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President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address is next Tuesday. Amid an uprising sparked by yet another horrific video of police violence, deep uncertainty about U.S. fiscal and monetary policy, and continuing wars and threats around the world, the nation — or at least, the politics junkies in the nation — will gather to hear the President lay out his agenda to a Congress absolutely no one reasonably expects will deliver on it, or likely even take it all that seriously.
What is the point of the media hubbub about the State of the Union every year? Do pundits and onlookers actually think that this speech is all that significant? Is it?
We decided to try to answer that question by looking back to those promises kept – and left unfulfilled – from Biden’s first SOTU just one year ago. Did the President’s speech accurately represent the political and policy agenda of the year that followed?
Last year, in case you forgot, Biden tried to sell a message of bipartisanship throughout his speech. His “unity agenda for the nation” saw him pleading with the likes of Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor-Greene – who heckled him even as he teared up in remembrance of his dearly departed son.
We said at the time that Biden should believe the Republican party when it shows him its disdain for basic decorum and for the public interest. We still believe that. Instead of compromising on the platform he won the presidency with, Biden should dedicate his messaging to the actual pursuit of the public good, and hold himself accountable to actually delivering on it.
On Opportunities Missed
- COVID-19 and Pandemic Preparedness: “Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, COVID-19 need no longer control our lives. I know some are talking about ‘living with COVID-19’. Tonight – I say that we will never just accept living with COVID-19. We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard. […] We’re leaving no one behind or ignoring anyone’s needs as we move forward.”
- According to early data, 267,000 people died from COVID-19 in 2022. That means that COVID will likely remain the third leading cause of death for Americans. Despite this, President Biden declared the pandemic over in September of 2022, and announced the imminent end of the COVID-related national emergency last week. In a week where thousands died of COVID-19, President Biden was on live TV patting himself on the back for the end of the pandemic – and he’s continued to carry that utterly fraudulent air of victory through the rest of the year”
Though Biden promised in last year’s speech that his government would do “everything in [its] power to be ready” for another year of the pandemic, and would “leave no one behind or ignore anyone’s needs as we move forward,” he has instead left thousands of Americans vulnerable to the disease in his administration’s lethargy to act, with an inadequate booster rollout as variants continue to become more transmissible. Meanwhile, life for immunocompromised Americans has only gotten more difficult and treacherous as testing norms shift, the Center for Disease Control chooses to roll back masking recommendations, and the White House actively encourages a return to so-called normalcy. Indeed, Biden even promoted Jeff Zients, the corporate hack who failed to act with any urgency on the pandemic, to White House Chief of Staff. Zients refused to use the Defense Production Act even as much as Trump did, refused to aid vaccination efforts abroad, and routinely put corporate profits over people’s lives during his time as Biden’s ‘COVID Czar.’
Ending the COVID state of emergency will likely have significant negative consequences on the price of vaccines, and free at-home COVID testing will no longer be available. Hospitals will also not see additional funds for COVID-related treatments. It’s hard to square all of this with a promise to leave “no one behind” and “never just accept living with COVID-19,” as Biden promised just last year.
- The Confirmations Crisis: “So what are we waiting for? Let’s get this done. And while you’re at it, confirm my nominees to the Federal Reserve, which plays a critical role in fighting inflation.”
- Last year Biden used the State of the Union to briefly advocate for his Fed nominees to finally be allowed through the Senate confirmations process. This was important, but limited: the confirmations crisis goes far beyond the Fed (and, sadly, Fed Vice Chair for Supervision nominee Sarah Bloom Raskin was defeated by conservadems and Republicans). It’s left dozens of crucial agencies and departments stymied while awaiting for leadership to be seated. The Federal Communications Commission, for example, still lacks a full governing body more than halfway through Biden’s term — if you’re wondering why they still haven’t done anything on those annoying robo-calls, that’s part of the reason.
Biden’s acknowledgement of the Senate’s sloth on confirmations was important. But in the year since, both the White House and Congressional Democratic leadership have failed to address the common-sense confirmations reforms that could significantly alleviate this crisis, and potentially prevent it from happening altogether. Ending blue slips and limiting the amount of time allowed for post-cloture debate could transform this weaponized process. Democratic leadership in the Senate have the capacity to implement these policies when – or if – properly motivated to do so. With an outright Democratic Senate majority now seated in the 118th Congress, hopefully Biden’s nominees will finally be allowed to take their places across the federal landscape.
