SOTU In a Nutshell: Ukraine Happened & White Middle Class Priorities
President Biden's first official State of the Union before Congress skipped quite a few notes ... & went out of tune on much of the rest. Still: That shouldn't hold Democrats back
Joint Composition | Ellison & Potter
We all want a State of the Union we can write love letters about. Yet, no State of the Union will ever make everyone happy. That’s the nature of the president’s annual address before Congress where he outlines, in broad concert piano strokes, his perspective on where things are with the country and what he plans on doing to make it better. It’s the president’s world view - and, honestly, it’s a bit more lame and milquetoast than the frequent Prime Minister’s Questions sessions that Britain’s executive leader is subjected to before a knives-out audience of boisterous British Parliamentarians. We believe American politics would be in such a better place if we did that here.
But, back to SOTU2022. It, sadly, underwhelmed many of us. It’s a worthwhile watch - any, SOTU, for that matter, is. But, it’s not a captivating or motivational watch. If you were looking for that fire speech where President Biden - leader of a beleagured party that is weirdly preparing itself for certain electoral death and wipeout at the polls in these upcoming midterm plus Gubernatorial and state races - finally gets that party riled up for victory, don’t wait around. This didn’t hit those notes. “It's a difference between what I want in this SOTU and what we're going to see,” said longtime Philadelphia-based political strategist JoAnn Bell during a special WURD SOTU coverage broadcast.
She called it. Instead, what we did see was a rushed copy and paste of White middle class priorities by a rushed White House speechwriter who got mad that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine happened. To his credit, the president has managed that crisis quite well, considering. But, he’s preoccupied with anticipating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s next move, and this speech showed it. That didn’t give his speechwriter much direction on what to leave in and what to leave out in what could have been an epic domestic policy comeback moment.
The Ukraine portion of the speech was the strongest. Biden threw solid punches at Putin early, as we probably expected. "Ukraine inspires the world; light will win over darkness." That sounded very Star Wars and we like that. Plus, the Commander in Chief doubled down on the US's commitment to NATO and announced he is closing off airspace to Putin and Russia. "He has no idea what is coming." Cool.
Yet, he never arrived at that point where he framed the battles for democracy here at home in the same frame. He never really made that direct linkage between the rise of white nationalist autocracy in Europe and the rise of white nationalist separatism in the United States. This could’ve been that historic, almost Churchillian moment when he “declares war on anti-democratic authoritarianism that is trying to destroy our multicultural values.” Instead, his speech acted as if the attacks on voting rights and the Reconstruction Acts aren’t happening when, clearly, they are.
Still, it was refreshing to finally have a president who unequivocally states that NATO “does matter” and that it’s necessary. And there were moments where he could’ve put on his signature sunglasses and fighter pilot jacket as he boasted on about how he was putting the hurt on the Russian economy.
That said, the bulk of this SOTU was a veiled and somewhat weak attempt at reviving Build Back Better or to renew it. Biden said that Infrastructure dollars will stay in the economy and that the U.S. will "buy American," transitioning away from the working class white racism of "America First" towards the working production power and the possibilities of the Build Back Better Act.
But, in doing so, he spent the evening painting outdated depictions of Made-in-America and manufacturing factories rising from the dust of Rust Belt post-industrial malaise. It was also surreal how just four months ago we had the global COP 26 climate conference warning us that either we reduce fossil fuel consumption or risk faster planetary destruction ... yet, on Tuesday, we were cheering on the release of 60 million barrels of strategic oil reserves for lower gas prices. Audomobile inflation accounts for a third of the inflation we are seeing today. Our dependence on fossil fuels is driving inflation. Duh.
It took a while before we got to “climate change,” finally, and in just one brief instant. Biden threw rather solid punches at trickle down economics & tax cuts. Hit line: "we're done talking about Infrastructure Week. It's time to talk about Infrastructure Decade.” Still: The boisterous talk about oil and gas, building bridges, expanding roads and aircraft carriers was slightly off-putting - it took a while mentioning or emphasizing clean energy and climate crisis response. And with all the talk about China, the U.S. can’t compete with China without a bold clean energy plan.
