Biden’s program: Economic populism at home, imperialism abroad
President Joe Biden's last State of the Union address before the 2024 elections was a speech defined by contrasts: economic populism at home and Cold War confrontation abroad. | Photo by Shawn Thew (AP) / Illustration by PW

WASHINGTON—President Joe Biden’s last State of the Union address before the 2024 elections laid out an agenda of sharp contrasts, with economic populism dominating domestic policy and Cold War confrontation and militarism defining his international strategy.

At home, Biden pledged to impose higher taxes on billionaires and price-gouging corporations, make prescriptions cheaper for Americans on Medicare, and defend democracy and abortion rights from Trump and the GOP.

Derailing this otherwise liberal-progressive program, however, was an approach to immigration that outflanks Republicans on the right, a foreign policy of Cold War confrontation with China and Russia, and a promise of further support for Israel’s war against Palestinians.

Public anger over the latter issue disrupted Biden’s speech before it even began: A large sit-in protest by ceasefire demonstrators blocked Pennsylvania Avenue, forcing Biden’s motorcade to drive an alternate route from the White House to the Capitol.

Once he was able to make it to the House chambers, though, Biden launched into a speech that was combative with Republicans at times, short on progressive substance at others, but crafted from beginning to end with the intention of ending speculation about his age and mental sharpness.

Some media outlets presented brief reports on the ceasefire protest that blocked Pennsylvania Avenue ahead of Biden’s speech, but most ignored it completely. | via CNN

President vs. predecessor on democracy

Biden continually invited comparisons between himself and Donald Trump, whom he referred to as “my predecessor” and described as a threat to democracy both in the United States and other countries.

He slammed Trump as a threat to the rights and freedoms Americans now take for granted. Analysts called the speech Biden’s formal re-election campaign kickoff. Throughout, on their side of the House chamber, glum-looking Republicans sat on their hands, often looking down.

Biden’s criticism of misogynist, 91-count-indicted, and twice-impeached Trump focused on the Republican’s instigation and encouragement of Jan. 6, 2021, invasion, insurrection, and attempted coup d’état attempt at the U.S. Capitol.

“It is we who face an unprecedented moment in the history of the union,” Biden declared at the outset. “And, yes, my purpose tonight is to both wake up this Congress and alert the American people that this is no ordinary moment either.”

He sought to warn the country about Trump’s increasingly belligerent and erratic statements. Atop them: Trump’s promise to be a dictator “on day one” if he takes office again next Jan. 20. Nobody—neither Biden nor Trump’s MAGA legions—believe Trump would stop there.

“Insurrectionists stormed this very Capitol and placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy,” Biden declared. “We all saw with our own eyes these insurrectionists were not patriots.” Even Trump, in an offhand comment a week ago, labeled his Jan. 6 coup “an insurrection.”

“The lies about the 2020 election, and the plots to steal the election, posed the gravest threat to our democracy since the Civil War,” Biden continued, again saying “My predecessor,” Trump, was the source of the lies and plots.

“We must be honest, the threat remains, and democracy must be defended.” Biden chided “some Republicans for trying to bury the truth of Jan. 6th. I will not do that. This is a moment to speak the truth and bury the lies.”

Biden’s other attack on Trump’s threat to democracy came at the speech’s end, as he made light of concerns about his age, 81. In a sly reference, Biden said that “the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are. It’s how old our ideas are.

“Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are among the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back.” No need for Biden to say Trump, age 78, has those ideas.

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain cheered some of the pro-worker components in Biden’s State of the Union Address. | Florida AFL-CIO via Twitter (X)

“To lead America, the land of possibilities, you need a vision for the future of what America can and should be,” Biden said. “I see a future where we defend democracy, not diminish it. I see a future where we restore the right to choose and protect other freedoms—not take them away.”

That, too, was a dig at Republicans in general and Trump in particular. The GOP has busily approved legislation, especially in the states, eliminating voting rights, censoring schools, eliminating workers’ rights, and ending not just the right to abortion but other reproductive rights.

In Republican-run Florida, Trump-like Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-gerrymandered legislature even tried to take away free speech with their “Stop WOKE Act.” A federal appeals court tossed it out earlier this week for violating the U.S. Constitution.

