Biden’s State of the Union speech

I did not listen to Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech because I find these kinds of set-piece political theater to be long-winded and not that interesting. It appears that the SOTU events are becoming more like the UK’s Prime Minister’s Questions time in parliament in that members of both parties behave boisterously and give loud cheers and groans as they feel like. At Tuesday’s event, Republicans shouted “Liar!” when Biden said that they were trying to cut Social Security and Medicare and that goes much further than what is heard in parliament. A far as I am aware, British MPs are prohibited from making personal attacks and if they do the Speaker can force them to withdraw their remarks under threat of ejection from the chamber.

This is not the first time that such a charge has been yelled at the president. Some may remember the occasion when a Republican congressperson Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” during president Obama’s address in 2009. That outburst was met with disapproval and Wilson later apologized to the White House. However, things have deteriorated since then and there is no chance that Greene and her fellow crazies will apologize to Biden. Being ignorant and obnoxious is their brand.

But it seems like Biden got good reviews like this one for his performance, perhaps because people did not expect much from him.

Here’s an opening line I did not expect to write an hour or so ago: President Joe Biden gave a pretty good State of the Union address — indeed, one of the better ones I’ve heard.

What made it work was not just that Biden was in a buoyant spirit, with an energy that’s often lacking, but that it was a clearly political speech with a clear political goal: to define Biden as the guy who is on your side, going after the big boys who were flourishing at your expense.

Others noted that he seemed to have successfully baited Republicans into loudly rejecting any moves to cut Social Security and Medicare by saying that there were members of their party who, rather than making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, wanted to sunset those programs so that they would have to be reauthorized every five years. When Republicans protested loudly, he told them that he could show them the specific proposals. Although he did not name names, he was clearly referring to Republican senator Rick Scott’s public proposal, and he smiled and said that he welcomed conversions.

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans … want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” Biden said, to more sustained boos from GOP lawmakers.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), sitting in the far back of the chamber and dressed in a white fur coat, leaped to her feet and appeared to yell, “Liar!” (A shout of “bullshit” was also audible from the floor during the debt back-and-forth, though it was not clear whether that came from Greene or another member.)

In response to the frustration, Biden acknowledged that Speaker Kevin McCarthy and others in the GOP have declared they won’t touch entitlement programs during the debt talks — in fact, the California Republican delivered a preliminary rebuttal to the president’s speech that pointedly stated as much.

But Biden went on to reiterate that other Republicans have sent a different message, viewing changes to Social Security and Medicare as up for discussion. As he quipped to Republican lawmakers that “so, we agree” on not touching either program, some GOP members appeared to cheer in affirmation.

And soon after Biden left the chamber, he tweeted what appeared to be a fresh challenge to Republicans on Social Security and Medicare, as the GOP prepares its fiscal blueprint: “Look: I welcome all converts. But now, let’s see your budget.”

Forcing Republicans to publicly reject any cuts to Social Security and Medicare and challenging them to present a budget was a good strategy. In any negotiation, it is always better to have the other person make the first offer. I don’t know if Biden planned this ahead of time but he did seem pleased to have got that response. Of course, Republicans have plans for other things, such as raising the eligibility age for those programs, that they may claim are not ‘cuts’.

When Republicans say they oppose benefit cuts, there’s an important caveat – they’re often referring to cuts that would affect current retirees or people near retirement, such as Americans older than age 54. But even though it would reduce spending, Republicans say that raising the retirement age for future retirees shouldn’t count as a cut, that it’s more of a technical, abstract change.

One thing I liked about the speech is that Biden chose to spend some time on things that he has done that are not part of the big culture wars but affect the lives of everyday people in tangible ways.

“We’re making airlines show you the full ticket price upfront and refund your money if your flight is canceled or delayed. We’ve reduced exorbitant bank overdrafts, saving consumers more than $1 billion a year. We’re cutting credit card late fees by 75 percent, from $30 to $8. Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one on your bill. … The idea that cable, internet and cell phone companies can charge you $200 or more if you decide to switch to another provider. Give me a break.”

