It took me a day of watching and rewatching Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address, but I was finally able to put my finger on what was troubling me: Reagan! Biden spent his hour before us on Tuesday doing his best Ronald Reagan imitation. It took a while to spot it because Biden lacks the performative chops Reagan brought wherever he went, and because I hadn’t seen the real item in the flesh for 30 years. Once I saw it, though, it became impossible to miss.
Biden was at turns a national lightning rod for outrage, a peddler of comforting fictions, our big-talking tough guy, and that avuncular grandparent you want cheering for your kid from the stands at a Little League game. Reagan went from Hollywood to the Oval Office on that shtick. It works.
The thing about Reagan that cannot ever be forgotten is the simple fact that he was maybe the most gifted bullshit artist ever to occupy the office of the presidency. In his time, Reagan took supply-side economic nonsense, splinter Protestant evangelism, and stochastic Cold War terrorism of a perfect patriotic hue, and wrapped them into a mighty cord that, to this day, throttles not only this country but the world. His greatest strength was that, it appeared, no subterfuge was required to do this; a perfect creature of his times, Reagan seemingly believed, and believed in, every word he said.
Biden is no Reagan, but on Tuesday night he strove to be all things to all people, and like Reagan, appeared to believe every word of it. Time and again, and much as Reagan did so often and so well, Biden accomplished this by either glossing over or ignoring the sharks that patrol these well-chummed waters. I’d love to live in the America Biden championed; I don’t think I’ve ever seen it before.
The entire legislative story of last summer and fall involved the Congressional Progressive Caucus fighting to the knife to defend the climate-salvaging elements of Biden’s infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act, only to have those efforts undermined by a cabal of corporate Vichy Democrats led by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Hours before the speech, the United Nations released a massive report detailing how we are climate-screwed on a timetable measuring in days unless immediate action is taken.
In the face of all this, Biden and his speechwriters chose to ignore the climate crisis almost completely. The betrayal here — not only of the caucus that went to war for him only to be betrayed over and over, but of the truth, of the facts, of the growing menace that seeks to burn and drown us simultaneously — is nearly unfathomable. Put another way: How would it have been if Biden had gone the whole night without ever mentioning Ukraine? Unthinkable, right? Why was it permissible for him to skip addressing the massive calamity immediately threatening life on the planet as we know it?
As with any good Reagan speech, capitalism got its star turn thanks to Biden, who happily proclaimed “I am a capitalist” before faux-scolding the room: “Capitalism without competition is exploitation.” There are a few good hoots wrapped up in this one, and pretty much everyone in the chamber that night was in on the joke.
Recalling a conversation he had with Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, Biden talked up the idea of passing new legislation to provide government subsidies for tech companies. “Pat came to see me,” said Biden, “and he told me they’re ready to increase their investment from $20 billion to $100 billion. That would be the biggest investment in manufacturing in American history. And all they’re waiting for is for [Congress] to pass this bill.”
The problem is these companies already get oceans of subsidy money, and use swaths of it for stock buybacks and CEO pay packages instead of the investments Biden spoke of. Most of those subsidies came from free trade bills championed by — you guessed it — Joe Biden over the course of his Senate career. On Tuesday night, he painted a picture of capitalism that was about as realistic as the portrait of Donald Trump riding a velociraptor.
Reagan had a gift for talking himself out of trouble. Biden tried the same route last night regarding COVID-19, and for the second time in his presidency. The first attempt at “All Is Well” exploded in his face last summer, leaving his approval rating in tatters and the mood of the country at an all-time low. On Tuesday night, with a maskless Vice President Harris and House Speaker Pelosi arrayed behind him, Biden tried it again, leaning specifically into the idea that kids — now maskless, too — belong in school no matter what. It was dangerous both on a political and a public health level, but gosh didn’t it make people feel good. Again, a Reagan talent.
Biden, like Reagan, had Russia available as the perfect foil on Tuesday night. Like Reagan, Biden painted the Ukraine-Russia fiasco in the primary colors of good vs. evil, which does no service to a situation so complex. Biden made it sound like massive, ruinous sanctions against Russia were some benign super-weapon aimed only at Vladimir Putin and his allies, bloodless and precise.
When massive sanctions were brought to bear against Iraq after the first Gulf War, those sanctions killed 500,000 children, a toll Secretary of State Albright dismissed on 60 Minutes back in May of 1996: “We think the price is worth it.”
Which “we” is that? While the necessity of properly addressing Putin’s horrific invasion remains a desperately important open question, the idea of falling back on massive sanctions without question is perilous in the extreme. Yet Biden chose the optimistic tale, the one that leaves whole chapters on the cutting room floor, with a mastery that would have made Reagan proud.
No politician with a functioning mind is going to take the podium and say GATHER AROUND FOLKS SO I CAN TELL YOU ABOUT HOW MUCH EVERYTHING SUCKS, especially not at the State of the Union, and most especially not in an election year. Yet the Reagan approach strikes me as particularly galling, because the state of the union is not strong and pretty much everyone knows it.
The union, in fact, is weaker today than it has been in my lifetime. The threats we face are only growing larger for lack of attention, a trick the country learned well during the Reagan years. On Tuesday night, we learned it all over again.