STATE OF THE DISUNION: FIVE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE STATE OF THE UNION
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The State of the Union is a strange, strange thing. It is often momentous, particularly when a historical moment meets with the occasion. President George W. Bush’s legacy was somewhat cemented with his addresses that crafted a disastrous and awful vision of the world. And, just as often, they are fleeting glimpses at agendas that won’t ever be realized and, in some cases, aren’t exactly intended to be realized.
Joe Biden’s address to Congress last night probably sits somewhere closer to the latter, but was a telling moment regardless. The tone he struck was obviously intended to lay the foundation for his reelection campaign while attempting to navigate a divided government. As has been the case for the entirety of his presidency, attempts at bipartisanship were met with raucous antipathy. This was a preview of what is to come.
Here are five takeaways from the evening.
1. Let’s Finish The Job
Very clearly, this was a staging for Biden’s reelection bid. The phrase “finish the job” was so everpresent that it grew distracting at some points. It’s a pretty decently constructed phrase that was designed to promote a second term as a completion of a larger project while also answering the question of “why?” Much like Biden based his candidacy in 2020 as a calling to defeat Donald Trump and “restore normalcy” - which was naive at best and destructive at worst - this go-round seems predicated on a calling to push his mission over the finish line.
This is important, if only because, ever since Biden took the oath of office, the questions swirling around him the most have been whether it would be a single term. Actually, that’s not even true. The possibility of Biden selling himself on a single term was even a matter of debate and conversation back in 2016 before he elected to sit the contest out. Possible replacements like Gavin Newsom and Pete Buttigieg were probably canceling their reservations in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina before he’d finished the third graf of the speech.
The fallout remains to be seen. Biden is 80 years old and the Democratic Party has been wringing its hands over his age and possible reelection bid for years now. It appears, age, mishandled documents, flagging approval ratings be damned, he’s sticking around as long as it takes.
2. A Barroom Brawl
The decorum was dreadful. It was part of a de-evolution that has taken place since 2009, when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson interrupted Barack Obama by shouting “You lie!”
Wilson’s breach was met with shock, criticism by members of both parties, and eventually a symbolic measure of disapproval. It all seems rather quaint now.
Biden’s address was met with near consistent heckling and abuse from Republicans, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has recently found her new home under the wing of Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. Despite McCarthy’s continued attempts to calm his House and avoid a worsening scene, the attacks got uglier as the crowd grew emboldened.
To Biden’s credit, he rose to the challenge. His ability to speak is below average, historically speaking, but his background in Delaware and as a retail politician shined as he sparred with the House Republicans. At one point, he penned them into seemingly promising to leave Social Security alone, though it remains to be seen if there’s anything that could keep them consistent.
His performance aside, what we saw was a glimpse into the chaos to come. If McCarthy is incapable of even keeping Taylor Greene in line, his most recent convert that made his beleaguered speakership possible, then what will that debt ceiling debacle look like? And for anyone who believes that Trumpism will end with Trump, this should serve as a sobering glimpse at where we are and where we are heading.
This problem isn’t getting better. The pillars of “normalcy” that everyone seems to be chasing or at least lionizing have crumbled completely. It doesn’t help, of course, that MTG and her cadre of extremists benefit every time this happens. They fund raise. They grow their profile. And even as Fox News rolls its collective eyes at the disruptions, it does absolutely nothing to dampen them. This is the new normal and it is anything but.
As far as Biden and his administration, it is yet another opportunity to triangulate between “respectable Republicans” and these outsiders. The divide is there, after all, and there are opportunities to spotlight these embarassments while passing bipartisan legislation. That’s the plan, of course, but it isn’t that great. Which, considering the situation and where things stand, is pretty much all that remains: not great options.
3. Bipartisan Red Meat
In the most recent episode of The Muckrake Podcast I said I expected the tone to be bipartisan. It wasn’t a hard prediction to make considering Biden’s history of overextending himself in pursuit of bipartisan relations and the nature of divided government. But what we saw in the State of the Union was a pretty incredible and strange dance.
