reconciliation bill because raising millions of people out of poverty wouldn’t have “significant budgetary consequences,” Biden and the Senate Democrats simply shrugged their shoulders and moved on.
There was a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to the PRO Act, the proposed reform that would work to fix America’s incredibly broken, pro-boss labor law and make it easier for workers to form unions, but anyone who’s memory extends all the way back to 2021 knows that Biden put very little political capital into trying to pass it then; as an active agenda item, it’s barely a memory now.
As journalist Ana Kasparian pointed out last night, in some ways the most important omission from the speech was any mention of “labor and the gains they’ve made for themselves without help from Congress or the Executive branch.” Kasparian mentioned the successful strikes at John Deere and Nabisco. We could add the shockingly large wave of unionizations at Starbucks locations around the country.
The truth is that, apart from refraining from turning them into radioactive ash by escalating the war in Ukraine to World War III, it’s unlikely that the Biden administration is going to do much for the working class. Some of the exact promises that Joe Biden made in 2020, like “card check” for union elections (a process for union recognition that would help avoid the onslaught of union-busting that workers currently face when they organize unions which is a key component of the PRO Act) and a health care “public option,” were made by Obama in 2008. And they were heading down the memory hole by about this point in the Obama administration. Without any significant change in the political landscape, that cycle of promising desperately needed policies for the working class only to let them quietly slip away will likely play out during the next Democratic administration too.
If that landscape is going to change for the better, it’s going to have to be changed by workers organizing. The state of the union and the State of the Union are both depressing. But if working people take matters into their own hands, it doesn’t have to be like this forever.