So, we're at that stage where we're going to start scrubbing the transcript in frantic search of "climate change" or "climate crisis" or "extreme weather," at least because there's a lot of smokestack, "Rust Belt" imagery in this. One other hit line: "I have another idea on how to reduce inflation: Lower your costs, not your wages." When we finally pivoted to climate change and clean energy, it wasn’t exactly a center piece, but more like a checklist priority of things he had to say. And what took so long for him to finally tout what was, arguably, the most popular provision in Build Back Better: child care. He finally talked about cutting child care by half. We’ve been urging the administration to simply say that since last year.
We got shout outs to clean energy, climate change, child care, Pell Grants, even "HBCUs" .... but, for those in search of student loan debt relief, there was nothing. For those wanting to hear him say something or announce something really bold or urgent on voting rights, nothing beyond just telling the Senate to pass voting rights policy it already made up its mind not to pass, thanks to Senate Republicans. As political strategist Mustafa Rashed later told WURD’s Reality Check: “I felt like this speech was tailored for independent, moderate and Republican voters. It wasn’t tailored to rally his base. It was disappointing.”
Biden, instead, gave a speech to restore White middle class dreams of a return to normalcy. He came just short of saying the pandemic was finally over and sounded just short of Republican as he did that, with the House chamber removed of masks and social distancing - when most Americans don’t really think it’s under control ….
He urged people to send their kids back to schools (funny how he mentioned no education priorities or ways to get those kids better educated) and to get back to their offices. But, why rush people "back to offices" so they can sit in traffic on clogged roads burning up expensive gas, adding to unhealthy air and unable to afford the gas that's making everyone broke ... vs. just doing the efficient, climate-friendly, and sensible thing? Why, also, have American society buy more gas when oil and gas is clearly a national security threat? Wouldn’t reducing our reliance on more fossil fuels help us limit Russia’s weaponization of them?
And then there was that awful “don’t defund the police we need to fund the police" statement he made emphatically which was completely unnecessary - and, again, hit a note that was awfully Republican-made. How are you going to out-sloganeer the slogan after telling progressives since 2020 that slogans are counter-productive? Biden and others in his circle have to ask: is picking a rhetorical fight with progressives really worth it? And what about "fund and invest in the communities?" Why not, in discussing police accountability, illustrating the contrast between the brave Black Capitol Police office, Eugene Goodman, who literally saved the House of Democracy Biden was giving that speech in, and the villainous Derek Chauvin who represents the worst and most evil of American policing.
What about …
So there was no big, bold plan this Tuesday. Sorry Millennials and down-&-out GenXers: there was no moonshot student loan debt cancellation for you. This was a laundry list. Biden was more focused on Ukraine and more intent on, understandably, calling for more bipartisan moments and national unity in our politics. But, that can’t be achiveable without a functioning democracy. And, democracy in America right now is in real peril in 2022. This speech gave us no real sense that he understands that or appreciates it like he should.
Biden failed to speak to the realities of low-income BIPOC folks. But he did touch on key Black issues including police accountability, voting rights, & SCOTUS. Unless you think all Latinos are immigrants, he didn’t touch upon Latino or Indigenous concerns at all.
So, in typical Democratic Party messaging fashoin, all we got is a nap in the social studies classroom. The #SOTU2022 speech was very white and middle class centric. Predictably.
But, our response to it can’t be cynical or self-defeating. It must be coalitional. Militantly so. We have to start recognizing each other's needs and how White Democrats aren't meeting them. But we have to do it in a way that brings us together. Biden has White ppl reading the polls to him, so they figure the best counter that’s actually the exact opposite.
We can’t expect the White Democrats to do anything right. When they do anything wrong, well, duh, they’re the White Democrats. So, what do we do as a coalition to take the party from them? And we’ll take a dimwitted privileged white middle-class centered Democrat over a fascist, anti-voting rights, go-back-to-slavery neo-Confederate White Republican any day. And remember, we had that same choice during the Civil War. What wasn’t that difficult a choice to make in 1861 shouldn’t be that difficult a choice to make in 2022
We can't win 2022 or 2024 without Black folks in GA and PA, Indigenous folks in AZ, and Latino folks in NM and CA. If we come together, we can flip LA, AL, MS, NC, SC, AK, TX, and FL and take control of the Democratic Party. But we have to advance and defend as a coalition. Biden may have have struck out in his State of the Union, but it doesn’t mean we have to wipe ourselves out in the process.