Joe Biden delivered his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. In his speech, the president touted the progress his administration has already made toward putting an end to the COVID pandemic and reviving economic growth — and made the case for his impending plans to revamp American infrastructure and expand social welfare for U.S. families.
Here are five big-picture messages that the president sent with his remarks:
1) If Biden gets his way, you won’t have to “learn to code.”
A decade ago, the Democratic Party’s message to downwardly mobile, blue-collar Americans who longed for the economic security of yesteryear was, in so many words, “get smarter.” Or, more precisely: You should not expect to enjoy a middle-class standard of living unless you secure college a diploma — but our party will help you get one.
In his 2011 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, Barack Obama declared income inequality to be “the defining issue of our time.” The president observed that “unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average” and that college graduates’ “incomes are twice as high as those who don’t have a high school diploma.” Yet Obama’s chief prescription for mitigating this inequity was not to improve wages and employment opportunities for working-class Americans, but rather, to help such laborers claw their way out of economic perdition and onto a university campus. “In the economy, a higher education is the surest route to the middle class,” Obama explained. In 1944, when a Democratic president wished to articulate his party’s vision of economic justice, he described a society in which every American was guaranteed economic security as a right of citizenship. When Obama sought to do the same in his 2016 State of the Union address, he described an America in which everyone had “a fair shot at opportunity and security.”
On Wednesday night, Biden charted a middle ground between the social democracy of FDR and the meritocratic liberalism of his former boss. In the years since Obama’s presidency, the notion that America can educate its way back to shared prosperity has fallen out of favor in elite policy circles. While expanding access to higher education remains a top policy goal of the Democratic Party, this is no longer seen as an adequate response to inequality or middle-class decline. And for good reason: The skills gap is a myth, and most of the fastest-growing occupations in the U.S. do not require a college degree. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ eroding support among non-college-educated Americans has become the party’s defining political challenge.
Biden’s rhetoric reflected both of these realities. The president did pay tribute to the importance of education in a 21st-century economy. But he also emphasized that the good-paying jobs he aims to create are predominantly working-class ones:
Now – I know some of you at home are wondering whether these jobs are for you. You feel left behind and forgotten in an economy that’s rapidly changing. Let me speak directly to you. Independent experts estimate the American Jobs Plan will add millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in economic growth for years to come. These are good-paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Nearly 90% of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree.
75% do not require an associate’s degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America.
2) If you don’t want to soak the rich, you want to screw the middle class.
Hours before Biden’s remarks, the Wall Street Journal published a story headlined, “Some Democrats Not Sold on Biden’s Proposed Capital-Gains Tax Boost.” In it, several Democratic senators expressed varying levels of unease about doubling the tax rate that the richest 0.3 percent of Americans pay on their unearned income. The piece also quoted John Thune, the second-highest-ranking Senate Republican, who said the following of the president’s newly unveiled plan to take money from the wealthy and spend it on a wide array of social benefits for working families: “Even if the spending is popular, and a lot of it probably will be, the tax increases I think are going to be a hard sell, not just with people in the country, or with Republicans but I think with some Democrats, too.”
In his address, Biden offered a simple rejoinder to his tax plan’s skeptics: Either you oppose my popular spending initiatives, or you support increasing the deficit, or you want to raise taxes on the middle class:
So how do we pay for my Jobs and Family Plans? I’ve made clear that we can do it without increasing deficits. Let’s start with what I will not do. I will not impose any tax increases on people making less than $400,000 a year. It’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans to pay their fair share…When you hear someone say that they don’t want to raise taxes on the wealthiest 1% and on corporate America – ask them: whose taxes are you going to raise instead?
Here, Biden ducked a fight over whether deficits are inherently undesirable, and instead picked one over whether the superrich should pay more taxes so ordinary American parents can have monthly checks, subsidized child care, and free preschool. This might not be the politically optimal route on Capitol Hill (where deficit spending is more broadly popular than soaking the rich), but it is politically optimal from the standpoint of public opinion. Americans retain a somewhat superstitious anxiety about deficits as an abstract concept. But for the median voter, taxing multimillionaire speculators and investing in the nation’s children are two great tastes that taste great together.
3) If you’re not with him, you’re against American global supremacy.
Joe Biden likes bipartisanship. And he knows that the median American voter does too (at least, as an abstract concept). But the president also knows that his agenda is not going to attract much bipartisan support; if his overwhelmingly popular American Rescue Plan couldn’t attract a single Republican vote in the Senate, there’s little reason to believe that any of his other major initiatives will garner the ten Republican votes necessary to avoid a filibuster (and thus, give his party an incentive to forgo passing partisan bills through the budget reconciliation process).
Biden aimed to account for this political liability in his address. First, near the top of his speech, he reframed the American Rescue Plan as a bipartisan achievement — by casting Republican voters who expressed approval for the bill in opinion polls as his legislative partners:
100 days ago, America’s house was on fire. We had to act. And thanks to the extraordinary leadership of Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Schumer – and with the overwhelming support of the American people – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans – we did act. Together, we passed the American Rescue Plan.
Later in the address, Biden sought to turn the GOP’s own caterwauling about China against it. The president affirmed the notion that the U.S. and China are locked in a (zero sum?) competition for economic and geopolitical dominance. He then cast his proposed investments in American infrastructure and green technology as indispensable to victory in the great power competition — and suggested that Republicans who oppose such policies are putting America second:
We’re in a competition with China and other countries to win the 21st Century … I applaud a group of Republican Senators who just put forward their proposal. But, the rest of the world isn’t waiting for us. Doing nothing is not an option. We can’t be so busy competing with each other that we forget the competition is with the rest of the world to win the 21st Century.
4) If your favorite Democratic policy doesn’t pass, don’t blame me.
The bulk of Biden’s speech was focused on his “jobs” and “families” plans. Those are the president’s actual legislative priorities, not least because they’re comprised almost entirely of initiatives that can pass the Senate with only 50 votes.
But the president also took pains to name-check every major Democratic constituency’s top policy objective no matter how long its odds of passage, from gun control to police reform to the PRO Act to immigration. His remarks on that last policy had especially strong, “look, I did my part” vibes.
If you believe we need a secure border – pass it. If you believe in a pathway to citizenship – pass it. If you actually want to solve the problem – I have sent you a bill, now pass it.
5) If you reelect me, I’ll keep you bored and well-fed.
Biden’s speech was a drab affair for reasons beyond his control. The pandemic robbed the presidential address of much of its conventional pomp; applause is less raucous in a mostly empty hall.
But it was also boring in exactly the way that Biden had tacitly promised his presidency would be. A kindly old man recited various policy initiatives in between bursts of folksy pablum. It was much “jobs,” very “America.” There were no weird bouts of sniffles, oddly monotonous teleprompter readings, or unabashed demonization of vulnerable minority groups.
Yet the speech was not boring in the sense that its contents were irrelevant to the median American’s interests. Like a lecture on personal finance, Biden’s remarks were dull but potentially useful, or at least clearly intended to be of use. And this is ultimately Bidenism’s dispensation: Stick with Joe and you’ll be pleased with your bank account, and bored with your political system.
That’s probably good politics, if bad for political bloggers. I feel okay for our country. But this is mediocre content.