In a room full of maskless war criminals and Ukrainian flags, President Joe Biden declared, in perhaps the most obvious sentence ever uttered in this room, that he was a capitalist. It doesn’t shock anyone, but it’s amazing he had to say it, given that everything else in his speech was so focused on protecting US capitalism and imperialism. Whether it’s defending NATO, advocating for a more productive US economy, or shouting at the CEO of Intel (who was, inexplicably, in the room for the speech), Biden doubled down on his campaign promise that “nothing would fundamentally change”.
Biden took to the stage amid a complex period in his presidency: Domestically, his agenda has come to a complete halt as members of his own party bicker among themselves. Far from being the “unity” president he promised to be, Biden’s tenure so far has been incredibly polarized, with a growing number of Republicans believing he fraudulently won the election and that the he right wing of his own party dictates the agenda of Congress. With the State of the Union, Biden needed to reorient both his presidency and his party ahead of the midterms — elections that look likely to hit Democrats hard.
Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the speech (but not much of the rest) focused on the conflict in Ukraine. Biden began with a strong denunciation of Russia, Putin and the invasion of Ukraine, and tried to portray this conflict as good versus evil – he went so far as to say “light will triumph over darkness. “. Interestingly, Biden spent much of the Russian section of his speech defending the institutions of US imperialism abroad, namely NATO. He frequently referred to America’s allies as “freedom-loving nations” and the “free world.”
Additionally, Biden has proudly defended the sanctions that the United States and other Western countries have imposed on Russia. It was a moment of villainous nationalism as elected representatives from both parties cheered as Biden declared that the United States was “inflicting pain on Russia”. Of course, the people who will feel the impact of this economic war the most will not be Putin and other members of the Russian bourgeoisie, but the average Russian worker – the same worker who can easily be in the streets courageously protesting the war . It bears repeating: sanctions hurt workers and must be fought by all leftists.
However, Biden somewhat acknowledged that these sanctions could have a negative impact on the American economy – saying he would ensure that the “pain” was targeted on the “Russian economy” – and announced the release of barrels. of oil reserves to combat potential price increases. This is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that Biden and his team are concerned about the political fallout from the economic repercussions of sanctioning an economy as large as Russia. Biden et al. try to get ahead of the fallout by dealing with it before it happens. Second, it shows that one of the main reasons the United States sanctions Russia is to be competitive in the oil and gas market – a market that Russia dominates, especially in Europe. The United States has been lagging behind for several years and attempts to bring American natural gas and oil to Europe have been slow to materialize. Biden clearly hopes to use the current crisis to establish the United States as a bigger player in this industry and frame it as America coming to the rescue.
Indeed, establishing US economic superiority was a major focus of Biden’s speech. From calling for more American production to saying “Buy American: Buy American to support American jobs,” to the chilling chants of “USA, USA” erupting amid the Biden’s State of the Union speech showed that economic nationalism isn’t going anywhere — it’s one of the main ways in which to try to resolve the growing contradictions of capitalism.
A major trend in Biden’s speech was an attempt to marry progressive language with reactionary politics. For example, the Covid section started with Biden poetic about the losses many have suffered, only for him to turn around and say that “it’s time for Americans to get back to work” and that we “must keep the open schools. The mask mandate for the State of the Union was lifted, so the room was filled with unmasked members of Congress. Most frustratingly, Biden said the United States “won’t stop vaccinating the world,” a criminally false statement given that patents continue to make vaccines inaccessible to millions of people.
Another example of this bizarre rhetorical contradiction was the section on crime. Biden began by praising two NYPD officers who were killed in action and spoke about the need for some minor reforms. But his strongest statement was when he said “the answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to FUND the police with the resources they need. Once again, as he has done his entire career, Biden has shown himself to be a staunch supporter of the police and a staunch opponent of any movement for racial justice. Once again, the party representative who promised to represent the Black Lives Matter Movement went on TV and said he was in complete harmony with the very institutions they were protesting against. This is a notable change from when Nancy Pelosi led Democrats to kneel while wearing Kente cloth. Tonight she led the bipartisan standing ovation for defunding the police.
These two examples show that Biden, like so many Democrats before him, knew how to go further than the Republicans. By presenting himself as an ally of progress and “the common man”, Biden has managed to appease large sections of public opinion, which then depoliticizes and demobilizes them. Then, on less divisive ground, Biden is able to make advances in the interests of capital and the state — advances that would be fought tooth and nail if offered under a Republican president. Imagine if Trump had said we need to defund the police and get America back to work. There would undoubtedly be far more pushback and resistance than there is now, as Biden has lulled many into a false sense of security. To use the slogan around his election, many have “gone back to brunch,” and Biden is using that complacency to advance a right-wing agenda.
Biden closed his speech with a “unity agenda,” a list of empty promises put forward without details in an apparent attempt to address all major issues. From attacks on trans people, voting and reproductive rights, to cancer and the opioid crisis, Biden offered vague assurances that basically amounted to ‘someone should do something’ and continued to advocate for legislation. failing – like the Equality and PRO Acts, both of which have languished on the floor of Congress. Whether or not this “unity agenda” will succeed remains to be seen, but Biden appeared to be doubling down on the strategy he and his Democratic allies have followed over the past few months — a strategy that has flatly failed so far. There were no noticeable changes in the policy proposals and, in general, the State of the Union sounded like a recycled stump speech with a few paragraphs about Ukraine added to the start; an attempt to fool us again with exactly the same lines.
That Biden is not a great speaker is no revelation. Nor are his deep ties to defending the establishment and the status quo. Nor is its commitment to defending American hegemony abroad. If anything stands out about the speech, it’s the way Biden tries to speak to everyone. He must balance his speeches with the Democratic left, the Democratic right, non-Trumpist Republicans, and (to some extent) Trump Republicans. It sometimes felt like Biden running through a checklist — say “Defund the Police” for the right, talk about protecting trans children for the left. More than anything, the State of the Union revealed the political moment we find ourselves in: a moment of polarization, where there is very little consensus on domestic issues with a retreating left and a rising right.
Biden ended the speech by saying, “Let’s get them!” without explaining who the “them” are. This, in some ways, is indicative of the whole discourse: nationalist imagery and vague assertions about what we need to do. But, sadly, the only “them” that will be obtained by the Biden administration is the global working class, as Biden tries to promote US imperialism abroad and strengthen capitalist relations at home.