Progressive economics

On a host of domestic issues, Biden put forward progressive proposals and plans he said he had for the future. He reminded viewers that he inherited a raging pandemic and high joblessness from Trump and that the coronavirus has been curbed while joblessness is at a 50-year low.

He also cited a list of legislative accomplishments from his first two years in office to battle the virus and the ensuing depression, all enacted by a narrowly Democratic Congress. He then rattled off the pro-worker executive orders he’d issued during the last year after MAGA took control of the House and lawmaking came to a virtual halt.

A linkage to unions was among the achievements he named: The re-opening of the Stellantis (FiatChrysler) plant in Belvidere, Ill., which the United Auto Workers gained in their successful bargaining with the Detroit carmakers. Some 4,000 workers at that factory will now make electric vehicles—part of Biden’s green manufacturing plans, he noted. The plant had employed 1,200 previously. Both UAW President Shawn Fain and a third-generation Belvidere Auto Worker were among Biden’s guests at the speech.

Biden also proposed a variety of ideas for lawmakers to consider this year and for his second term, if he beats Trump this fall. Restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act led his list.

Others included raising the federal minimum wage from its present $7.25 an hour and passage of the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, labor’s #1 legislative priority, to make unionizing easier. Biden also wants to raise the corporate income tax rate to 28% and institute a 25% minimum tax on millionaires. He also wants to give public school teachers a raise, though he didn’t say how or how much.

Biden condemned the banks and credit card companies and vowed to lead a battle to end the “junk fees” they impose on everyone. Democrats again cheered as the Republicans looked down and sat on their hands. He also got an enthusiastic response to his call for curbs on mortgage rates and rents and called for subsidies to help people pay those rising costs.

He called for an extension of the $35 cap on monthly costs of insulin for seniors to all people and for giving Medicare the right to negotiate drug process on all drugs. He mentioned that in cities around the world, including Toronto, Berlin, and Moscow (“I mean, excuse me, well even in Moscow probably”) they pay far less for the same drugs than we do.” He did not call for the obvious solution right now to the health needs of Americans, Medicare for All, long supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

In all those cases, as well as on the right to abortion, Democrats in the House chamber jumped up and cheered, while Republicans acted uninterested. Senate Republicans had blocked the minimum wage hike, the PRO Act, and restoring voting rights from even being debated, much less voted on.

Women’s freedom

The right to abortion was just one example where Biden first looked backward and then forward, forecasting what he would do if he won a second term this fall.

“With all due respect,” Biden criticized the five-justice Supreme Court majority—fueled by three Trump nominees—who in 2022 eliminated the 49-year-old national constitutional right to abortion. Biden urged Congress to send him legislation restoring it. “If you send me a good Congress, I will make Roe v. Wade the law of the land again,” he declared as he looked straight at the Supreme Court justices sitting before him.

“I’m here tonight to show the way forward because America cannot go back,” Biden declared when speaking of abortion rights. He could have applied that statement to everything else he proposed.

“My predecessor”—Trump—“came to office determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned. He’s the reason it was overturned,” Biden said of that ruling in 2022. “In fact, he brags about it. Look at the chaos that resulted.”

Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Cori Bush were among several lawmakers who expressed their opposition to the Biden administration’s continued support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza and called for a lasting ceasefire. | @RepCori via Twitter (X)

The chaos will engulf the anti-abortion Republicans at the ballot box, Biden predicted. Including Trump. “Many of you in this [House] chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom.

“My God, what freedoms will you take away next?

Regressive border policy

Immigration policy and border security stood out as major weak spots in Biden’s otherwise liberal-progressive domestic agenda. He bragged about the “bipartisan deal” that his administration tried to push through Congress. Although the bill actually outflanks Republicans from the right, Trump had ordered the GOP to block the law in order to not give Biden any ability to claim he acted on border security.

Biden said the Republicans had denied him the “emergency authority to…shut down the border,” and bragged that even the right-wing Border Patrol union and the Chamber of Commerce supported the bill.

