Mar 2, 2022

The State of the Union.

The State of the Union.

A breakdown of Biden's address and what it means.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We're breaking down Biden's State of the Union address. Plus, an important story about babysitting and some numbers from last night.

A screenshot from Biden's State of the Union address. Source: C-SPAN
A screenshot from Biden's State of the Union address. Source: C-SPAN

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Quick hits.

  1. Russia's bombing of civilian centers in Ukraine has continued to intensify, including the destruction of a Holocaust memorial site in Kyiv. The European Union estimates 650,000 refugees have fled and the Ukrainian defense ministry says 2,000 civilians have been killed, though those numbers cannot be confirmed independently. (The crisis)
  2. In Texas, progressive and Trump-backed candidates carried the day in a slew of primary races for Congress. (The results) Beto O'Rourke and Greg Abbott also won their primary races, setting up a high-profile showdown in the governor's race. (The race)
  3. Pennsylvania's 2020 mail-in voting laws will remain in place, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. (The ruling) Separately, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice issued a report claiming Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg helped undermine the 2020 election. The Wisconsin Elections Commission blasted the report as rife with mischaracterizations of Wisconsin election practices. (The controversy)
  4. The parents of a transgender teenager in Texas, along with the ACLU, filed a lawsuit to stop Texas agencies from investigating reports of gender-transition procedures on children as cases of possible child abuse. (The lawsuit)
  5. Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell told Congress the Fed is likely to raise interest rates this month, the first hike since 2018, in an effort to slow inflation. (The hikes)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.


Today's topic.

The State of the Union. Last night, President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address (last year he addressed Congress in a mostly empty gallery, because of Covid-19).

Biden began his address by hailing the bravery of Ukrainian citizens and assuring the world that democracy would prevail. He warned Americans about the disruption the war may have on their day-to-day lives (including prices of fuel and other goods), but promised that the administration was prepared to navigate it. He announced a ban on Russian planes in U.S. air space and that we'd be releasing 30 million barrels of crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve into markets, accounting for half of the 60 million barrels committed by 30 other nations as well.

Biden spent much of his speech explaining his plan to address inflation, which he called his "top priority," and attempted to turn the page on the coronavirus, encouraging Americans to return to work and downtown centers while also promising that we now have the vaccines and antiviral medicines to return to normal. He drew strong, bipartisan ovations for promises to better fund the police, secure the border and ramp up U.S. manufacturing.

He also broke some news by announcing a Justice Department task force to go after Russian Oligarchs and a chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud.

There were also some scattered moments of tension. Biden drew strong boos from Republicans when criticizing their 2017 tax plan. In a very unusual moment, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) yelled out that Biden was to blame for the 13 service members who were killed during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. “You put them in," Boebert yelled from the gallery when Biden described his late son Beau in a “flag-draped” coffin. "Thirteen of them,” she said. Her comments drew boos from Democrats.

On social media, criticisms percolated about Biden's delivery, including a moment where he accidentally called Ukrainians "Iranians" and a few off-script gaffes, something he has had a reputation for throughout his career in politics (his team has repeatedly attributed such moments to his lifelong battle with a stutter).

You can read a full transcript of his speech here.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivered the Republican response, criticizing Biden for rising inflation, international crises and an increase in violent crime. "Enough is enough," she said. You can read a transcript of her response here.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the right and left to Biden's speech, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • The right criticizes the speech for not matching the moment, with smatterings of praise for the rhetoric on Ukraine and police.
  • Many say Biden simply regurgitated old ideas or legislation that have already failed.
  • Others say it felt like a "fake" attempt to pivot away from the most radical elements of the left.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Biden "missed the moment."

“The President remained on the same policy course of his first year, albeit dressed up in new anti-inflation packaging. More defense spending to meet the threats from autocrats? No. A new appreciation for the contribution of fossil fuels to American and European security? Not a word. A note that government spending contributed to the highest inflation in 40 years? Nope. A word of praise for the private Pharma innovation that developed Covid therapies and vaccines? He proposed government price controls instead.

