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From Taxing the Rich to Defending Social Security, Will Biden Deliver?

Amid GOP heckling, Biden embraced the rhetoric of economic populism in his State of the Union address.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on February 7, 2023.

From Taxing the Rich to Defending Social Security, Will Biden Deliver?

Three months ago, if I’d had to guess what President Biden would be speaking about in his February 2023 State of the Union address, I would have anticipated that he would be facing a much larger GOP majority in Congress; that he would be on the defensive about soaring inflation; and that he would try to sidestep any discussion of economic conditions and instead focus much of his speech on Ukraine, on escalating attacks on the U.S.’s democratic infrastructure, on abortion and on the existential threat of climate change.

How much has changed in three months.

Inflation was still above 7 percent back in November, having headed toward 10 percent earlier in the year, and gas prices had passed $6 a gallon in California. But since that time, inflation has moderated, unemployment has hit historic lows and job growth has remained startlingly high. And the widely predicted wave in the November midterm election turned into a red dribble, indicating voters’ skepticism about the GOP’s plutocratic economic agenda, as well as its attacks on abortion rights and on democracy.

Given these new realities, Biden, sensing an opportunity to push his advantage, instead chose to spend most of his State of the Union address focusing on economic policies, urging Congress to pass a new minimum tax targeting billionaires, and announcing his vehement intention to defend public benefits programs like Social Security and Medicare from attack. Sure, he mentioned Ukraine, abortion, climate change and extremist movements that seek to corrode democratic values, as well as LGBTQ rights, police violence and gun control. But his energies were, overwhelmingly, focused on painting a New Deal-tinted economic vision.

Over the course of his 70-minute speech, Biden launched a full-throated defense of the Inflation Reduction Act and the massive investments in infrastructure and in efforts to counter climate change that he managed to secure in 2022. Building on a claim he has made several times this month, he boasted of having presided over the creation of 12 million jobs in two years, more jobs than any other president has created in four years, as he put it. He talked of “fields of dreams,” huge manufacturing hubs and high-tech campuses employing thousands of workers and creating billions of dollars of shared wealth, and focused attention on enormous infrastructure projects, from bridge-building to replacing dangerous lead pipes.

Biden then announced that he was ordering, via executive action, that all construction materials used in projects funded by federal infrastructure dollars — “lumber, glass, drywall, fiber optic cable” — would have to be made in the U.S. He called for passage of laws guaranteeing paid family leave, limiting price gouging by Big Pharma, quadrupling the tax on corporate stock buybacks so as to encourage long-term investments rather than short-term profiteering, and reforming the tax code so as to ensure that corporations and billionaires pay their fair share. “I’m a capitalist,” he told his audience. “But you pay your fair share… the tax system is not fair; it is not fair.” The president continued, arguing that “no billionaire should be paying a lower tax rate than a teacher or a firefighter.”

He urged Congress to raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached, and baited the GOP, which, he said, is willing to hold the economy hostage so that extreme congressional representatives can push to gut Medicare and Social Security. He would, he said, instantly veto any legislation that weakened these bedrock social programs.

GOP representatives, led by the always-up-for-a-spectacle Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, booed him, with Greene repeatedly crying out “liar.” Likely referring to Sen. Rick Scott’s attempt to force Congress to reauthorize Social Security and Medicare every five years, Biden said, “Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.” When Republicans booed in response, Biden rather nimbly turned the tables on them, choosing to channel their vocal expressions of discontent into a rhetorical move in which he suggested he had persuaded Republicans to join him in protecting the social programs more broadly, saying: “…we all agree. Social Security and Medicare are off the table. We’ve got unanimity. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security and Medicare. If anyone tries to cut them, I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it.”

That might have been an oratorical gimmick, a calculated response to the GOP’s manufactured outrage over the debt ceiling, but what followed was rawer: “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism,” the president raged. “It’s extortion, it’s exploitation.” He railed against companies that have cheated and “played for suckers” the American public. He made an impassioned defense of the right of workers to organize into trade unions, accusing large companies of breaking the law by blocking organizing efforts. And he called for a universal pre-school system, for affordable child care, and for increasing the salaries paid to teachers.

Despite the many ways in which Biden has reeled in his legislative ambitions in response to the limitations of working with a divided Congress, the sentiments about economic injustice that Biden expressed in the State of the Union made it the most economically progressive State of the Union that I had heard in decades. It was a million miles from, say, Bill Clinton’s promotion of trade deals, such as NAFTA, that ultimately served to eviscerate U.S. manufacturing. This was a speech that could largely have been written by Elizabeth Warren, who could be seen cheering loudly during Biden’s more barnstorming moments.

Biden hasn’t officially announced whether he is going to run for reelection in 2024, but Tuesday night’s State of the Union surely pointed in that direction. He appears to be betting that the Democrats can hone an economic message that will resonate with a critical number of voters and a critical number of constituencies, and that the GOP, in hock to the most extreme of House members, will resist his efforts at bipartisanship and thus paint themselves into a corner on everything from cutting Social Security to protecting unpopular corporate tax breaks. In that context, the circus antics of Greene during Tuesday’s speech were surely music to Biden’s ears. The more she shouts, and the longer House Speaker Kevin McCarthy goes without reining in the most extreme elements within his caucus, the more Biden has space to craft, in contretemps, a progressive economic message.

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