The Trump MAGA faction was represented in the House chamber by Georgia’s far-right extremist Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others. | via Twitter (X)

Taking the bait dangled by MAGA Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Biden said words that many saw as racist when speaking about the murder of Laken Riley. “An innocent young woman…was killed by an illegal, that’s right,” Biden thundered. “But how many thousands of people are being killed by illegals?” he asked, using a derogatory word to refer to undocumented immigrants.

He earned immediate criticism from Latino members of Congress and immigrant rights organizations. “No human being is illegal,” Illinois Rep. Delia Ramirez, told the press. Rep. Chuy García said he was “extremely disappointed” in Biden for using the dehumanizing term.

Immigrant rights advocates say the word is not only inaccurate, it is also racially charged and promotes violence and discrimination.

The National Immigrant Justice Center said that Biden using the “words of anti-immigrant extremists” was unacceptable and pointed out that his own administration in 2021 had forbid government agencies from using the term “illegal alien.”

Cold War and militarism abroad

On the foreign policy portfolio, Biden continued the Cold War approach of ramping up fear about other nations and their alleged threats to U.S. democracy.

“We’re standing up against China,” Biden declared. Listing the countries he’s supposedly brought on board in the alliance to contain China—“India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Pacific islands”—Biden said that his agenda of penalties and trade restrictions have put the U.S. “in a stronger position to win the conflict of the 21st century against China.”

China, for its part, continues to say it seeks peaceful co-existence and cooperation with the U.S., not confrontation or war. It opposes the militarization of East Asia.

When it comes to Europe, Biden said the U.S. needs additional billions of dollars to bolster “democracy” in Ukraine, which is fighting Russia. The $60 billion in additional money he wants for the war in Ukraine that is being held up in Congress must be approved immediately, he said.

Most of the money will not go directly to Ukraine, however. The U.S. military would send its old weapons to Ukraine and the “aid” money approved by Congress would then be used to buy new weapons. That puts funds directly into the pockets of U.S. armaments makers who have raked in huge profits thanks to the war in Ukraine, and of course, it subtracts from meeting human needs here at home.

Further invoking the Cold War rhetoric of the past, Biden praised former President Ronald Reagan for having called on then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall and lamented how Republicans of today have moved away from that Cold War stance and instead “bow down to a Russian leader,” meaning Vladimir Putin.

None of the Cold War rhetoric is conducive to building support for cuts to the military budget which are so essential to funding people’s needs.

On Gaza, Biden said he favored negotiating an “immediate ceasefire” of six weeks to allow humanitarian aid into the occupied territory. He said the U.S. would construct a “temporary pier” off the enclave’s Mediterranean coast to allow shops with aid to dock. There was no mention of how that aid would get into trucks to travel across Gaza when the infrastructure to allow such transportation has already been destroyed by Israel.

He claimed that the disaster in Gaza, which he never characterized as a genocide, “began on Oct. 7,” when Hamas attacked Israel, but he made no mention of the continued suppression of Palestinians that has been going on for 75 years. That suppression has had and continues to rely on the support of the U.S.

When the president spoke about Gaza, some members of Congress, led by Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri held up signs protesting U.S. policy there. This protest in the House chamber followed the street demonstration that forced the motorcade bringing Biden from the White House to take a circuitous route since Pennsylvania Ave., the city’s main artery, was blocked. Few of the major networks bothered to cover those protests.

Republicans respond

Capping off the entire night was the incredible Republican response to Biden’s speech, in which Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama laid out their position.

Incredibly, she smiled broadly through most of her speech, including the parts where she described a dark dystopian world she claimed Americans are already living through. She offered not a single solution to any of the alleged problems she said were killing the nation. Instead, she tried to spin an image of Biden as a “diminished and dithering” old man while describing an economic situation at odds with reality.

Britt, who wore a shiny cross around her neck and spoke from her kitchen table, exemplified the right-wing, theocratic, crypto-fascist nature of the modern Republican Party and its view of women. But even many GOP figures acknowledged that her speech was largely a failure.

“It’s one of our biggest disasters ever,” one unnamed Republican told the media. “What the hell am I watching right now? another told Rolling Stone.

Trump’s response, a day after the speech and the Britt horror show was to entertain at Mar-a-Lago the fascistic dictator of Hungary, Viktor Orban.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.

C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.