I recently wrote that when I think about President Joe Biden I imagine an aging boxer who finally won the heavyweight championship of the world. After watching President Biden’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, however, I am going to have to reconsider that image and conclusion.
It is clear that Biden has lots of gas left in the tank.
The president entered the congressional ring carrying the big gold heavyweight championship belt on his shoulder and he left with it — relatively unbruised and not even sweating — after his match with the Republicans.
The Republicans baited him. They heckled and hurled profanities at him, interrupted his speech, and called him a liar. In response, Biden bobbed and weaved and turned their moves against them. The Republicans were so bold and lazy in their attacks that they dared to stick their chins out — an insult to an experienced fighter — and Biden made them pay for it every time.
Public opinion polls show that more than 70 percent of Americans who watched it had a positive view of Biden’s State of the Union speech.
The boxing metaphor analogy is both obvious and fitting – which is why so many other writers are using it to describe Biden’s State of the Union speech. But the better analogy and metaphor is professional wrestling, where Biden entered the battle royal and then threw all of the Republicans out of the ring over the top rope.
Here are some of the specific takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union speech:
At Mother Jones, Abigail Weinberg wrote, “By turns relaxed, jovial, and combat-ready, Biden wove together a story of a nation emerging from a set of devastating events with promises of economic revitalization centered on job creation.”
The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein argued that “Biden’s emphasis on economic concerns reflects his belief that the best way to counter that strategy is to downplay culture-war fights while defining himself primarily around a practical agenda to lift average families.”
Historian Heather Cox Richardson said this in her Letters from an American newsletter:
What viewers saw tonight was a president repeatedly offering to work across the aisle as he outlined a moderate plan for the nation with a wide range of popular programs. He sounded calm, reasonable, and upbeat, while Republicans refused to clap for his successes—800,000 new manufacturing jobs, 20,000 new infrastructure projects, lower drug prices—or his call to strengthen the middle class.
And then, when he began to talk about future areas of potential cooperation, Republicans went feral. They heckled, catcalled, and booed, ignoring House speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) attempts to shush them. At the State of the Union, in the U.S. Capitol, our lawmakers repeatedly interrupted the president with insults, yelling “liar” and “bullsh*t.” And cameras caught it all.
And Salon’s Heather Digby Parton summarized Biden’s State of the Union speech in the following way:
This State of the Union speech was one of Biden’s best moments as president. He hit all the expected notes of empathy and concern that we’ve come to expect, particularly when he introduced the parents of Tyre Nichols and proposed new plans for police reform. He pulled no punches when he spoke of the erosion of democracy, harking back to January 6th, 2021 as Kevin McCarthy sulked behind him looking as if he’d just sucked on a kumquat. His speech was a well-written recitation of the major accomplishments achieved by the administration in the last two years, delivered with a sense of confidence that he will be able to “finish the job” — the theme of the address and a clear indication that he is going to run for another term.
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Sure, it was a good speech. But how does Biden’s address change or challenge the status quo ante that the Republican fascists are still in control of the House and that the larger neofascist movement and white right are continuing (and winning) their nationwide campaign against multiracial democracy, pluralism, and freedom? It is very easy to be seduced and distracted by symbolism, style, and political performance — this is especially true for Democrats and others who want some good news and to praise Biden — but what of political substance and results?
Liberal schadenfreude does nothing to change the fact that the Republican fascists, specifically the Orwellian-sounding “Freedom Caucus,” now control the House of Representatives.
The president, for example, made very strong points about the country’s democracy crisis, the need to protect women’s reproductive rights and freedoms, and the serious and ongoing danger represented by the Trumpists and MAGAites during his address. But sitting right in front of him were the very same Republican fascist insurrections who participated in and supported Trump’s coup attempt on Jan. 6. Moreover, many of these Republican fascists and insurrections would most certainly have handed Biden over to the mob for them to put him on trial and then do worse to him after they found him “guilty” of “crimes” against the Trump regime. The 14th Amendment, it should be noted, forbids insurrectionists from serving in Congress. Yet, there they were, watching Biden’s speech and attempting to disrupt it. These same Republican fascists are now undermining democracy from within by using their positions in Congress to hold kangaroo courts and fake investigations into the Biden administration with the goal of impeaching him and returning Trump or some other demagogue to power.