- Corporate Accountability for Contrived Crises: “Lowering your costs also means demanding more competition. I’m a capitalist, but capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation—and it drives up prices. When corporations don’t have to compete, their profits go up, your prices go up, and small businesses and family farmers and ranchers go under. We see it happening with ocean carriers moving goods in and out of America. During the pandemic, these foreign-owned companies raised prices by as much as 1,000% and made record profits. Tonight, I’m announcing a crackdown on these companies overcharging American businesses and consumers. And as Wall Street firms take over more nursing homes, quality in those homes has gone down and costs have gone up. That ends on my watch.”
- Biden did make progress last year on addressing consolidation in the shipping industry and the extreme price-gouging that that consolidation enables. Last year’s Ocean Shipping Reform Act empowered new oversight authorities from the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC). However, dive deeper and you’ll find that this achievement, though notable, doesn’t change how the FMC is an intentionally inept regulator – one that Biden refused to change.
Of course, Biden’s reticence last spring to name specific corporations and executives as villains also enabled the crisis of corporate malfeasance – and utter abuse of the public – to continue. The Transactional Records Access Database (TRAC) demonstrated that corporate prosecutions were at an all-time low this past year, painting a grim picture of Biden’s corporate crackdown promise keeping (and suggests that the trepidation with which Merrick Garland takes prosecuting Trump extends to other rich and powerful people). Since last winter, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s allowed nearly an entire year of egregious airline-related debacles with only one fine for an American firm to show for it, enforcement-wise. That fine went to the one major national airline without any D.C. lobbyists.
- Inflation and Biden’s Terrible Fed Pick: “So—we have a choice. One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I have a better plan to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages.”
- This was one of Biden’s best SOTU moments from last year – so why did his handpicked Fed chair push businesses to do the exact opposite?
In a May ‘22 presser on inflation, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell lamented labor’s power in the market and opined that bringing unemployment up to bring wages down was the only way to address inflation. Powell’s flippant relationship to the terrors of unemployment and wage suppression on the vast majority of Americans flies in the face of Biden’s professed policy priorities. And the rapid shrink in month-over-month inflation this autumn and winter indicates that — surprise! — team transitory was right all along, and workers enjoying real wage gains for the first time in decades actually isn’t the calamity Powell described. Biden can’t remove Powell now, but he shouldn’t have renominated him in the first place.
And the Fed voice who ought to have been Chair and is currently the uncontested leader of the Fed’s dovish wing? It would be weird and wrong if Biden and Jeffrey Zients moved Lael Brainard to the NEC as has been suggested in recent reporting.
Half In Half Out
- Water Access and Environmental Racism: “[W]e’ll do it all to withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice. We’ll build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, begin to replace poisonous lead pipes—so every child—and every American—has clean water to drink at home and at school, provide affordable high-speed internet for every American—urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities.”
- Last year Biden declared that “every child – and every American – [should have] clean water to drink at home and at school.” He’s made important progress towards this goal, in particular through the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the specific funds it contains earmarked for addressing toxic lead in water pipes that affects communities nationwide each year.
That said, addressing clean water access nationwide is a far larger endeavor that will take significantly more time, funds, and resources to actually address. Estimates show that 2.2 million people live without access to running water in the U.S., and millions more don’t have access to other aspects of water sovereignty, like basic sanitation infrastructure. This lack of water access is also a racial justice and tribal sovereignty issue – with Indigenous people 19 times more likely to suffer from a lack of access to water than their white peers.
Biden’s promise to deliver on internet accessibility nationally is another half promise half-fulfilled. Again, Indigenous communities in the US are disproportionately likely to lack internet access as compared to their white peers. Biden has made strides in this area, starting with investment on internet infrastructure earmarked for reservations, but it’s not enough to ensure long-term and nationwide access to broadband. Indigenous, rural, and other impacted communities deserve more from the federal government, and indeed need more if the problem of water (and internet accessibility) is to be meaningfully mitigated.
- Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: “America used to have the best roads, bridges, and airports on Earth. Now our infrastructure is ranked 13th in the world. […] That’s why it was so important to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—the most sweeping investment to rebuild America in history. […] We’ll create good jobs for millions of Americans, modernizing roads, airports, ports, and waterways all across America.”
