Did Biden’s State of the Union address speak to economic despair in the US?

During his State of the Nation address on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden touted what he claimed were improvements in the life of working class people while glossing over his broken campaign promises and the dire economic crisis facing millions

February 09, 2023 by Peoples Dispatch
US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on February 2, 2022. Photo: White House/Twitter

US President Joe Biden gave the annual “State of the Union Address” to both chambers of Congress and other notable government figures on Tuesday, February 7. The 73-minute speech was marked by heckling by Congressional Republicans, who opposed—among other things—what they view as an overly-lenient immigration policy. At one point, Biden baited Republicans into agreeing to protect the public retirement programs of Medicare or Social Security, which conservatives have been attacking for decades. However, Biden did not address the multitude of campaign promises that he has so far failed to fulfill, or the economic despair faced by the US working class.

Broken promises

On Tuesday, Biden touted his 2021 infrastructure bill, which allocated billions to restoring roads, bridges, transit, and other forms of infrastructure. “We’re coming back because we came together and passed the bipartisan infrastructure law, the largest investment in infrastructure since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System,” Biden said. However, this infrastructure bill was only a portion of Biden’s promised multi-trillion dollar social spending package called ‘Build Back Better,’ which would have allocated $65 billion for badly-needed public housing repairs, made pre-kindergarten education free and universal, and instituted universal parental leave, among other major changes. Early into Biden’s presidency, this bill was first gutted to accommodate far-right members of the Democratic party whose votes Biden needed, and was eventually shut down permanently by one of those right-wing Democrats, Joe Manchin.

Build Back Better turned out to be one of many of Biden’s broken campaign promises. In 2020, Biden also campaigned on instituting a nationwide minimum wage of USD 15, in response to organized labor’s decades-long campaign for a living wage. But winning a USD 15 minimum wage was one of Biden’s first failures. In February 2021, an obscure, unelected bureaucrat in Congress, the Senate Parliamentarian (Elizabeth MacDonough), claimed that the minimum wage provision could not be included in a larger COVID-19 relief stimulus package. Biden quickly conceded, although Biden’s Vice-President Kamala Harris had every legal right to overrule this judgment.

Biden also did nothing as abortion rights were stripped from millions of women by the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022. Many have pointed out that the Biden administration and Congressional Democrats could have done far more to strike back against the conservative Court, including abolishing the filibuster to codify abortion rights into law, or making abortion legal on federal land throughout the nation, or declaring a public health emergency. Biden said on Tuesday, “​​the Vice-President and I are doing everything to protect access to reproductive health care,” but, to many, this rang hollow.

A nation in economic despair

Biden repeatedly bragged about the state of the economy and working people under his administration. “I stand here tonight, after we’ve created, with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs—more jobs created in two years than any president has created in four years,” he said. As reported by the New York Times, this needs context, as Biden’s first two years followed massive job losses due to the pandemic.

“We’re making progress by reducing student debt, increasing Pell grants for working and middle-class families,” Biden also said. While Biden did indeed introduce a program, through executive action, to forgive some student debt for those making below a certain income, this action has been stalled by conservative legal challenges and will soon go before an ultra-conservative Supreme Court. It is likely that Biden’s loan forgiveness program will never come to pass.

“For too many decades, we imported products and exported jobs,” Biden claimed. “Now, thanks to what you’ve all done, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs.”

Biden’s statements may ring hollow to many in the US given the overall economic and social conditions. In 2021, life expectancy in the US decreased for the second year in a row to 76.1 years—undoing 26 years of progress by taking life expectancy at birth to 1996 levels.

Far from being economically secure, people in the US are struggling with basic expenses. According to US Census numbers from January 2022, over 160 million people have at least some trouble paying their weekly expenses. A central reason is that in the past year, the cost of living has jumped by 8% while wages have only climbed by 4%. Almost half of employed people say that their income is inadequately keeping up with inflation, and 69% of people in the US are concerned with their finances for the next 12 months. In response, the Federal Reserve pushes to slow wage growth as a purported way to combat inflation.

From 2020 to 2022, unsheltered homelessness increased nationwide by 3.4%. Rents have also been skyrocketing, with over 40% tenants burdened by their rent—as in, paying over 30% of their income towards their rent. 34 million people are food insecure, or do not have access to sufficient healthy food.

People in the US at present cannot afford the basic necessities of life. Biden did not once speak to this deep desperation—leaving some speculating that it is unlikely that he will materially address people’s dire needs without pressure from below.