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Biden's populist moment: Jack Beatty on the State of the Union address

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Pool)
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Pool)

Populism, border politics and primaries. In this podcast special, On Point news analyst Jack Beatty highlights key moments from President Biden’s second State of the Union address.

Guest

Jack BeattyOn Point news analyst. Author of theAge of Betrayal: The Triumph of Money in America and editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: We are here to talk about President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address that he gave last night. There is much to discuss. So let’s start off in the same way that Biden himself started off, with some bipartisanship. He gave a good-natured nod to Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

PRESIDENT BIDEN [Tape]: I start tonight by congratulating 118th Congress, the new speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.

CHAKRABARTI: A recurring theme throughout Biden’s speech. Sometimes he gave that theme straightforwardly, sometimes with a bit of a tease, sometimes directly challenging Republicans in the chamber.

BIDEN [Tape]: New Orleans is formed as I am, but I think the people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere. That’s always been my vision of our country. And I know it’s many of yours. To restore the soul of this nation, to rebuild the backbone of America, America’s middle class, and unite the country. We’ve been sent here to finish the job, in my view.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Jack, first of all, Biden did sound this note over and over again, during sometimes it was quite a contentious speech last night. What do you think of that message?

JACK BEATTY: Well, the two parts of it, really, the amity toward the other side. What a change, really, from President Trump’s last State of the Union speech where he refused to shake hands with Speaker Pelosi. And then in retaliation, she tore up his speech. Instead, we had the courtly gesture to Kevin McCarthy. That, however, did not prelude a wider amity among the party, between the parties. The Republicans, according to John Harris, made themselves disgraceful with boos, taunts, groans. And I like this phrase, sarcastic chortles. My gosh, a sarcastic chortle. There was a lot of that from the Republicans.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, I was just going to say that it did have sort of a slight feel of the British House of Commons back benchers having their say. But that’s not necessarily terribly unusual anymore for State of the Union addresses. Ever since we had that, you know, shout during President Obama’s speech many years ago now.

BEATTY: Yes, but it played right into the White House playbook. They really wanted to put Marjorie Taylor Greene, make her the face of the Republican Party. And they did it last night. I mean, you mentioned how Biden deftly fenced with the Republicans on Social Security and other issues. Well, a lot of it was fencing with her, who was shouting out, liar, liar. We’re going to see a lot of that. And the Democrats are going to say, look, she stands for them. Is that what you want, a party of extremists?

CHAKRABARTI: I have to say, it was quite something to see Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene shout liar when she is one of the most passionate embracers of the biggest lie of all regarding the 2020 election. But so let’s move on and talk about some other really interesting points from Biden’s speech last night. There was one thing that stuck with me. Because Biden spoke extensively about forgotten Americans, about the jobs and dignity that he says will come back with … a return to a made in America mindset in this country. So here’s what he said.

BIDEN [Tape]: So many of you felt like you’ve just simply been forgotten, made the economic upheaval of the past four decades. Too many people have been left behind and treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you watching from home. Remember the jobs that went away? You remember them, don’t you? The folks at home remember them. You wonder whether the path even exists anymore.

For your children to get ahead without having to move away. Well, that’s why I get that. That’s why we’re building an economy where no one is left behind. Jobs are coming back. Pride is coming back, because of choices we made in the last several years. You know, this is my view. A blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives at home.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Jack, when President Biden went through this section of his speech, I thought, hang on just a minute. Forgotten Americans, buy American, Build America and be proud of America. It had strong echoes, if not almost identical thematic language to what President Trump said back in 2016. So what do you make of that?

BEATTY: As one columnist headlined: ‘What Trump Promised, I Delivered.’ That was Biden’s message. You know, infrastructure, real infrastructure versus infrastructure, week. Yes, it was the populist moment of last night. The economic populism, he’s going to run on, the view that people are essentially being ripped off, victimized by a corporate elite, by companies that charge too much. And by … he named them, big pharma or big tech. He went through the list of populist targets.

And on the other side, Sarah Sanders came out with the GOP cultural populism. You know, it’s the woke mobs. It’s all that terrible stuff that inhabits Fox News every night about, you know, the elite, this time is the Democratic elite forcing their progressive views on ordinary Americans. So I think that sets up an election between economic populism, cultural populism, and it also sets up a series we’re going to be doing soon on the theme of populism and politics.

CHAKRABARTI: Indeed. Now, I’m going to play a clip from what Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in just a second, Jack. But let me just ask you a little bit more about this, because what do you think differentiates, if anything, the economic populism we heard from President Biden last night, from the brand of populism, again, which seems very thematically similar that Donald Trump evoked back in 2016? I mean, he directly made promises to the, quote, forgotten men and women of America. So, first of all, is there a difference? And second of all, what do you make of the fact that it seems as if both of these men were and are speaking to the same group of Americans?