I suspect this part of the speech will be mocked in many corners, for the small-bore nature of the topics. But it was striking for referencing the kind of daily outrages that burden ordinary life at the drug store, the airport or at the kitchen table as the bills pile up. They are in sharp contrast to the State of the Union speeches weighed down with Washington-speak that makes eyes glaze over by the millions.

Biden sounded genuinely outraged, and that’s something people respond to.

He also gently needled those Republicans who voted against his big infrastructure bills.

He thanked Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure law. He then teased: “And to my Republican friends who voted against it but still ask to fund projects in their districts, don’t worry. I promised to be the president for all Americans. We’ll fund your projects. And I’ll see you at the ground-breaking.”

In her response, Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders described the US under the Biden presidency as a dystopian nightmare.

“In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves, and our children are taught to hate one another on account of their race, but not to love one another or our great country,” she added.

She described the Biden administration as “completely hijacked by the radical left,” and said that America’s “dividing line” was no longer a separation between right and left.

“The choice is between normal or crazy,” she said. “It is time for a new generation of Republican leadership.”

I was in agreement with her statement that “It is time for a new generation of Republican leadership.” That “The choice is between normal or crazy” is also indisputable since the QAnon-soaked Trump Republicans are truly crazy.

Susan Glasser writes that Biden is lucky with his enemies in the form of the Republican congressional crazies, because their antics, while no doubt pleasing the base, also make him look good to regular people.

Biden, it seemed, had carefully prepared for their antics. Had he scripted their reaction, he could not have asked for a better foil than Marjorie Taylor Greene, the former QAnon promoter who flirts with white supremacy. Greene arrived for the State of the Union dressed for the TV cameras in an all-white fur-trimmed outfit that made her seem like a villain in a Disney movie. “Liar!” she stood and shouted at Biden, after he accused some members of her party of wanting to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security in the name of fiscal discipline. Unfazed, Biden challenged her and the others who were jeering him to prove that Republicans did not actually support such a thing. When they then rose to their feet to applaud, alongside Democrats, his pledge not to cut either Medicare or Social Security, Biden claimed it as a victory for the bipartisan dealmaking that he wants to be remembered for. “We got unanimity!” he exulted.

Even that did not fully serve to stop the G.O.P. kooks. “It’s your fault!” a Republican shouted at Biden later in his speech, right after the President had paid emotional tribute to a dad who had lost his daughter to a fentanyl overdose. Every boo from then on might as well have been a campaign contribution to Biden’s reëlection. The dystopian Republican response later in the evening from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Arkansas governor and former Trump White House press secretary, peddling Fox News talking points about the culture wars and portraying Biden’s America as an American-carnage-style hellscape conjured from her former boss’s Twitter feed, only reinforced the point. Joe Biden has been lucky in his enemies these last few years.

Biden beat expectations and that is the name of the game in Washington.

Seth Meyers had a good review of the highlights of the event.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    British MPs are prohibited from making personal attacks

    They are specifically prohibited from calling the opposition liars.

    There are ways round this. Famously Dennis Skinner once said in the chamber that half the Tories opposite were crooks. When censured by the speaker who demanded he retract his statement, Skinner responded “OK -- half the Tories opposite are not crooks.”

  2. says

    “Republicans say that raising the retirement age for future retirees shouldn’t count as a cut, that it’s more of a technical, abstract change.”

    Now that is some classic, pure weasel-speak. Let’s phrase this as a grade school math problem that even someone like MIke Lee might be able to understand: Larry can no longer retire with full benefits at 67 but must instead wait until 69. If full benefits for Larry is $20k per year, how much money from Social Security does Larry get by the time he hits age 70 under the current rules, and how much does he get under the proposed rules? If the result from the proposed rules is less than that of the current rules, explain to the GOP representatives how a smaller number is less than a larger number, and thus, constitutes a reduction or cut in funds.

    If I would have had $100 in my wallet but now will only have $20, how does that not count as a cut? That’s not an “abstract change”, it’s a very real, tangible change that has practical implications. Less money is a cut. Period. It’s bad enough that these morons think that dismantling a social safety net is a laudable goal, but they manage to mangle our language in the process.

