In some respects, Joe Biden’s third state of the union address was a reflection of who Biden has long been. From jocular salutes to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to vintage celebrations of bipartisanship underwritten by the liturgy of American exceptionalism, Biden’s speech covered plenty of familiar territory. In other parts, however, Biden offered a refreshing rhetorical break — not only from the kinds of things Democrats have typically emphasized but even occasionally from his own record and history.
Thus, a former senator and vice president who has sought multiple times to cut Medicare and Social Security emphatically pledged to protect them. Biden, no stranger to donations from the pharmaceutical industry, also uttered the words “Big Pharma” and chastised companies for raising the price of prescription drugs. Despite having recently spearheaded the effort to impose a contract on railworkers poised to strike for paid sick days, he endorsed the potentially transformative labor law reform package the PRO Act, heralded blue-collar workers, and declared, “I’m so sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing.”
Throughout, Biden’s various progressive flourishes were occasionally punctuated with more familiar themes. In talking about Medicare, for example, he simply couldn’t resist linking the issue to deficit reduction. His welcome salvos directed at corporations and the wealthy, meanwhile, were often tempered by characteristic assurances that no fundamental conflict of interest exists between economic fairness and corporate profit. Given the extent of the conservative assault on reproductive rights, Biden’s might have devoted more time to abortion and been less salutatory towards the Supreme Court. His appeals for police reform and racial justice measures also, predictably, came with the usual language about the inherent nobility of law enforcement.
Nonetheless, Biden’s chosen themes seemed to occasionally channel a liberalism that is rhetorically distinct from that of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
The speech only looked better in light of the surreally bizarre fifteen-minute Republican response to his speech. Throughout, Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders not only appeared to be attacking a speech Biden hadn’t actually made but also seemed determined to retread much of the culture war terrain that served Republicans so poorly in last year’s midterms.
If the intended purpose of Sanders’s remarks was to convey a youthful image of realism and common sense, they failed, instead suggesting a GOP so addicted to its culture war schtick that it can only shadowbox with phantoms of its own invention. “Woke mobs,” critical race theory, the supposed epidemic of public school “indoctrination”: it was basically all there, interspersed with the usual flag-waving and neo-Reaganite condemnations of Big Government.
If the two speeches are a preview of the political dynamic that will define the next two years, then they almost certainly signify a terrain more advantageous to the Democrats. A bread-and-butter economic message centering the protection of Medicare and Social Security has much broader appeal than internet-fueled right-wing moral panics. For all the media chatter about how Democrats are electorally imperiled by the fringiest elements in their base, Sanders’s weird and detached response suggests GOP elites have yet to learn much from the failure of their Libs of TikTok–derivative 2022 midterm strategy. Should that remain the case, liberals will reap the rewards.
But the cardinal limitation of Biden-era liberalism — at least in achieving more than the odd legislative victory or electoral success — continues to be its all-too familiar preference for elite brokerage and lack of any strategy for pursuing its stated goals outside of the Beltway. For all its various rhetorical breaks from the past, Bidenism remains grounded in a conception of politics that is averse to mass movement–building and the kind of confrontational, populist approach that would be necessary to achieve it. A liberalism willing to openly criticize pharmaceutical companies and endorse unionization is clearly preferable to one that isn’t. But it will ultimately suffer the very same problems in trying to turn its rhetoric into reality.