- Biden spent a long time talking about infrastructure last year, because, well, that was what his entire first two years in office were about, legislation-wise. He and Congressional Democrats did manage to secure landmark legislation addressing the issue through the roads-and-highways Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the far more ambitious Inflation Reduction Act, itself a drastically stripped down version of the Build Back Better Act.
These are achievements which the Biden administration should be proud of, but also ones that fail to fully address the climate crisis, environmental justice, and the specific infrastructure both require. Of course, outright solving these centuries-old, systemic issues with just one or two bills would be impossible, and it is true that the IRA is the first real climate change law the United States has ever had. But passing one law cannot be the end-goal, especially one as partial as the IRA. The best impacts of the law won’t be felt for years, and the long-term efficacy in its distribution of funds necessitates an oversight infrastructure that’s just not currently prepared for the size and scale of the project.
- Insulin and Corporate Iniquity: “Here’s the plan: First – cut the cost of prescription drugs. […] For Joshua, and for the 200,000 other young people with Type 1 diabetes, let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month so everyone can afford it. Drug companies will still do very well. And while we’re at it, let Medicare negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs, like the VA already does.”
- Biden partially delivered on this declaration, with the Inflation Reduction Act including provisions that capped the cost of insulin at $35 for seniors and allowed for Medicare to negotiate the price of it and other select drugs. These are important steps, but they do not represent a sum total of what Biden could do to rein in the costs of insulin specifically, or lifesaving medicine more generally. From the authorization of generic competition for crucial meds, to exercising the government’s “march-in rights” for drugs that receive federal funding during development, the executive branch has an extensive opportunity to implement already existing law to actually address this crisis of inaccessibility for all Americans.
- Cancer Moonshot: “Last month, I announced our plan to supercharge the Cancer Moonshot that President Obama asked me to lead six years ago. Our goal is to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years, turn more cancers from death sentences into treatable diseases. More support for patients and families.”
- In last year’s State of the Union address, Biden brought up his son Beau, whose exposure to toxic burn pits in Kosovo is what Biden believes caused his fatal brain cancer. Beau is the inspiration behind Biden’s Cancer Moonshot initiative which seeks to “end cancer as we know it,” spurring developments in research that “cut cancer death rates by at least 50 percent over the next 25 years.”
Biden acknowledged in last year’s SOTU that “toxic exposure” has long caused veterans cancer, and asked for Congress to pass a law—which they did —securing better healthcare for veterans with toxic burn pit exposure. The issue is deeply personal to Biden, and he’s endeavored extensively to realize this goal throughout his many years in the White House.
However, the single best way to significantly cut cancer rates (by an estimated 30 – 70 percent) is to focus on cancer prevention strategies. For Biden to cut cancer death rates by 50 percent over the next two decades, he must embrace cancer prevention instead of focusing singularly on better cancer treatments. Biden should wed his Cancer Moonshot to tackling the industries most notorious for spreading cancer-causing carcinogens, and our colleagues Hannah Story Brown and Dorothy Slater have a piece out in Talking Points Memo today outlining an expansive vision of just how he could.
On Opportunities Won
- PFAS and Veterans Health: “The VA is pioneering new ways of linking toxic exposures to diseases, already helping more veterans get benefits. And tonight, I’m announcing we’re expanding eligibility to veterans suffering from nine respiratory cancers.”
- In good news, Biden’s announcement on veterans’ health increased aid to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This has enabled better access to cancer care and other long-term medical redresses for toxic exposure stemming from military service. What he failed to address last March was the unacceptable toxic exposures forced upon servicemembers and civilians from the military’s use of PFAS chemicals. However, in September, the Pentagon announced a total discontinuation of these poisonous forever-chemicals within the year. While the announcement is decidedly decades too late, the removal of PFAS chemicals from the Pentagon arsenal represents progress for service members and veterans, the public, and the environment.
- On Russia: “Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: no more. The U.S. Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs. We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
- President Biden announced the DOJ special task force “KleptoCapture” during his 2022 State of the Union to raucous applause from the audience. As we noted back in ‘22,“[the applause] should be a lesson that attacking the symbols of opulence, particularly when they’ve been gotten illegally, is good politics and good policy.” And Biden’s team has begun delivering. KleptoCapture has driven efforts to strip Russian oligarchs of their yachts, private planes and other holdings, a laudable achievement all its own.