  3. johnson catman says

    re Marcus Ranum @3: There is a certain Orange Idiot that deserves receiving a lot of yelling on those same grounds. But then, republicans are the most prolific projectionists in existence.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Joe Biden has been lucky in his enemies these last few years.

    He must have sacrificed just exactly the right baby to Voltaire’s god.

  5. Ridana says

    @jimf: You also need to somehow factor in how many more people will not live to be able to retire at all. That’s some real savings to the system there, since they’ve put in money and not gotten any of it back! Only Republicans could think of such a brilliant scheme to save SS!

  6. lanir says

    As far as social security, cuts that aren’t cuts, and assorted other weaseling and astonishing verbal gymnastics go, I think governments thrive on not doing real math.

    No really. I was always fairly decent at math but taxes and budgets made by governments that print their own money will pop up numbers from nowhere like magicians conjuring small animals.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    taxes and budgets made by governments that print their own money will pop up numbers from nowhere like magicians conjuring small animals

    But that’s all budgets, pretty much. I did an engineering degree. Most of it I was fine with, but there were modules on economics and project cost/benefit evaluation. And the methods used to compare the net present value and discounted cash flow rate of return were presented as complex, time consuming and very important. They required large sets of calculations at a time when spreadsheets were only just becoming readily available, so the methods were taught by hand. There were lots and lots of calculations to do, but hey, it’s engineering, there’s always lots of calculations to do, and at least this didn’t require any calculus or whatever, it was mostly just a hell of a lot of arithmetic requiring focus, attention to detail and a willingness to do repetitive tasks to achieve a definitive reliable numerical result. Fortunately WAY more people on engineering degrees than you’d expect are on the spectrum, so that gets done.

    Except… the lecturer set up the calculation, blithely saying “and this is how much of the product you’re going to sell in the first year, the second year, the third year, and so on. And this is what the interest rate is going to be in the first year, the second year, the third year, and so on.” And someone (it might have been me?) put their hand up and said “where do you get those figures from?”. Because a large part of what we’d learned in engineering up to that point was where to find the definitive data that you required for your calculation -- what’s the heat capacity of this, what’s the melting point of that, what’s the partition coefficient in this liquid/liquid mass transfer system, what’s the applicable industrial standard for the material of construction of a vessel holding this kind of material, or whatever. I think we must have assumed that there was some sort of definitive standard guidance somewhere that everyone could refer to that said “use these figures for project evaluation”, and gave numbers. But no -- the lecturer’s response was that the numbers would have to be estimated for each project. Which, well, OK, when you think about it there’s not actually a way to know what the prevailing cost of borrowing is going to be in 2028… but the practical upshot, in my mind, is this: all that complex arithmetic, all those authoritative looking calculations that say Project A will make more money than Project B, EVERYTHING -- all of it is a large, heavy, reliable looking construction built on a foundation of thin liquid bullshit.

    The lesson I took away from those lectures was this: economic evaluation of projects is a smokescreen. Economics itself is a smokescreen. Someone who already has a lot of money decides in advance what they want to do. A lot of other people go away and meticulously construct a justification for doing that thing. If they come up with the “wrong” answer -- if it turns out that Project B will in fact make more money, per the projections -- well, you just adjust the assumptions until you get the answer you want. You revise the sales projections, or the interest rate estimates, or the manning requirements, or whatever. A huge cohort of parasites out there have this as their entire, very well-paid jobs, deciding what it is that people like me actually get to build and use to actually make things that have real value. And their justification is that they’re choosing which things to do based on important calculations that give them meaningful answers, and all of it, ALL OF IT, is lies.

    Mostly, I try not to remember this.

  8. says

    Economics itself is a smokescreen.

    Yup. And when they are wrong (about as often as a good RNG) they say “externalities!”

    That always drives me nuts, because basically they are saying “that thing we didn’t think of” uh. That means you were WRONG bucko, that’s what being wrong means!

  9. xohjoh2n says


    And when they are wrong (about as often as a good RNG)

    An RNG is never wrong, it chooses precisely the number it means to.

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