The most confusing part of Biden’s kind-of State-of-the-Union Wednesday night was that Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDemocrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles House Democrat says she won't support reconciliation bill 'at this early stage' MORE (D-W.Va.) did not deliver the response — if he had, the American people might have a clue about what will really be enacted.
President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE showed he could deliver a well-rehearsed speech with the right pauses and inflections. He also showed that these speeches will never change. They are political theater: a few stories from “regular people,” more than a little sloganeering, a wish-list and a dramatic finish. Biden told several expectedly heart-warming stories of people who used the $1,400 relief checks to feed themselves and stave off eviction (my own experience was seeing the checks help out the blackjack tables in Las Vegas — heart-warming in its own way).
As for Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottDOJ announces agencywide limits on chokeholds and no-knock entries Lobbying world As Biden falters, a two-man race for the 2024 GOP nomination begins to take shape MORE (R-S.C.), his rebuttal was different from most. Instead of a laborious point-by-point gainsay, he said what he wanted to say and said it well. Other GOP presidential hopefuls should take note. There is going to be a lot more Tim Scott over the next few years.
Even considering other presidential speeches, Biden’s laundry list was incredibly long — apparently his whole wardrobe is in the hamper. Just when you thought he might wrap things up, there was one more constituency he had to address. At the end it was hard to think of a single Democratic faction he left out — which is his infrastructure plan in a nutshell.
The structure of Biden’s speech is what gives us the best clue as to how he will move forward. The nods to the various Democratic factions were buried at the end. Oddly, he put the George Floyd reference as part of that list instead of talking about Floyd at the end as a lead-in to his conclusion.
Up front, Biden made a play for union, senior and rural voters — a shot at peeling off parts of the nascent Republican coalition. The early proposals were the strongest as they are likely the most popular: replacing toxic lead pipes, internet access, grid reliability, elder home care and new charging stations for the IBEW to build. His “Buy America” focus sounded very Trumpian — but it’s also a longstanding focus of Joe Biden, the multi-decade Senator.
Biden waved a bit of an olive branch at the GOP, “applaud[ing]” the Republican infrastructure counter-proposal (although none of the Democrats clapped for it). Knowing full well he doesn’t have the votes, Biden has to lay some groundwork for compromise. His fellow Democrats may or may not have picked up on that.
With decent approval numbers, Biden is generally seen by the public as a likeable guy, and he was careful not to damage that perception. But he did send a warning shot over the Republican bow, even if the pundits and GOP did not quite perceive it. Biden specifically cited the $2 trillion in Trump deficits that accrued after the passage of the 2017 tax cuts. You can be certain that talking point will be front and center to any Republican arguments about over-spending (yet another landmine Trump left the GOP).
All that said, Biden did leave a few landmines for himself. He noted in the context of his post-election conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping that Xi and other autocrats do not believe democracies can compete in the modern world as they take “too long to get consensus.” Those words are going to bite as Biden’s infrastructure plan does nothing to streamline the approval process for projects. In fact, Biden’s infrastructure plan specifically refuses to cut back on the squabbling mass of NIMBY cranks who routinely block big projects. Good luck stringing all those high-tension electrical lines.
Biden’s claim that he would not add to the deficit is highly dubious (and unnecessary given Trump’s profligacy). He committed only to raising marginal rates on individuals earning over $400,000 per year. There was no proposed capital gains hike, just “eliminating loopholes” — did someone forget to put a sentence in the Teleprompter? Tax fraud recovery will help, but it never reaps as much as projected. No chance that revenue pays the bill. There was no mention of restoring a full SALT deduction — a huge benefit for the 1 percent and a priority for many Democrats. That fight won’t be fun.
Biden made a big deal about how his infrastructure plan would provide jobs that would not require a college degree or an associate degree but pivoted just a few minutes later to guaranteeing an additional four years of education. Since he did not propose four years of pre-school, one can only assume that he thinks everyone does need those precious post-secondary degrees. And, just for the record, presidents have been trying to replicate DARPA outside the Pentagon for decades — and it’s never worked.
All in all, Biden deserves a B+. He is no Franklin Roosevelt, but nobody expected that. The speech served its purposes: placate the Democratic base, peel off some of the Republican coalition, and keep up the nice guy image.
Biden has had a pretty good 100 days. Let’s hope he enjoyed it, because the next 100 won’t be nearly so much fun.
Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.