Ten takeaways from President Biden’s Joint Address
The American Families Plan is a big deal. But we need more (ahem, healthcare).
On the eve of his first 100 days, President Biden gave his first address to a joint session of Congress, akin to a State of the Union.
The president had the twin challenges of pumping his “American Jobs Plan” and his “American Families Plan.” The Jobs Plan is a collection of infrastructure-adjacent jobs-creating proposals that would, among other things, invest in roads and bridges, yes—but also housing, water infrastructure, and human infrastructure like home healthcare. The Families Plan would expand education access from pre-K through college, offer paid family leave and expand childhood tax credits, among other proposals. Each of these comes with a price tag of just under $2 trillion, on the heels of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Here are 10 takeaways from last night’s speech:
1) When President Biden thinks climate change, he thinks jobs.
The American Jobs Plan has garnered skepticism from the right because of its focus on climate change. In pressing the plan, he answered that skepticism, “When I think climate change, I think jobs.”
That formulation—connecting climate change to jobs—stems directly from the Green New Deal, which calls for a massive investment in green jobs to build green infrastructure and end carbon emissions. While the plan is nowhere near as big or ambitious as AOC’s Green New Deal (nor is it as big as we need), it’s clear that the thinking beneath the Green New Deal has won the future. And for that, thank AOC, the Sunrise Movement, and the activists, organizers, and advocates around the country who made that possible.
2) The president talked about eliminating lead pipes. Republicans shook their heads.
It’s been seven years since residents of Flint, Michigan could trust their water (and their politicians). While the lead pipes have been removed from the ground in Flint, there are thousands of other Flints in the making, where lead piping continues to threaten the brains of our children. As part of the American Jobs Plan, President Biden wants to remove those pipes.
And yet, at the mention of this, Republican lawmakers stayed seated—Rep. Lauren Boebert shook her head.
Apparently lead poisoning is now partisan.
3) “A blue-collar blueprint to build America”
President Biden called his Jobs Plan a “blue-collar blueprint to build America.” It tells us where his mind is: convincing blue dog Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin and the 2022 midterms. He understands that the bill’s focus on addressing climate change presents the biggest wedge opportunity for Republicans and he’s trying to neutralize it.
4) “Trickle-down economics has never worked.”
In his 1996 State of the Union, President Bill Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over.” As I’ve written, this was the Democratic surrender to President Ronald Reagan’s all-out assault on government. In six words, Clinton assented to the governing consensus Reagan initiated. It continued unabated...until now.
Yesterday, while describing his plan to increase taxes on wealthy families earning more than $400K, forcing corporations to pay their fair share, and increasing the capital gains tax, President Biden declared, “Trickle-down economics has never worked.” With those words, he effectively declared an end to Reagan’s disastrous governing consensus.
Words are one thing, action is another. But if he can pass both the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plans, he may be right.
5) China, China, China.
There’s been a lot of focus on China in the president’s rhetoric as he’s pushed his American Jobs Plan, pitching it as a critical leap forward to surpass China’s growing research and manufacturing might in the global geopolitical arena. Biden routinely does this because it's one of the only points of bipartisan agreement (at least among political elites). But yesterday, the president stretched the China conceit about as far as it could possibly go, as a a tool to introduce his American Families Plan:
Look, we can't be so busy competing with one another that we forget the competition that we have with the rest of the world to win the 21st century. As Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken can tell you, I spent a lot of time with [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping], traveled over 17,000 miles with him, spent over 24 hours in private discussions with him. When he called to congratulate me, we had a two-hour discussion.
He's deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others, autocrats, think that democracy can't compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus. To win that competition for the future, in my view, we also need to make a once-in-a-generation investment in our families and our children.
That's why I’ve introduced the American Families Plan tonight, which addresses four of the biggest challenges facing American families and, in turn, America.
Leveraging geopolitics to justify domestic policy is nothing new—but it has often signaled aggressive foreign policy maneuvers on the horizon. Watch out for whether or not the president continues to thump China in pursuit of these packages. And keep an eye on the dangerous escalating tensions with China in the future.
6) Becoming the “arsenal of vaccines”
On international vaccine access, the president said: “As our own vaccine supply grows to meet our needs—and we are meeting them—we will become an arsenal of vaccines for other countries—just as America was the arsenal of democracy in World War II.”
That would be great—except we’re nowhere near becoming that arsenal. And time is running out for millions abroad, as India is showing us right now. If President Biden is serious about this, the most important thing we can do on this front is waive the patent rights for vaccines so that they can be produced all over the world to get to populations fast.
7) Declaring “white supremacy is terrorism.”
Thank you for saying it, Mr. President.
8) Riding the brakes on healthcare.
A major question leading into the evening was whether or not the president’s conception of the American Families Plan would include healthcare. After all, healthcare remains one of the most important line items in many middle- and low-income families’ budgets—accountable for nearly two-thirds of all personal bankruptcies.
Then Vice President Biden ran on a robust public option and reducing the Medicare eligibility age to 60 (a plan which, in transparency, I helped to outline as part of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on healthcare). Another important part of the plan was allowing the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to negotiate prescription drug prices on behalf of all Americans. Though he vaguely touched on reducing insurance costs, he stopped short of advocating for his public option or reducing the Medicare eligibility age. However, he did specifically mention empowering CMS to negotiate for prescription drugs.
With one major legislative win under his belt and another two in play, this suggests that Biden probably won’t push for healthcare before the midterms—suggesting he probably won’t do it at all. It seems he learned the wrong lesson from the ACA fight—rather than fight harder, his plan sounds more like “stay away.”
9) Not enough on voting rights.
The president mentioned HR1 and HR4—critical voting rights bills—in passing. But he spent very little time on them. That’s concerning considering the context: gerrymandered GOP state legislatures around the country are following Georgia’s lead in passing voter suppression laws aimed directly at silencing the votes of young people and people of color. That comes as those very same legislatures will redraw new congressional districts that we’ll be stuck with for the next 10 years.
Passing HR1 and HR4 is critical to preempting state-level assaults on voting rights and preserving the very foundation of our democracy. These bills deserved far more time and a lot more of the president’s attention.
10) But it all comes down to the filibuster.
President Biden ended his oration with a laundry list of legislative goals, everything from equal pay to union rights. As I’ve written, none of these pass without ending—or at least vastly reforming—the filibuster. And he didn’t mention the word once.
As an obscure senate procedure, the filibuster is implicitly hard to talk about. That’s part of what gives it so much power. Mapping the specifics of arcane procedure to the Senate’s failure to pass even the most consensus legislation is challenging. But these speeches are a unique opportunity to do just that—to speak directly to the American people. The deftest political communicators, whether FDR or Ronald Reagan (I can’t stand his politics, but he was a master communicator), understood how to use moments like these to teach the American public. This was a missed opportunity.
Of course that’s partly because President Biden continues to hold on to the mirage of the bipartisanship of yore. It’s 2021, and the filibuster’s got to go.