Part of the issue comes from presentation. Biden’s delivery of the speech was stilted outside of his brawling with House Republicans. He sped through lines and his speechwriters didn’t do him any favors in terms of transitions. They were clunky and random at times, but what you find examining the grafs is a mixture of bipartisan appeals punctuated with partisan notes. The vacillation back and forth was dizzying at times and didn’t allow much in the way of momentum to build, particularly as interruptions brought things to continual standstills.
It was, in a way, emblematic of Biden’s presidency so far. The promise to repair divides following Trump’s presidency was always at the forefront of his communications. The problem is that the America Biden often appeals to is largely nonexistent now, and the party he is asking to come along most definitely has disappeared. All in all, there is very little that he proposed the parties could work on together that will come to pass. It was a lot of window dressing that might turn into small, around-the-edges legislation, but largely a placeholder of an address meant to set the stage for what will obviously be a partisan brawl.
4. A Year Of Struggle
What I have expected out of 2023: partisan squabbling and the setting of battle lines for 2024. From Republicans, we’ll see a ton of grandstanding in the House mixed with attempts to seek out sacrificial lambs and impeachment opportunities. Biden made it abundantly clear what to expect.
The touting of the victories from his first two years was par for course, but what was also noticeable was the repeated chorus of how these wins - including infrastructure, reindustrialization, etc. - are only being rolled out now. The message is that the benefits of his presidency are only beginning to be felt. Whether this was purposeful or planned, that’s anybody’s guess, but the reaction and the framing are obviously intentional.
Biden’s comm team has been, in a word, awful. The president disappears for weeks at a time and barely ever punctures the national conversation. For the most part, his addresses have been more effectively chopped up for embarrassing memes than meaningful communications. The victories have been handed over to people like Joe Manchin and Congress at large, including Mitch McConnell for reasons that still baffle the imagination. Biden has been framed, by his enemies and his allies alike, as a passive and nearly invisible chief executive.
The question now is whether this third year will be spent more or less appearing at shovel-ready projects around the country that tout these victories. That’s a decent strategy, but considering the record of this administration, I wouldn’t count on it. But the framing lent itself to a larger feeling that it’s going to be a long and frustrating year, albeit an absolutely integral one.
5. More Madness
The opposition’s rebuttal to the State of the Union is a nearly impossible feat. You’re not the president. You usually seem small and weird. Enter Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Good lord, I still can’t type that sentence and believe it.
Huckabee Sanders appeared in front of a crappy Zoom background and read off a completely unhinged “speech” that sounded like something one of my extremist Baptist charismatic preachers would’ve rattled off on a bad Sunday.
Just complete garbage and exactly what you would expect from the modern Republican Party. It was apocalyptic. Ridiculous. And something designed only to appeal to people deep, deep, DEEP into internet conspiracy theories and Right Wing propaganda. And what’s more, it’s going to work. Huckabee Sanders is more than happy to roll-out Ron DeSantis-style policies designed and backed by Right Wing donors obsessed with destroying public education. It’s a franchising, and she’s bought in big.
Anyone interested in “reaching across the aisle” should watch this speech and see if they think there’s some “common ground” to find. These people, including Huckabee Sanders, are trying to position themselves to either run for the presidency - can you even imagine??? - or at least set themselves up at the trough for the donor class to fill their coffers. But this retort was telling. In front of a rowdy Congress, Biden advocated for that “normalcy” that no longer exists and Huckabee Sanders painted a portrait of a country that has never existed.
As always, it is an untenable situation. The question isn’t whether it can continue, but how and when it will fall apart.
Thank you, once again, FOR ACKNOWLEDGING REALITY! Thinking about things as they are, resisting the rabid distractions and using the contexts of history and reality are the only ways I can send my way through the mire. Good heavens!
Great assessment. Reality no matter how much want to hope otherwise.
It is untenable & hard to think about some dark possibilities that could leap up in coming months. Onward.