BEATTY: They are speaking to the same group of Americans. There’s no question about it. At one point in that part of the speech you quoted, he talked about the people who don’t want to move, who don’t want to move. Well, that’s the middle of the country. But I think the difference is Trump’s populism … was shot through with resentment, xenophobia, racism, ethnocentrism. It was the negative, the dark side of populism. There’s none of that from Biden. He picks out. He doesn’t fight down. He’s not picking on trans kids. He’s picking on transnational corporations. So it’s fundamentally different in that way.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s listen now to what Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in the Republican response to the State of the Union address. Here she is.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS [Tape]: Whether Joe Biden believes this madness or is simply too weak to resist it. His administration has been completely hijacked by the radical left. The dividing line in America is no longer between right or left. The choice is between normal or crazy. It’s time for a new generation of Republican leadership. Upon taking office just a few weeks ago, I signed executive orders to ban CRT, racism and indoctrination in our schools, eliminate the use of derogatory term Latinx in our government, repealed COVID orders and said never again to authoritarian mandates and shutdowns. Americans want common sense from their leaders. But in Washington, the Biden administration is doubling down on crazy.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so there’s a lot to tease apart there. Jack, first of all, what do you make of Governor Sanders drawing this dividing line, as she sees it? Between normal and crazy. I mean, that’s the overt vilification of any American who doesn’t fall in line with the GOP ideals.

BEATTY: Yes. And it was a very unfortunate choice of terms, given what we had just seen in the State of the Union. We saw a rather normal president keeping his cool, joking, you know, appealing to the other side. And we saw Marjorie Taylor Greene, who looked awfully crazy to me by those standards. And of course, we remember the contrast, crazy and normal. That was part of what Trump’s lawyers were talking about when Trump was denying the election.

They were saying, there’s the crazy party. There’s the normal party. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that that was a kind of projection onto the Democrats of a problem of really, I think, the central problem of the Republican Party that they have. They have made themselves the home for kooks and the kind of people who are driven out of the party back in the 1960s. They’re all back and they control, I think, with the speaker.

CHAKRABARTI: And yet it’s a successful line for them, though, Jack, because I’m thinking that this was a speech, the Republican response was given by the current sitting governor of the state of Arkansas. I mean, who seems to claim that she can sign an executive order to ban racism in the state, which doesn’t make any sense to me. But nevertheless, she’s in the governor’s office there, so I don’t see any countervailing force in the GOP that would pull them back from their all-in stance on the culture wars.

BEATTY: No, and they are devoid of anything on economics. They can’t. You know, even among Republican voters, polls have shown support for higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations. That kind of puts Republican economics out of business. They have to resort to this. And they’re taking their cues, of course, from Fox News, which, you know, is the purveyor of this idea of American culture is being undermined by, I don’t know, a cabal of crazy people who want to change, devalue all standards and so on. It’s a very strong theme in a Republican primary. I think it’s a losing proposition in an election. And we’ll have to see whether Governor DeSantis, who’s a very shrewd fellow, begins to ever so slightly move away from it and toward an economic message.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So let’s get back to what Biden said in his State of the Union address last night, because, again, this theme of differing kinds of populism shows up again and again in his speech, because, for example, you know, what does populism mean? Does it mean culture war? Populism? Does it mean economic populism? It really came home to roost when Biden talked about Social Security and Medicare.

Now, he went out of his way to say that some Republicans want to sunset Social Security and Medicare. And in fact, Senator Rick Scott, it’s in documentation that he has put out. But that was too much for many of the Republicans in the chamber last night during the State of the Union. So here’s Biden speaking and you can hear again, a representative, Marjorie Taylor Greene, shouting at the president.

BIDEN [Tape]: Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security sunset. I’m not saying it’s a majority. Let me give you, anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy. I’ll give you a copy of the proposal. That means Congress doesn’t vote. Well, I’m glad to see. And I tell you, I enjoy conversion. You know, amazing. If Congress doesn’t keep the programs the way they are, they go away. Other Republicans say, I’m not saying it’s a majority of you. I don’t even think it’s even significant. What is being proposed by individuals. I’m not politely not naming them, but is being proposed by some of you.

CHAKRABARTI: Fascinating moment to me. Because first of all, as I mentioned, Rick Scott has explicitly put out documentation saying he wishes to sunset every federal program every five years. And if it’s worth it, Congress would reenact them. Mike Lee of Utah also has said the same thing in years past. Interestingly, Senator Mitch McConnell was like, no way, we’re not going to take down Social Security and Medicare.

But then President Biden, I think this is such a fascinating one because clearly, he’s not on script right now when all of this was happening. And so he goes on and says, well, hey, look, if the Republicans here in the chamber want to save Social Security and Medicare, let’s kind of make it official. Here’s how he did that.

