With another year comes another State of the Union address, and 7 February saw President Joe Biden deliver a lively, and at times argumentative, speech at probably the most important period in his presidency. With suggestions of a re-election campaign in the works and the House controlled by Republicans, the importance of his choices in issues and their delivery was vital, and the occasion was no less traditionally American than usual - complete with policy promises, name-dropped figures in the gallery and choruses of applause and heckling. Clocking in at just over seventy minutes, in one of the longest State of the Union speeches delivered in the past sixty years, issues such as manufacturing, the economy, bipartisanship and corporations took the spotlight while other, more volatile ones concerning cultural debates were sidelined.
More than anything, Biden’s speech brought the focus firmly back to the domestic. With his call for a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America”, the aims of the Democrats are made clear: to win back the voting bloc that flocked almost violently over to the Trump campaign in 2016. At the core of his words was an appeal to Congress to continue his efforts in creating well-paid manufacturing jobs that don’t require college degrees. Claiming responsibility for the falling unemployment rates and promising further growth, he took clear pride in emphasising the success of bills introduced by his administration: his 2021 infrastructure law, one of his biggest legislative accomplishments so far, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which seeks to cap costs on various healthcare initiatives, tackle climate change and deliver factory jobs, especially in swing states.
The “Big” corporations took hits - Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Tech all received their share of criticism, and all of which prompted lively reactions from both sides of the audience. Healthcare also took the spotlight, with promises of lower drug prices and vetoing of any Congressional attempts to do otherwise - though these negotiations have yet to reach the Congress floor, and many patients won’t see these promised changes until at least 2026. A particularly memorable moment, which saw Biden “trick” the Republican audience into agreeing not to sunset Medicare, provided one of the most animated moments of the night - no doubt out of the whole seventy-two minutes, it’s this moment which most frequently did the rounds on Twitter.
Despite all the jeering and raucous moments, bipartisanship was (perhaps intelligently) a large focus of Biden’s attention. With neither chamber boasting particularly overwhelming majorities and polarity at momentously high levels, Biden took the time to thank the Republican Party for voting through bills which would have otherwise failed to pass without their support, and urged them to continue the harmony when considering legislation that would help the American people. Of course, that did little to quell the tensions - many Republicans were vocal about their disagreements, and the topic of fentanyl smuggling and unlawful migration prompted calls of “It’s your fault!” from several members of the opposition.
However, just as important as what was in the address is what was excluded, and the notable absence or lack of attention paid to the cultural issues currently dominating US political discourse is perhaps the major source of criticism towards an otherwise accepted speech. Tensions over China were addressed with little more than the typical all-American promise of self-protection and preservation, and the crisis in Ukraine saw a show of support but no promises made on delivering further aid or any escalation of action.
Gun violence and police brutality both received brief but impactful moments - the introductions of Lunar New Year shooting survivor, Brandon Tsay, and the parents of Tyre Nichols, who was killed at the hands of Memphis Police Department, both added emotional weight to Biden’s pleas to address both issues. However, that’s all they were: pleas. Many critics were quick to highlight a lack of commitment to passing future legislation regarding both issues, especially when they were immediately followed with Biden’s much more comprehensive detailing of his immigration reform plans.
Even less time was given to addressing abortion and transgender rights - the latter of which saw only one sentence dedicated to what is arguably one of the most prevalent debates in current American political and cultural discourse. One can only assume the reluctance to focus on either issue was a tactical move to avoid sparking further division, especially with a re-election campaign in the works, but avoiding such salient topics was seen by many as cowardly, rather than careful.
In the aftermath of MAGA, Covid-19 and now the looming threat of a global recession, Biden certainly has a lot of elements to juggle to ensure both the continuation of his presidency and the satisfaction of the American people. This speech saw a contentious effort to reach out to the demographic that is arguably going to decide the outcome of the 2024 election: the white working class, hit hard by economic challenges and vocally unhappy with how they’ve been treated. During the conclusion of his speech, he commended the people as “the backbone of this nation”, with undeniable conviction. Whether or not he has successfully convinced his fellow citizens of his commitment is a whole other matter indeed.