Biden continues to be conciliatory to Republicans as he promises to be “bipartisan” and “to work together” to serve the American people. Yet, he also continues to say that these same forces represent a dire threat to the country. Which is it?
Such basic contradictions and incongruities are why so many Americans view the country’s democracy and its leaders with suspicion and distrust and are exhausted by what they see as partisan bickering and a broken system that does not really care about people like them.
The Republican Party and the “conservative” movement have a deep and malevolent understanding of symbolic politics and theater. It is fun for Democrats, liberals, progressives, and centrists to make fun of Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and the other members of the Republican fascist rogues’ gallery.
That laughter, mockery, and liberal schadenfreude does nothing to change the fact that the Republican fascists, specifically the Orwellian-sounding “Freedom Caucus,” now control the House of Representatives. Sure, one can complain about comportment and norms and the incivility of Greene and Boebert and their foul behavior during Biden’s State of the Union speech, but they were not performing for the news media, Democrats or the political mainstream broadly defined. Their audience consists of other Republican fascists. The goal is to delegitimize Biden’s presidency (and the Democratic Party) and the institutions and norms (like the State of the Union speech) that make for a healthy functioning democracy. To that end, the Republican fascists’ disruptions and other antics during Biden’s State of the Union speech were very effective.
Yes, President Biden, in a moment of quick wit and rhetorical aikido that was rousing for the Democrats and their supporters (and the pundits), was able to get the Republicans to publicly promise that they would not cut Social Security or Medicare. But no serious thinking person truly believes that the Republican Party will abandon its quest to kill those programs as part of a larger decades-long plan to destroy the country’s already threadbare social safety net – and by doing so throw tens of millions of Americans into poverty and 21st-century serfdom.
Symbolism vs substance.
It is Black History Month. President Biden knows and understands the symbolic power of this month and the importance of the Black Freedom Struggle and its role in improving the country’s democracy. Biden is also intensely aware of the great debt he owes to Black Americans, a group that are his most stalwart supporters and without whose support he would not be president. Honoring that relationship and debt, Biden’s personal guests at the State of the Union included the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, the young Black man who was savagely murdered by Memphis Police in a video-recorded new-age lynching last month.
During his speech, Biden talked about the need to reform America’s police in order to stop their racist violence and other abuse against Black and brown people and the public as a whole. Biden also did something very poignant during the State of the Union speech: he spoke with sincerity and concern about how the parents of Black and brown children have to give them “The Talk” about how not to be murdered by the country’s police, an institution of social control and violence that traces its modern origins back to the slave patrols of the antebellum South.
President Biden is a good man. I have no doubt about the sincerity of his comments about police violence against Black and brown people. But here is a basic problem: Biden has supported “tough on crime” legislation that has disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities and made the types of police thuggery and violence that killed Tyre Nichols and so many other innocent Black and brown people more likely and not less. A year prior, during the same speech, Biden dismissed calls to “defund the police,” which in practice actually means accountability and transparency; never mind the fact that America’s police have not been or will ever be in real danger of being “defunded” by either the Democrats or Republicans.
Cheerleading and praising President Biden’s State of the Union speech feels good. Writing positive stories and political theater criticism is fun for the pundits and mainstream (and especially “liberal”) news media as well. Writing such stories is also relatively easy to do and a reprieve and distraction from the more difficult work of consistent truth-telling about hard subjects that may not generate the eyes and clicks and resulting ad revenue that the news media is hungry for. But the real test is what President Biden and the Democrats do to take the boost in energy from his State of the Union address and then translate it into actual deliverables that will improve the lives of the American people.
A great one-night performance, high on empty symbolic politics, simply will not beat back Republican fascists.
on Biden’s battle