Joe Biden unveiled a post-Trump populism Tuesday night, replacing the aggrieved sense of “American carnage” with a promise of American renewal that echoes the idea behind making America great again.
In a State of the Union address meant to make the case for his second term, Biden sounded more like a consumer advocate than a head of state.
Biden spent a surprising amount of time talking about an issue that unites everyone – annoyance at credit card, hotel and airline “junk fees.” He spent more time promising to stand up for workers “getting stiffed” by corporations than he did about standing up to China.
He barely mentioned the divisive issue of abortion, on which Democrats built their midterm strategy, and previewed a focus on protecting the federal benefit program that helps almost everyone in retirement.
“Those benefits belong to the American people,” Biden said of Social Security and Medicare. “They earned it.”
In an in-person, give-and-take with opponents, he got Republicans whooping about how they wouldn’t cut Social Security or Medicare, a rhetorical trick he ad-libbed.
“If anyone tries to cut Social Security – which apparently no one is going to do – and if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it. And look, I’m not going to allow them to take away – be taken away. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. But apparently it’s not going to be a problem.”
He talked about transforming the economy with the trillions in federal spending passed with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and promised the very not bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act would help everyone.
He repeatedly told Americans who feel like they’re getting fleeced that corporations and billionaires weren’t paying enough in taxes and that getting more from them could shore up the safety net.
The most recent Democratic presidents pushed trade deals to open the world economy. For Bill Clinton, it was NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was later rewritten by Donald Trump. For Barack Obama, it was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, which Trump killed.
Biden, on the other hand, talked about making the US independent from China and overseas supply lines – and pledged to focus on “made in America” to bring new manufacturing jobs to places where workers feel left behind.
“Maybe that’s you, watching from home,” Biden said, reaching out to the Rust Belt. “You 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.”
This was an intentional focus, writes CNN’s Kevin Liptak: “His focus on highly specific issues – like eliminating ‘junk fees’ for consumers or reining in tech companies – are areas the White House believes will resonate with Americans who aren’t necessarily attuned to the ins-and-outs of Washington.”
Biden bragged about giving more Americans easier access to hearing aids without a prescription and asked Republicans to help him cap the price of insulin for everyone, not just people on Medicare.
It sets up an interesting debate for the next two years as Biden tries to prove the government can help everyone – at the same time Republicans, like Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in her official response to the speech, try to convince voters that “Democrats want to rule us with more government control.”
Biden’s screed against hidden “junk fees” was particularly striking since it’s more an annoyance than a major policy issue. It’s also the kind of thing that could get bipartisan support in the next two years.
His White House has already tasked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with cracking down on these fees, which it says can be exploitative and predatory.
Perhaps drafting off the furor over “dynamic pricing” that led to a congressional hearing over stratospheric Taylor Swift concert tickets, Biden has endorsed the Junk Free Prevention Act, a bill that would go further and target four types of fees, according to a report from CNN’s Donald Judd:
- Excessive online concert, sporting event and entertainment ticket fees.
- Airline fees for families sitting together on flights.
- Exorbitant early termination fees for TV, phone and internet services.
- Surprise resort and destination fees.
Even on culturally sensitive issues, Biden looked for common ground, trying to draw a throughline from people who are concerned about violence in their communities and those who are afraid of police brutality.
He outlined what could be a workable, if incomplete, immigration compromise when he suggested combining a GOP priority, border security funding, with a Democratic priority: legal status for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children.
This was Biden’s argument, and Republicans are now proceeding to poke holes in it. But as a pitch for a second term, it represented a new direction.