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Responses to State of the Union Address by President Biden

by Francine Dash and R. Anthony Arnold
March 2022

Response from Francine Dash

For people like me, the State of the Union is as much about the responses from the gallery as it is about the President’s speech. There were cheers and there were even boos and a couple of heckles, but for the most part it was Washington giving itself a pat on the back.

A state of the union address to Congress is supposed to be an actual report on how we are doing – ‘are the policies we enacted working as intended, or do we need to change course?’ But for the last 80 years, at least, it’s more of a push back from Washington that highlights only what their policies were intended to do, not how they are actually doing. And President Biden’s address followed this tradition.

President Biden’s report to Congress, followed the theme of unity as it opened to the crisis in Ukraine. From there he segued from international coalitions to high level issues here at home. It was positive, for the most part, and upbeat, with the occasional jab at conservative policy(makers). He made some good points about policies that support working families that got a lot of applause, but the “rails” were brought out at the mention of women’s reproductive rights and voting rights, by the right.

For some, this speech may reflect their reality. There are a lot of people working jobs that they didn’t have two years ago; and possibly making more money; but it’s also more expensive to live with everything increasing in prices, from a gallon of milk to a gallon of gas. So the comment to businesses to just lower prices seemed like an oversimplification of that particular pain, for there is also a rise in the cost of doing business.

I never expect elected officials to truly “get it”, because human compassion is near-sighted and they are so far away from the problems they claim they want to solve. But you hope they get it enough to be able to enact policies that hit problems more than they miss. Since many of the policies enacted and planned are long range policies, the vote as to whether they are working, for me, is still out.

Response from R. Anthony Arnold

The first two words that popped in my mind were “American Exceptionalism.” There was a lot of that, maybe even above and beyond the normal amount these speeches have. From an extended bit of chest thumping about the power of NATO and the United States, to a middle section featuring an outbreak of “USA! USA!”

It was clear that President Biden felt the need to rally the American public behind him after a first year that’s seen his approval numbers drop to alarmingly low levels. And public patriotism is normally good for a boost, if only temporarily.

There was the touting of the infrastructure bill, one of the biggest wins during his first year in office, and trying to remind people that all the money spent on pandemic relief served a good purpose, a hard sell when inflation is up.

Speaking of which, his answer on inflation really fell flat for me. Telling companies to “lower the cost” by making stuff in America isn’t an answer to the immediate concerns people are facing. And it’s not totally clear that producing everything here would actually lower the prices, though it would, as the President acknowledged, provide our supply chains with much more durability and resilience. Still though, it seemed apparent that there’s just not a lot that can be done about the economic issues, at least not by the President; which is probably why that section was buried in the middle.

But the one thought I had throughout the entire speech was, “How is he going to do any of this?”

Not to be overly cynical, but it’s always worth remembering that the President, no matter how badly he may want it, has very little ability to dictate events. President Biden, like every one of his predecessors, is simply limited. Which will undoubtedly be a source of tension and disappointment in the upcoming months, when voters realize that much of what was discussed tonight simply won’t come to pass.

A little story to end on.

My son, who’s in 6th grade, decided to watch the speech with me tonight. So, I took the opportunity to explain to him the history of the SOTU – how it used to be a written report delivered by the President to Congress, that it only exists because the Constitution mandates it, and how, over time, it became an event that is increasingly more about flash than substance.

I don’t want him to be cynical, and I told him as much, but I do want him to be realistic about things. Watching the President tonight I was reminded that, unfortunately, we still have a tendency to favor performative politics over real answers.