by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Wednesday, March 2, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 251 days away. Election Day 2024 is 979 days away.
Last night was President Biden’s State of the Union address. I know a good number of you probably tuned in to the speech — but I’m sure many of you were busy with other things and weren’t able to. That’s OK! I’ve got you covered.
Here’s what I want to do: first, let’s all get on the same page about what Biden actually said, so you’re caught up whether you watched the speech or not (or if you watched the speech but glazed over halfway through). Once we’ve done that, I’ll give some analysis on what I took away from Biden’s address.
Let’s dive in:
What Biden said last night, by the issue
Here’s a guide to what you should know from Biden’s speech, organized by the four issues he devoted the most time to.
Obviously, he covered a lot of ground in the hour-long talk, but my focus here will be the new announcements Biden made last night, emphasizing the substantive policies that were unveiled in the address:
— Key quote: “When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”
— What Biden announced: Much of Biden’s remarks on Ukraine were aimed at rallying Americans behind countering Putin and taking part in the broader “battle between democracies and autocracies.” Biden rehashed what he had already done to sanction Russia, making one new announcement: that the U.S. would join the European Union and Canada in closing off its airspace to all flights and aircrafts from Russia.
Biden also acknowledged that the sanctions would have a cost at home. “But I want you to know that we are going to be OK,” he said. To blunt an increase in gas prices, he announced that the U.S. would partner with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from their reserves, with the U.S. releasing half of them.
— Key quote: “One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I think I have a better idea to fight inflation: Lower your cost, not your wages.”
— What Biden announced: Biden’s “Build Back Better” package is gone. In its place, he unveiled a four-point plan for “building a better America,” which essentially repurposes the most popular provisions from the original package but rebranded them as cost-cutting initiatives.
The priorities Biden focused on: allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices (to cut drug costs), providing tax credits for the use of clean energy (to cut energy costs), and offering universal pre-K to 3- and 4-year-olds (to cut child care costs).
Biden said that those policies would be paid for by imposing a 15% minimum tax rate on corporations. He also claimed that the plan would result in lowering the deficit by more than $1 trillion by the end of the year, although he did not offer many details on how he planned to achieve that.
As another measure to fight inflation, Biden also announced a “crackdown on those companies overcharging American businesses and consumers,” but he didn’t explain what that would entail.
— Key quote: “Thanks to the progress we have made in the past year, Covid-19 no longer need control our lives.”
— What Biden announced: For one thing, Biden debuted something of a new tone on the pandemic, saying that the U.S. had reached “a new moment in the fight against Covid-19,” with cases dropping across the country.
However, he rejected calls — some coming from Democratic governors — for Americans to merely “live with the virus,” declaring: “We will never just accept living with Covid-19.” To continue combatting the pandemic, he offered “four common sense steps”: continuing to expand vaccinations, testing, and anti-viral treatments; preparing for new variants; reopening schools and businesses; and sending to foreign countries.
The biggest new announcement Biden made was the “Test and Treat” initiative, which will allow Americans to “receive antiviral pills on the spot at no cost” when they test positive for Covid at a pharmacy. He also announced that Americans who had ordered Covid tests through the federal government website would be able to do so again starting next week.
Without going into too much detail on the funding requests, Biden also said he would be requesting more money from Congress to increase the nation’s supply of vaccines, treatments, tasks and masks.
Finally, Biden announced that the Justice Department would be naming a “chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud,” to investigate those who fraudulently took Covid relief money.
— Key quote: “This is personal — to me and to Jill and to Kamala, and so many of you. So many of you have lost someone you loved: husband, wife, son, daughter, mom, dad.”
— What Biden announced: Before concluding his speech, Biden debuted what he called “a unity agenda for the nation,” which encompassed a set of loosely connected proposals relating to opioid addiction, mental health, veterans, and cancer.
On opioids, Biden called for increased “funding for prevention, treatment, harm reduction and recovery.” On mental health, he called for an expansion of resources for children and adults, with a focus on targeting tech companies for the effect they are having on young people.
On veterans, Biden focused on a bill — which will be voted on by the House today — to offer health benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. And on cancer, he laid a goal of cutting cancer death rates by half in the next 25 years and called on Congress to create the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), which would search for “breakthroughs in cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes and more.”
Analysis: The return of bipartisan Biden
Last April, the morning after President Biden addressed a joint session of Congress for the first time, here’s the headline I led off with: “Detailing sweeping vision of government’s role, Biden cements his political evolution.”
In that piece, I described Biden’s debut address as a “65-minute sales pitch for the role of government in American life” and wrote that the sweeping Democratic agenda he’d unveiled “made clear that he now plans to be more transformational than transitional.”
Almost a full year later, Biden returned to the House chamber Tuesday night with much of that expansive agenda on life support and boasting an approval rating that is 13 percentage points lower.