Mr. Biden did offer stirring support for Ukraine and its fight for freedom, which received bipartisan applause. His Administration deserves credit for helping to rally Europe and other nations to impose sanctions and provide more military aid. He was properly condemning of Mr. Putin. But his self-congratulation ignored the failure to deter the Russian autocrat," the board said. "On his domestic agenda, Mr. Biden acknowledged inflation, as he had to given the polls. But he blamed rising prices on the pandemic and greedy businesses, and his solutions are to unleash prosecutors and antitrust cops, and to spend even more money on social welfare and entitlements. His most other-worldly line was that his program would 'cut energy costs for families an average of $500 a year by combating climate change.'"

Scott Jennings said his "weak" and "forgettable" State of the Union won't budge his poll numbers.

“His message on Russia was perfectly fine, calling for American resolve and solidarity behind the people of Ukraine. But there was nothing new, such as the idea that many Republicans are floating – banning all oil and gas imports from Russia. At the same time we are sending various kinds of aid to the brave Ukrainians (and planning for more), the United States is still importing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each day from Russia. It begs the question: How serious is Biden when it comes to fully isolating Putin?... even Canada has banned Russian crude imports, revenues from which support the Putin regime and the lifestyle of the oligarchs Biden singled out in his speech. Why can’t we do this?

"The rest of the speech was mostly a laundry list of ideas that appear in legislation already dead. The inflation section was flat, and that issue alone has put an anvil on his ability to improve his political position," Jennings said. "There were a few bright spots in the speech worthy of praise. His call to fund the police was politically smart, as the radicals in his party who want to defund the police are dragging down all Democrats with their irresponsible rhetoric. The nod to America’s drug crisis and to those in recovery is an issue that affects millions of families, in every state... But this speech is likely to be forgotten quickly as we turn our attention back to the atrocities being committed by the Russians and the inflation crisis that is punishing the American people."

In The Federalist, Emily Jashinsky said Biden was attempting to walk back Democrats' culture war.

"It’s true, Biden dedicated much of his address to Ukraine, infrastructure, the economy, health care, and Covid-19," she wrote. But "until they’re willing to drop truly radical policies like the Equality Act, it’s all smoke and mirrors meant to distract voters from what they’re actually doing to the culture. Democrats cannot simply pretend the summer of 2020 and the lockdowns never happened, no matter how much the media might help them try, because the party has now spent years committing to inflated definitions of bigotry that would condemn any moderation from their positions.

"Establishment Democrats have spent years emboldening the cultural left, so much that small departures from dogma are now treated as bigotry by a vocal minority of their base. While those voices may be a minority of the base, many of them are very powerful, and they can weaponize all of Democrats’ prior cultural leftism against them to level accusations of racism and sexism and all the other -isms over rhetoric alone... Biden’s heavy focus on 'meat and potatoes' signaled a cynical but long overdue attempt by the Democratic establishment to convince voters they’re not frenzied culture warriors. Unfortunately for Biden and his party, they are indeed frenzied culture warriors and they’re going to have a difficult time proving otherwise without alienating the radicals they’ve tried so hard to appease."


What the left is saying.

  • The left thinks Biden's speech struck the right notes, and ushered in some much-needed unity.
  • They point to a worker-focused agenda and applaud his strong leadership in response to Putin.
  • There was some criticism for a lack of new ideas on how to implement his agenda.

The Washington Post editorial board said the State of the Union is ushering in a new phase of Biden's presidency.

"Mr. Biden came into office amid a pandemic and its economic consequences — as well as domestic political decay that had both produced his predecessor, Donald Trump, and been worsened by him," the board wrote. "Mr. Biden set his sights on crushing the pandemic, restructuring the economy via trillions in new federal spending and unifying the bitterly divided body politic. As the time to give his first State of the Union address Tuesday night approached, the results were mixed. Mr. Biden could boast of declining coronavirus cases and deaths; of a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan; and of restocking the federal judiciary with his appointments, including Ketanji Brown Jackson, newly picked to be the Supreme Court’s next justice — and first Black woman.

