The old man scores some points

The faith in American unanimity that Joe Biden expressed in this year’s State of the Union speech sounded genuine. But how realistic is it in a country dominated by social fragmentation and a flood of alternative realities?

There was a moment in Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech on 7 February 2023 that gave the whole country a taste of what fun American politics used to be.

Biden, at eighty the oldest sitting President in history, mentioned that some Republicans evidently wanted to ‘sunset’ Medicare and Social Security – that is, let the programs expire every five years unless Congress explicitly voted to continue them unaltered. Jeers, shouts of ‘Liar!’ and worse came from a small group of radical Republicans, insisting that Biden’s statement wasn’t true. Biden smiled, raised his eyebrows, bantered with his attackers, and after several minutes of back-and-forth concluded: ‘So we all apparently agree? Social security and Medicare are off the books? We’ve got unanimity!’

Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address, 7 February 2023. Official White House photo by Adam Schultz. Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was a verbal one-upmanship contest that Congress used to excel at ‘in the old days’, when members of both parties were close enough to the centre to insult each other, debate and eventually come to a compromise. For a moment, senators and representatives appeared to be enjoying each other’s company as members of the same powerful club. As commentators remarked, there was a spark of energy in the room that they hadn’t seen in ages.

Biden’s speech was politically astute, funny, witty, laced with personal anecdotes, and full of the vigour he’ll need to get through not only the next two years but his campaign in 2024 – as his speech made crystal-clear, he has every intention of running. He wore all his best hats: the seasoned politician, the voice of the working class, the visionary of liberal democratic values. He offered proposals as sweeping as free universal higher education and as narrow as legislation to get rid of baggage charges on airlines.

It added up to an appealing, even irresistible fireside talk by a pater familias, telling a troubled country over and over, ‘I get it. I get it.’ – I know what you’re going through, and I’m here to help you if you let me.

Whether it had any unifying effect on the 38.2 million people who watched it – or on a country bitterly divided in every category from race and class to gender, religion, age, political affiliation and body-type – is doubtful. But it might have convinced a few voters that at times, governments can do good things for their citizens.

Chaos

On paper, the second year of the Biden administration was a good deal more successful than the first. The president managed to squeak through Congress two major pieces of legislation: a bill designed to ease the country’s dependence on the massive Taiwanese semi-conductor industry, and a 1.7 trillion dollar bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act, which enacted many reforms close to the hearts of liberal Democrats – including raising taxes on billion dollar corporations, reducing drug costs and providing funds for the development of and accessibility to alternative energy sources.

Inflation appeared to be slowing, the Fed was gradually cutting back on interest-rate hikes, and unemployment was at a 50 year low: there was less and less talk of a recession. COVID deaths were a quarter of what they were a year before. Internationally, Biden’s lead in the Ukraine war was supported by a majority of Americans and applauded by Europeans, and his muscle-flexing in Taiwan and the Philippines in the face of Chinese sabre-rattling wasn’t met with any significant resistance from Republicans.

Even in the midterm elections, the Democrats did better than expected, holding the Senate and losing the House by only a few seats (including a New York seat to a strange, perhaps mentally-deranged man who has already been banned by his colleagues from serving on Congressional committees). Meanwhile, candidates backed by former president Trump lost in an array of elections from state to federal offices.

Even more significant was the chaos in the Republican party itself. Trump was only the latest manifestation of a split in the party that’s been coming since the 1990s between big-business conservatives and lower-middle-class rural whites. That split is now a yawning chasm. The narrowness of the majority that Republicans won in last year’s election had the paradoxical effect of making the radical fringe more powerful, indeed the fulcrum of any moves that the Republican House will try to make in the next two years.

Evidence of this came in early January, when the House needed to elect a speaker. Its members were stuck. They couldn’t decide. The radical right kept making unreasonable demands. After fifteen votes and days of backroom haggling, the House finally elected the person who’d been speaker in the last years of the Obama administration. But even this uncomplicated move didn’t come without a major concession: the speaker’s leadership can be called to a vote at any time, meaning the business of Congress would grind to a halt.

All this conflict within the Republican party – and the rise of a group of eccentric, unpredictable characters on its radical fringe – should have added up to a rise in popularity for the President.

But it didn’t.

Biden’s popularity ratings are almost exactly the same as they were a year ago: around 42%. Until the State of the Union speech, establishment Democrats seemed to concur that he was doing a good job, but were against his running for a second term.

Biden will continue to be blocked by radical Republicans for the next two years. They’ve threatened to stand in the way of any raise of the Federal debt ceiling – an annual ritual in which Congress grants itself the right to borrow more money from ‘the people’ – without major cuts in Democratic programs. They seem prepared to take the government to the brink of bankruptcy, which would result in a downgrading of credit ratings from agencies around the world. Republican-led House committees are poised to investigate Hunter Biden’s finances, the President’s sloppiness with classified documents, and even the possibility of impeachment, which by now has devolved into a time-consuming farce.

Paranoia

Hopefully, Biden’s pleasure in duking it out with the Congress in his State of the Union speech – and the positive response he got in the press – will encourage him to reach out more to citizens.

For whether one likes Biden or not, he’s been one of the more isolated presidents in recent history. Though there haven’t been any White House scandals or processions of departing Cabinet members, he has held virtually no press conferences, few state dinners, and has had remarkably little engagement with the public. That this has gone on with no popular outcry or complaints from the press is itself disturbing – and offers a slightly different picture of the country than the one in the president’s optimistic pep-talk.

It’s hard to describe the present mood in the US. People seem isolated from one another. There’s a kind of mutual solipsism – a concern for oneself and disregard for others. Trump’s narcissism is partly responsible for this attitude, but it may also come from Democratic emphasis on identity politics, the national preoccupation with conspiracy theory, nagging fear of foreigners and obsession with social media. The atmosphere feels paranoid, suspicious; there’s a sense that the US is no longer the paragon of democracy in its own eyes, as well as the eyes of the world.

But why is negativity so high in the US right at this moment? Here are two partial explanations.

For one thing, COVID hit the US harder than many other nations – not only the million plus deaths but the flood of contradictory information, constant federal reversals, and the conflict between federal mandates and ‘personal freedoms’. In comparison to other countries, America felt untouched by revolutions or wars fought on its soil. But we were overwhelmed by COVID.

Terrified. Trump’s leadership was ill-equipped to bring the country together, and the fragmentation that we saw politically became evident in people’s actions. Some citizens wore masks all the time; others, even as they were dying of the virus, denied its existence. The fear, resentment, confusion, and loss of faith in common facts that COVID engendered still persists – and continues to shape the national mood.

Last year’s Supreme Court decision to overthrow Roe vs. Wade was another event that produced waves of negativity. Women were outraged, and turned to lower courts and state constitutions to find ways that abortions could be performed despite the so-called Dodds Decision.

A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that on a single day last month, South Carolina’s Supreme Court handed down a ruling that its citizens’ constitutional right to privacy included the right to abortion, while Idaho’s high court ruled just the opposite. Anti-abortion states are rallying to strengthen their constitutions to seal off any actions by their own courts, and even to punish women who go to other states for abortions. Not only are individuals pitted against one another or against the government, but citizens of many neighbouring states are lined up at the barricades.

The hope and faith in American unanimity that President Biden expressed in this year’s State of the Union speech sounded genuine; whether it is at all realistic in a country dominated by social fragmentation and a flood of alternative realities is far more problematic.

13 February 2023

Published 16 February 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© George Blecher / Eurozine

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