If his speech last year represented a “political evolution” to the left, the sequel marked a return to form: back to the political center, where he has spent most of his career. While 2021 Biden imagined that much of his platform would be passed by the one-party reconciliation process, 2022 Biden seemed to recognize that route was now out of reach — as is ending the Senate filibuster — and that any legislative successes would require bipartisan support.
“While it often appears that we never agree, that isn’t true,” Biden said, noting that 80 of the bills he signed into law last year were bipartisan in nature and promising that more would be coming down the pike.
Biden’s address was full of appeals across the aisle. “Tonight, we meet as Democrats, Republicans and Independents,” he began by declaring. “But most importantly, as Americans.” That led to a call for unity in countering Russian aggression, which was met with bipartisan applause as members of both parties waved Ukrainian flags.
Even when he discussed issues closer to home, Biden hewed to a careful set of centrist talking points. On crime, he stressed that “the answer is not to defund the police.” On gun control, he promised not to “infringe on the Second Amendment.” On immigration, he emphasized the need to “secure the border.” On Covid, he called for an end to viewing the virus as a “partisan dividing line.”
Biden’s main policy announcement of the night was a “unity agenda for the nation,” which rotated around some of the most agreed-upon topics in American life, like supporting veterans, ending opioid addiction, boosting mental health, and fighting cancer.
Yes, he also mentioned a litany of more party-line proposals, from raising the minimum wage to protecting voting rights to banning assault weapons. But unlike last year’s speech, none were given top billing, all mentioned as if out of duty — not out of a genuine belief they would become law.
The best example of that was in his section on inflation, when he debuted a new version of the “Build Back Better” package that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has blocked from passing. Once again, proposals like expanding the Child Tax Credit and federalizing paid leave were briefly given mentions. But they were tucked at the end of the section, left out of the actual plan.
The proposals that remained in the plan were all geared at cutting costs and slashing the deficit, instead of expanding the social safety net — and they all happen to be supported by Manchin.
Will the pivot back to bipartisanship, or at least to Manchin-ship, work?
The senator from West Virginia himself seemed to put that question to rest last night, when he told reporters: “I’ve never found that you can lower costs by sending more.”
As for working with Republicans on a “unity agenda,” the reactions in the House chamber was probably answer enough. After receiving bipartisan standing ovations on Ukraine in the first minutes of his speech, Biden received little applause from the GOP for the rest of the night. In fact, some Republican lawmakers heckled the president throughout the speech.
At one point, as Biden talked about toxic exposure that could lead to veterans developing diseases “that would put them a flag-draped coffin, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) shouted, “13 of them!” — a reference to the service members who died during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
She shouted it right as Biden began to talk about one of those veterans, his late son Beau, who died of brain cancer.
The passage of a “unity agenda” did not appear to be coming any time soon.
WUTP global contributor Miles Hession is here with a few quick updates on the war in Ukraine and the reaction abroad:
- Russia has claimed complete control of Kherson, a major Ukrainian city in the south, as it seeks to connect its southern forces with Russian separatists in the east to create a united southern front in the war. Ukraine has disputed this claim.
- The European Union and the United Kingdom have approved new sanctions against Belarus for its support of Russia’s invasion.
- Iran has announced support for Russia’s narrative of the conflict, with the country’s supreme leader placing blame on the U.S. and its allies in the West.
All times Eastern.
— President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:15 a.m. Then, at 10:15 a.m., he will travel with First Lady Jill Biden to Wisconsin. At 3:15 p.m., they will attend an event at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where they will both deliver remarks on the bipartisan infrastructure law and other themes from the president’s speech last night. At 5:10 p.m., they will travel back to Washington, D.C, returning to the White House at 7:40 p.m.
— Vice President Kamala Harris will travel at 8:30 a.m. to Durham, North Carolina. At 10:25 a.m., she will receive a tour of the IBEW local 553 apprentice program at Durham Technical Community College. At 11 a.m., she will deliver remarks on the Biden administration’s investments in workers. At 3:20 p.m., she will depart Durham.
— White House deputy principal press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold a press gaggle aboard Air Force One during the flight to Wisconsin.
— The Senate will convene at 10:15 a.m. The chamber is scheduled to hold a vote at 2:30 p.m., on passage of S.J.Res.32, a Republican attempt to block the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for health care workers. The mandate was upheld by the Supreme Court in January, at the same time as the court blocked a broader vaccine mandate that would have applied to employees of large businesses. The resolution is unlikely to receive the majority needed to pass.
— On the committee level:
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on the implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg will testify.
— The House will convene at 10 a.m. The chamber is scheduled to vote on passage of two bills: H.R. 3967 and H.Res.956. The former is the the Honoring our PACT Act, which would offer expanded access to health benefits to approximately 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic airborne hazards while serving in the military. The latter is a resolution to express support for the people of Ukraine.
— On the committee level:
- The House Financial Services Committee will hold a hearing on the economy at 10 a.m. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell will testify.
- The House Administration Committee will hold a hearing at 2 p.m. on congressional staffers’ right to unionize.
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