"Yet the pandemic’s current retreat, which Mr. Biden hailed Tuesday night, came only after two deadly new variants thwarted his promises of a return to normal last summer; opposition from Republicans (plus two key Democratic senators) blocked his most ambitious economic proposals; and inflation has roared back to life — partly because the $1.9 trillion in new deficit spending he succeeded in passing roughly a year ago proved excessive. A bloody and chaotic exit from Afghanistan triggered a decline in Mr. Biden’s job approval rating from which he has yet to recover," they added. "The state of the union is understandably tense. Mr. Biden’s second presidency must be about credibly addressing all sources of that unease, foreign and domestic."

In CNN, Van Jones said "Biden nailed it."

"The real Joe Biden is back," Jones said. "Tonight, he reminded us why America picked a tried-and-true defender of democracy -- at home and abroad -- to lead us through these tough times. On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden challenged autocracy and dictatorship overseas, while offering himself as a champion of national unity and cross-party cooperation at home. He has blown off course at times during his first year. But during his first State of the Union address, Biden found his footing -- and his true north -- once again. He rose tonight as a global leader and a national unifier at the very moment that the forces of freedom and solidarity most need strong leadership.

"In his handling of Ukraine, we have seen the competent, seasoned and experienced foreign policy hand we voted for," Jones said. "Tonight, he effectively made the case for Americans and the world uniting against autocratic aggression. In fact, unity was the theme. His domestic agenda -- making more stuff in America, making work pay and making America a safer place to live -- are all things that are widely popular among voters. Call it a positive populism, without anger or scapegoating.”

Kara Voght said in Rolling Stone that there was a lot to like for progressives.

"Biden called for lowering the costs of prescription drugs, establishing universal pre-K, and enacting ambitious measures to combat climate change from the House lectern," Voght wrote. "Those were pillars of the defunct Build Back Better Act, his sweeping domestic agenda designed to pass the Senate with only Democratic votes that died in the Senate last December. He even gave a nod to raising a $15 minimum wage and a bill to strengthen federal labor laws... He offered no pathways for achieving any of these priorities. Just as well, since few exist.

"For the little daylight between Biden’s speech and progressives on matters of class, they found more difference in matters of race," Voght wrote. "Biden earned a rare standing ovation from Republicans when he said 'the answer is to FUND the police' — all caps are the White House’s emphasis — 'not to defund the police.' Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who helped lead the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson before entering Congress, criticized Biden for that line. 'You didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech,' she tweeted."


My take.

I'll start with what I liked, then tell you what I didn't, and then explain what I think the speech foreshadows.

In early February, I wrote about the three things I'd tell Biden to do to improve his approval rating if I were hired as an advisor. One of them, cheekily, was to "end the pandemic." But I explained that "if in 3 to 6 months this wave has clearly come to an end, announcing an end to the pandemic and removing certain mandates for masks or vaccines could be a hit politically and also — in a world with so many people vaccinated, having gotten infected, and therapeutics lined up — a fairly neutral public health decision."

It seems Biden is taking that angle. The maskless State of the Union paired with encouragement for people to return to downtown centers, get back to work, and trust therapeutics and high vaccine rates, was about as close to announcing an "end" to the pandemic as Biden could pull off right now. And it comes at a time when the CDC is revising mask mandates and many of the remaining states still enforcing them are dropping them outright. I think the tone was a smart political play, and I think it's clearly time to start turning some kind of page on Covid-19 (much of the country already is).

I also think it was wise to reach across the aisle. I'm not sure he'll win over any Republicans in a single speech, but Biden clearly intended to try to carve out the center. His insistence on more police funding, securing the border and manufacturing in America could have been straight out of a speech from his predecessor. He made no mention of the January 6th riots at the Capitol, a striking omission that could be interpreted in a million different ways (I won't bother).

I was far more pleased with his explicit call for a "Unity Agenda," something he may have been better off starting his administration with. I was thrilled not just because I write this newsletter but also because it is truly a good list: Beat the opioid epidemic, address mental health issues (especially among children), provide stronger support for veterans and invest in beating cancer, the #2 cause of death in America. Why not? Biden took pains, too, to highlight the 80 bipartisan bills he signed into law in his first year in office, a necessary reminder that there have been plenty of accomplishments we’ve agreed on but seem not to talk about.

Of course, Biden was bound to get knocked for his delivery. Being a president is not just about legislation, it's about symbolism. This president has never been a great orator, and he hasn't gotten better with age. The number of gaffes and stumbles for a State of the Union address was surprising. Biden's would-be best line of the night was, "Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people. He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world." But he botched it by seemingly calling Ukrainians "Iranians."