However, there has been little effort by Biden and his team to craft cogent narratives about the global legal precedents and corporate infrastructures which protect and enable these oligarchs in the first place, and the efforts the administration is taking to hold them to account. Of course, holding corporations and corporate oligarchs accountable is just good policy and politics generally. Cracking down on these villains’ homegrown counterparts is yet another opportunity for the Biden administration to do good things and brag about them.
- Data Privacy: “As [Facebook whistleblower] Frances Haugen, who is here with us tonight, has shown, we must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit. It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”
- Despite a lack of funds and attention from Congress following the death knell of Build Back Better, and the issue’s notable exemption from the American Rescue Plan, Federal Trade Commission Chair (FTC) Lina Khan has endeavored to make progress on stricter enforcements of federal privacy law as it stands. Who would have thought that good things happen when you give good people real power! There’s significantly more progress to be made on the issue, though much of it is admittedly dependent on Congress. The FTC’s consumer protection and privacy powers come from laws written decades before the internet era, so their tools aren’t as precise as would be ideal for handling today’s privacy issues. And the FTC has far too few attorneys to address all of the violations of law by BigTech that BigLaw will happily defend – we need a radical expansion of FTC enforcement capacity.
Bad Things Promised and Delivered
- Fund the Police: “So let’s not abandon our streets. Or choose between safety and equal justice. Let’s come together to protect our communities, restore trust, and hold law enforcement accountable. … We should all agree: The answer is not to Defund the police. The answer is to FUND the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
- One thing that Biden firmly delivered on from ‘22’s SOTU is unfortunately his infamous “fund the police” tagline – which accompanied a long tirade in an (unmerited and propagandistic) defense of policing. Biden’s so-called crime prevention strategy prioritized throwing money (a requested $37 billion in fact) at a broken policing system, with a whopping $13 billion earmarked to hire even more police into communities across the country. Biden has since issued largely-symbolic statements and Executive Orders on “best policing practices” in accompaniment of this massive request. While not entirely useless, these constitute a hollow stand-in for his administration’s utter abandonment of any actual federal police accountability framework to the detriment of the public and for the sole benefit of police and their packed ranks of so-called “rotten apples.”
We strongly recommend both Perry Bacon Jr.’s and Jamelle Bouie’s most recent columns on the failures of the “police reform” framework. To summarize their incisive commentary, reform doesn’t work on institutions that aren’t designed with the public’s interests and democratic accountability in mind in the first place.
The State of the Union Matters Because…
It doesn’t. Not really. Not when the promises made to the public predictably prove hollow and the President of the United States refuses to use one of the most (potentially) powerful podiums in the world to deliver an honest, populist message that the public can count on. No one expects the President’s promises to be especially earnest, and no one expects the President to say much of anything incisive about the fraught times we live in.
The sheer number of empty promises from last year paint a grim picture of the State of the Union as little more than political theater that isn’t worth the time and the takes that will surely be afforded to it over the next several weeks. How many columnists are going to pick apart the speech and talk about how the rhetoric made them feel? How much more would you learn and think if they spent those column inches on an actual policy issue?
Don’t get us wrong – Biden could take the stage and announce a broad slate of popular policy positions that could materially better the lives of the public. He could name and shame the villainous corporations that have made your life harder this year. He could cheerlead the bold regulators who are endeavoring to stop them. He could name the scourge of fascism that continues to pollute and pervade the Republican party. He could announce measures to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up antibiotic production and rein in this winters’ “tripledemic”; he could declare a climate emergency.
Put simply, Biden could make clear to the people who work for him across the executive branch that the way to get ahead and into the president’s good graces is to act boldly to rein in corporate misconduct.
Biden could do all that and more, and we sincerely hope he does. Unfortunately, however, we find it rather unlikely that he will.
Assuming he doesn’t, perhaps pundits and progressives alike should spend less time these next weeks parsing his speech for canaries that aren’t there, and should instead keep pushing the President to actually use the powers he holds.
Thanks to Ananya Kalahasti for her contributions to this edition.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:
PHOTO CREDIT: “President Joe Biden at the 2022 State of the Union” by The White House is in the public domain.