BIDEN: As we all apparently agree, Social Security, Medicare is off the books now.

… Social Security, Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors. Americans have to pay into them from the very first paycheck they start. So tonight, let’s all agree, and we apparently are, let’s stand up for seniors.

Stand up and show them we’ll not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.

CHAKRABARTI: So the president there coaxing out a standing ovation from both Democrats and Republicans. Jack, your read of that moment.

BEATTY: Pretty nimble for an 80-year-old man, I should say. As you say, he was off script, and he maneuvered them into this unanimity, and he baited them. It was done so deftly. Ron Klain, his former chief of staff, says that moment is one of the moments in state of the unions that people will be citing a generation from now, a president very nimbly, sort of scooping the opposition, dissing the opposition, taking their issue and saying, oh, well, so … I’m glad you agree with me. Very, very well done. And I think it was good in substance and also good to the subtext of, Joe, are you too old to be president?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, you can imagine also that video from that moment is going to be used by Democrats, especially, in every House and Senate race and presidential race, even in the next election cycle. But, you know, I wonder, Jack, again, I’m still thinking about the dichotomy you set up of the different kinds of populism that we saw at play last night, because as you noted, President Biden went to lengths to talk about really specific types of programs.

Including the effort to hold down the cost of insulin, for Americans who need it to help control their diabetes. Fascinating moment there, too, where he said we’ve managed to cap it for Medicare recipients at $35 a dose. Let’s finish the job, Biden says, and hold down the price of insulin for all Americans. Now, here is a moment in which the Republican Party members, the Republican Party, did not stand up. Right. So what do you make of that?

BEATTY: Yes. Again and again, the program, things that he said that seemed on their face majoritarian. Lower drug court costs, getting rid of airline bothersome fees, credit card overcharges, late charges, corporations that don’t pay taxes … whatever it was, they sat on their hands as if, well, we’re for diabetes, we’re for the billionaires. You know, we’re for the credit cards. They were sort of put in the position of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.

And I think it made the point that at least on the issues, economic issues, all of those look good for the Democrats. And have for years. Nevertheless, you can’t run away from it. Their problems with blue collar Americans, their problems with the white working class, increasingly with working class voters, generally. Those problems are dire. One prognosticator in the New York Review of Books, looking back on the 2022 election said, Well, yeah, the Democrats won. But given how poorly they’re doing among the people I mentioned, these blue-collar Americans, one has to wonder whether this was a victory or a stay of execution. They’ve got to do better there. And if they don’t, they’re going to be out of the White House.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, I think this is one of the things that many Americans kind of feel a profound amount of frustration about. But we’re feeling frustration about ourselves. Right. Because you’re exactly right. When you remove the label of Democrat or Republican, these are issues that do have majoritarian appeal and majoritarian support. Something breaks in the minds of the American polity when we then say, well, it’s a program proposed by the Biden administration or it’s a program proposed by Mitch McConnell.

I mean, I don’t know. I’m just throwing out names out there. But something breaks. And I think you see that frustration playing out amongst individual Americans over and over again. But we are, in a sense, doing it to ourselves. So let me just also play a couple of more clips here, Jack, to pull out a few more major themes from what President Biden said last night. He talked about taxes a lot, specifically wealthy tax cheats, as he called them. He lambasted corporations buying back their own stocks, specifically big oil companies doing that. And here’s what he said.

BIDEN: They used the record profits to buy back their own stock, rewarding the CEOs and shareholders. Corporations ought to do the right thing. That’s why I propose we quadruple the tax on corporate stock buybacks and encourage long term investments.

They’ll still make considerable profit.

Let’s finish the job and close the loopholes that allow the very wealthy to avoid paying their taxes. Instead of cutting the number of orders for wealthy taxpayers, I just signed a law to reduce the deficit by $114 billion by cracking down on wealthy tax cheats. That’s being fiscally responsible.

CHAKRABARTI: I should note that around that time, President Biden also made a very Biden-esque gaffe, I would say, when he said, oh, well, we’re going to need new refineries because we’re going to need oil for at least another ten more years. That elicited a lot of laughs because it’s likely to be far more than ten years. But he also then talked about fentanyl, again, one of these issues that should have majoritarian appeal. But it actually is, I think, a moment of political weakness for him.

And here’s why. He said accurately that there may be a record number of personnel working to secure the border. And 23,000 pounds of fentanyl crossing into the United States from Mexico had just been seized in the last several months. And he called on Congress for more measures, but any talk about the border really elicited a strong response from Republicans in the chamber.

BIDEN: Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year. … So let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production and the sale and trafficking with more drug detection machines, inspection cargo, stop pills and powder at the border.