I know his many defenders will cite his lifelong stutter, but it's no secret that Biden looks and speaks much differently than he did 10 years ago, and I don't really see any point in pretending otherwise. Even if his delivery is not all that important to me (I care more about substance), I know that for many Americans, those optics will overshadow anything he said.

But there were important criticisms other than his delivery.

He said nothing about Afghanistan or the plan for the many thousands of Afghans we left behind. There was no mention of Syria, Iran, China or North Korea, all of whom require serious geopolitical strategies and typically get attention in a State of the Union address, even if they aren't currently invading their neighbors. Even his language on Russia, which I greatly appreciated, lacked any kind of de-escalation angle — which indicates the frightening potential of the situation when you pause to consider it.

Perhaps the most important part of his speech was the section on inflation. He called it his "top priority," and it's now one of the most important issues to voters. But Biden's plan to combat it raised more questions than answers. He pledged to “lower costs” by ramping up U.S. manufacturing and leaning into renewable energy. But both of those things are just as likely to worsen inflation in the near-term. Economists seem to agree that, at best, they wouldn’t help, even if they are smart long-term policy proposals for America (which I think they are).

One of the reasons the U.S. has had so few inflation issues over the last three decades is precisely because of the low cost production we've outsourced to other countries. Manufacturing in the U.S. costs more than manufacturing in China. It simply doesn't add up how that will reduce inflation here anytime soon. And it also ignores the fact that it's mostly going to fall on the Federal Reserve to help guide us out of this mess.

He also offered very little in the way of new ideas, something that wasn’t lost on his supporters. Andrew Prokop and Li Zhou wrote in Vox that his plan “sounded rather… familiar.” Much of the night was dominated by talk of bills that have already failed or policy proposals he knows he isn't going to get through a divided Senate. Clearly, Biden believes that those policy proposals have widespread support, and he is smart to use the State of the Union to champion them if he thinks that. Perhaps the goal is to motivate Democratic turnout in 2022. But it did strike me how repackaged and unoriginal it all was, and left me wondering if there is a plan to navigate the legislative roadblocks he has already encountered.

In sum, the speech was fine. The tone was smart, the unity angles were appreciated, the policy solutions were stale and the delivery was poor. It's clear Biden is hoping to find his footing back near the center, and he's in his comfort zone when he's rallying around the greatness of America and democracy. If this is a new chapter, it’s going to be one where he has to wrangle control of the narrative. But the next part — the follow through on accomplishing even his “Unity Agenda” — is going to be a lot harder than the speech.

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Your questions, answered.

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A story that matters.

The cost of babysitting has skyrocketed in America, according to a new survey. The average hourly rate for a babysitter leapt 11% in 2021 to $20.57 an hour — far outpacing the 7% rate of inflation, Axios reports. Working parents will take the brunt of the increase, along with other inflationary pressures, though some have celebrated the wage increase in an industry where workers have long been underpaid. Between 2019 and 2020, the same survey showed babysitting rates only rose 3.9%. New York City had the highest rates for babysitters ($23.45 an hour for one child) while San Antonio docked the lowest, at $14 an hour for one child. You can read about the report here.


Numbers.

  • 18. The number of times Biden mentioned "Russia" in his State of the Union address.
  • Six. The number of times he mentioned inflation.
  • Eight. The number of times he mentioned police.
  • Two. The number of times he mentioned climate change.
  • 62 minutes. The length of his State of the Union address.
  • 82 minutes. The length of former President Trump's State of the Union address in 2019.
  • 78%. The percentage of CBS News viewers who approved of Biden's State of the Union, according to a snap poll by the network.

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Have a nice day.

Airbnb executives say the vacation rental platform is working with nonprofits to shelter some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees free of cost for 14 days. Airbnb executives wrote to the leaders of Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania offering help in temporarily housing refugees fleeing to their countries, CBS News reported. This is not the first time Airbnb has stepped up during similar crises: The company has been working with displaced people since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and said last week it had surpassed its goal of housing 20,000 Afghan refugees. CBS has the story here.


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