President Biden’s First State of the Union

Zareen Brown and Dutch Robinson

This past Wednesday, April 28th, President Joe Biden addressed a joint session of Congress in light of his 99th day in office. Within a divided America, the state of the Union has become even more politicized than it usually is, with an increase in charged political commentary. For the first time in American history, two women sat behind the podium: Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, and Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President. “Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President,” President Biden said, officially greeting the two women, “no president has ever spoken those words from this podium, and it’s about time.”

For more than 100 years, the State of the Union had actually only been sent in written form to Congress, rather than delivered in speech, but after the election of 1912, President Wilson revived the practice of an in-person speech. Given that most people would not have been able to even know that the State of the Union was happening, this was revolutionary, giving the average American more insight into the president’s agenda. Most people interpret the State of the Union as an update on what the president is doing, and to analyze how they would vote in an upcoming election. During Reagan’s State of the Union in 1987, for example, claps could be heard echoing throughout the chamber from both Democrat and Republican congresspeople, which would be unrecognizable today.

Biden began his speech by addressing the pandemic, the obvious elephant in the room. The overall theme of this section in the speech revolved around the hope that this massively difficult time in American history will be over soon. At the forefront of this subject was the massively successful vaccine rollout that the administration had planned, saying that “[America] will have provided over 220 million Covid shots in 100 days.” Despite the mass vaccinations being very efficient, Biden warned Americans not to let their guard down too soon. Concerns about the pandemic also bring about important conversations on the state of the American economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from April 2020-April 2021, the American unemployment rate was slashed by more than half, going from 14.8% all the way down to 6.2%. Biden took this as an opportunity to address the increased problem regarding the large disparities among income groups, citing that it is, “time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out.” With billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk becoming massively wealthy during the pandemic while working Americans have felt the brunt of the crisis, the pandemic has uncloaked the true functions of the American economy and whom it benefits.

With billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk becoming massively wealthy during the pandemic while working Americans have felt the brunt of the crisis, the pandemic has uncloaked the true functions of the American economy and whom it benefits.”

Another huge issue brought up was the new anti-transgender bills being proposed in many states. These include bills targeting the rights of trans youth in sports, as well as other bills, such as one proposed by Missouri Republicans, which would prohibit medical providers from administering any sort of gender reassignment surgery to individuals under 18. President Biden declared, “To all transgender Americans watching at home, especially the young people, you’re so brave. I want you to know your president has your back.” Despite these statements, there have been no substantial actions or debates being undertaken by the president to try and curb these harmful pieces of legislation, which could allow for a more harmful future track record of a lack of action for the people he claims to support.

In light of the massive upheaval brought on by the death of George Floyd in May of 2020, as well as the subsequent calls for police reform, Biden said that, “We have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve,” which doesn’t really address the root issue of the police system in America. Tracing its roots back to slave catchers in the mid-1800s, the police have always had a negative disposition toward people of color all over the country, and “trust” wouldn’t have prevented George Floyd’s murder. While there have been calls for overall police reform within the Black Lives Matter movement, there is also a large group of people who call for total abolition of the police force as we currently know it today, breaking the violent cycle of police brutality that people of color have endured in this country for centuries.

Though many of the points made by President Biden appeared to be bipartisan, the speech was an opportunity for political theater for many on the Right. A shocking moment occurred when only the Democrats applauded for Biden’s goal to cut child poverty in half; ironic considering the Right’s stance on abortion and family values. Senators like Mitch Mconnell (R-KY) stayed noticeably silent, while other Republicans chose to immaturely react to the Biden administration’s stances. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) took out a space blanket to reference the “border surge” during Biden’s words on immigration, an object that has been used by migrants waiting in facilities to prevent hypothermia. Senator Ted Crux (R-TX) seemed to be half asleep during the speech, often seen shaking his head or closing his eyes during moments of applause. Democrats did not hold their applause on issues such as affordable healthcare, gun control, and advancements on support for LGBTQ+ youth. A major concern for Republicans was funding for Biden’s ambitious plans. “You have pretty expansive spending on top of spending [and] the only way to pay for it, is to go after taxes,” stated Sen. Lisa Murkowsky (R-AK) after the speech. This is a valid concern considering the fragility of the economy in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, unlike Senator Murkowsky, who voiced valid and researched concerns, other Republicans decided to wave the flag of “socialism” in order to scare their base (a tactic that has been used for many years, but has had increased influence due to social media platforms and news outlets). In an opinion piece published by Fox News on April 28th, Senator Ted Cruz wrote that “President Biden is beholden to the far left of his party, including avowed socialists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, who want to destroy the American blue-collar economy, spend trillions of dollars on socialist programs, and bankrupt the United States while opening our borders to human traffickers and drug cartels.” Fear mongering such as this was one of the foundations of Republican strategy during the 2020 election.

The joint address served as a welcome change in presidential behavior—different from the outright lies and reality TV attitude of the previous administration—as well as a glimpse of hope after what has been a tragic and economically disastrous year. Concerns remain from both the Right and the Left on whether President Biden will uphold his promises to be bipartisan and help Americans in this difficult time. Given the political divisions worsened in the last few years, it may be easier to improve the lives of the American public than it is to get their leaders to find common ground.