CHAKRABARTI: Now the complexity of the crisis at the border, and Democrats won’t even actually use that word. Crisis. Is a reality and it’s a political weakness for President Biden. So what do you think of that moment there, Jack?

BEATTY: … Again and again, it’s come up that the Republicans want people to believe that it’s the migrants who are bringing the fentanyl over here hidden on their persons or in their backpacks and so on. That is not so. As every study shows, the fentanyl comes through ports of entry that comes in trucks and busses and cars and hidden in those things. And as a major series in The Washington Post pointed out, the technology to detect the presence of fentanyl in these vehicles. Money was taken away from that by the Trump administration to spend on, you know, law enforcement at the border.

So it’s a fake. It’s simply not true that the migrants are bringing in the fentanyl. They’re coming through San Diego in trucks. And it is true that the Republicans weakened that defense against fentanyl. So, yes, the border is a tough problem for the Democrats. They’re caught between their desire to be humane and to appeal to their constituents’ groups and the overwhelming center among Americans that something has to be done to bring to bring order there and to have a rational immigration system. To their credit, they still come out for that. The Republicans don’t want immigration settled. They want the issue.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Jack, so finally, it’s hard not to look upon this State of the Union address as an indication of how Biden wants to position himself and his party for 2024. Because, again, I think that’s a lot of the reason why he talked about in detail about some of these measures, taxes, insulin, airlines, as you talked about. And actually, I think once or twice in his speech, he even mentioned that, you know, people are only just realizing that these positive changes are happening in their lives. And some of them they won’t even realize for another year or two because it takes time for the programs to roll out. So what do you think this means for Biden himself looking forward to 2024?

BEATTY: Well, Bloomberg reported yesterday that already since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, there have been 100,000 green jobs created. And that’s something that was just passed a few months ago. So it’s setting Biden up for a reprise of FDR, his 1940 campaign, where he went from, you know, he would be in Seattle and he’d point across the Puget Sound and say over there and you could see a smokestack we are building. And he’d talk about the defense buildup. And when he went to Massachusetts, he’d talk about what was then the Mystic River Bridge.

And wherever he went, he talked about what the government was doing for people. And Biden has that now set up with this infrastructure bill. He can do that all over the country.

And indeed, what he said is true. If just since, you know, yesterday, practically 100,000 green jobs can be ascribed to the Inflation Reduction Act. Wait’ll we get going with the infrastructure and the other programs. He’s setting himself up for that kind of election fight and really to set himself up like LBJ in 1964 when he went through Culpeper, Virginia, and he yelled out, ‘What has Barry Goldwater ever done for Culpeper?’ Nothing.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, you and your LBJ impressions. They’re masterful. But you know, I hate this phrase, but I don’t know what else to say. Those aren’t the only optics, that Biden is going to be projecting should he seek reelection. You yourself on the show have talked many times about the problems that the Democrats might face because let’s be honest, Biden’s age, I mean, even Sarah Huckabee Sanders talked about a new generation of leadership. She was talking about in the GOP. But is that not also a point of contention amongst Democrats?

BEATTY: It sure is. Most Democrats don’t want the president to run just for that reason. Every group of Democrats just since the fall, I mean, 37% of them said, yes, he’s too old. Then now it’s up to 50%. So he has a real problem there. Nothing’s going to take it away. And if he runs against Governor DeSantis, that would be a man 36 years younger. And as Michelle Goldberg said, even just the visuals will be damning for the Democrats. And it creates a problem even within his own party.

The Democrats have moved the primary first primary to South Carolina on February 3rd, making New Hampshire second on February 6th. New Hampshire says no way, we’re going to go earlier than February 3rd. And, Mr. President, the New Hampshire Democrats have warned the president, they write, we also fear if you decline to enter the New Hampshire primary, that you may lose the first presidential primary in 2024. In other words, somebody else may get into the race, Mr. President, may win the New Hampshire primary, and you may suddenly be facing some momentum and a threat within your own party. Gavin Newsom, are you listening? That’s a shadow only as big as a man’s hand, but it’s there and it’s all about Biden’s age.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Jack, you are there in New Hampshire. You know better than anyone that that first in the nation primary is a hill that the Granite State, it’s willing to die on. I mean, I remember, oh, like more than ten years ago, I was having a conversation with the then secretary of state of New Hampshire and this issue of moving the primaries around had come up again at that time. And he told me over the phone in no uncertain terms, he said, we’ll move it into Christmas if we have to.

BEATTY: The former governor Lynch, a Democrat, said that’s like asking someone to move the Statue of Liberty to Miami. It ain’t going to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, we will see. Jack Beatty, thank you so much for this insight into last night’s State of the Union address from President Biden. Much appreciated, Jack.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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