The 10 Most Important Lines From President Biden’s Address
The most amusing shot in Wednesday night’s broadcast of the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress — alas, it was not an official “State of the Union Address” — was of a masked Bernie Sanders. You could only imagine the smirk hiding under his COVID-cover, as he listened to a normally centrist Joe Biden call for so much of what Sanders has been ranting about for years: free college, paid sick leave, an exciting future of electric cars and green jobs; the list goes on. We couldn’t see it, but the smirk was likely a mix of “I am the one who’s been saying that!” and real pride that years of barking the same bark have somewhat paid off.
The pandemic has changed the context in which we’re evaluating how much we are actually willing to care for our fellow Americans (i.e., give a shit), and it seems these proposals have found their moment. When the president called for childcare reform — caregivers would be paid to stay at home with children and the elderly — Elizabeth Warren pumped her fist. The speech, or at least the agenda in it, was clearly a team effort. It seems the Great Liberal Apology (decades of tip-toeing so we don’t offend) is over, and we should all buckle up for bold investments in a leftist America. I say, raise your glass and biodegradable straw. Cheers!
In case you didn’t catch it, the speech was a calm, confident and heartfelt call for winning the future post-COVID. Of course, Lauren Boebart didn’t think so; she rolled her eyes. Joe Manchin took notes. Ted Cruz shot dirty looks over his mask, like a confused cartoon villain. None of it detracted, though, from the main event — perhaps one of the positive upshots of delivering such an address during the pandemic: the focus wasn’t on the crowd, rather it was on the president.
In a call for unity, Biden laid out his plans for investments in infrastructure, jobs to battle climate change, lower prescription-drug prices, bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, and reuniting with our allies abroad, among others. Noticeably absent was any commitment about student loan debt or universal healthcare. All in all, it was a defense of government and a call for it to rise to meet the needs of the people, and for us all to band together to defeat the real competitor: China, as well as other international autocrats who are betting daily against democracy winning the world’s future.
The details of policy aside — and there was plenty of policy — here are the ten lines that struck me as most important. Together they made up Biden’s first major attempt to re-frame the national political conversation and to usher in a new era of “democracy in action.”
- “Madam Speaker, Madam Vice President. No president has ever said those words from this podium.” We all felt it during the election, but it was overshadowed grossly by the pandemic and the riot at the Capitol. This administration is historic. Period. Whether you like or loathe identity politics, this first is undeniably important: we have our first female Vice President. Watching her in the audience was the nation’s first Second Gentleman. Nothing says “we’re doing this differently” than a female POC sitting over the right shoulder of the sitting president.
- “And all of this is through no fault of their own.” Biden referred to those Americans who have suffered most from the fallout of the pandemic, including even those with “nice cars” who are waiting in lines for boxed food. By reminding us that they (we) find ourselves in deep economic turmoil despite how hard we work, Biden drew a stark contrast to the constant Republican refrain that each of us is fully responsible for our financial situation and should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. This was perhaps the most liberal line of the speech, an unapologetic Democratic perspective: we are in this together.
- “As my dad would then say, with a little breathing room.” Here, the president was referring to what Americans want and need: to make a living that actually supports their family and just might offer a sliver of extra — extra time, extra cash, an extra breath. The pandemic jolted us from the treadmill of American capitalism, and it’s a treadmill that has kept us in constant motion, stressed, anxious, always falling behind. This was Biden’s call for a little grace, a shred of dignity for the American middle and working classes. He followed it up with a strong and bold defense of labor, stating, “unions built the middle class.” Finally, someone is reminding blue-collar workers that it is the Democrats they should be voting for.
- “I would like to meet with those who have ideas that are different.” In an age of online vitriol, as friends and families tear one another apart on Facebook, this was an important statement from our leader. He understands, like Obama did, unlike “the former guy,” that a major part of his job is to model civil discourse. It was a crucial reminder to all of us to challenge, debate, discuss, and invite those across the aisle — perhaps even across the internet — to meet and talk. Word around Washington is that this is just a show, but calling for civility from this particular bully pulpit can be consequential. The more he repeats this — and models it — the healthier our national discourse will be.
- “It’s not right.” Biden was referring to the great imbalance in our tax system between what is paid by the uber-wealthy and by average America, as he called for those at the top to pay their “fair share.” With three words, he re-framed the tax argument as a moral issue, reminding us that we can argue all we want about who built what and how they built it, but in the end making billions and not paying proportionally into the common wealth is an ethical issue, not just an economic one. He furthered the point with, “We are going to reward work, not just wealth” — a call for us as a nation to re-prioritize (and a subtle dig at people with gold toilets).
- “My fellow Americans, trickle-down economics has never worked.” This was the boldest line of the evening and perhaps the most memorable. It was a frank rebuttal to 40 years of Reaganomics. It was meant to close the book on the American fascination with pumping money to the top in the hopes that some of it showers down. The bailouts of 2020, along with the 2017 tax cuts, were the final nail in the coffin, proof positive that corporations will use cash flow to pad the pockets of their CEOs and buy back stock, etc., instead of upping wages, benefits, and the like.
- “We welcome the competition. We are not looking for conflict.” The international version of #4, this alliterative line drew an important distinction between a healthy global game of chess — a battle of minds, talent, resources, and strategy — and the dangerous physical battles that plagued the 20th century. Biden has no intention of backing down from a rising China, but he has no interest in war. This was a markedly different tone than Trump set, and it reminded us of the nuance inherent in the international relationships of a modern, globalized world. Let’s not forget China’s current genocide of the Uyghurs. Biden used “looking for” intentionally. We are not seeking physical conflict, but we will respond to human rights violations.
- “The war in Afghanistan, as we remember the debates here, were not meant to be multigenerational undertakings of nation building.” The six words in this line that struck me most deeply were “as we remember the debates here.” In a world where few of us can remember what we ate for breakfast and where news cycles are whiplash fast and furious, this was a line that only a man of a certain age could utter. Biden is old, and it’s everything we need right now. He has a memory. He was there. Yes, you could well argue that he has been part of the problem in Washington. But this callback to debates that we all saw, heard, and participated in after 9/11 (Congress did so on that same floor) was a reminder that government needs to have a memory to be effective. It cannot serve the needs of the people if it is only ever concerned with the short term.
- “America is an idea, the most unique idea in history.” This was the most beautiful line of the night. I am currently writing from Montenegro. Long story. In my conversations this week with those here in the former Yugoslavia, it has been crystal clear just how true this is. The United States of America is a place, but America is a story. It is the idea that humans can self-govern and live into their individual and collective potential, free of the Old World’s limitations of thought. America says, “Yes, you can” when thousands of years of human society say, “Well, you better not.” This is why it was devastating when the former guy declared “America First.” It told the other 6.5B people on the planet that they could no longer be part of the story. Biden understands that he is not only the leader of the place but the steward of the story.
- “That’s democracy in action.” These four words wrapped it all up. They were a summation of the thesis of the speech: government can and should work for you. They were a defense of government, yes, but they were also a re-framing of our decades-long debate about government’s size. Should it be large or small? Biden says the size doesn’t matter. What’s important is whether or not it is working. The line was also a furthering of Obama’s Hope message. We all know Hope is nice — and was well required as the Bush years ended — but Hope doesn’t pay the bills. Action can.
What a breath of fresh air the address was. It will take a change of heart and political strategy — or perhaps a massive meltdown — for Republicans to get behind most of Biden’s agenda, but it was honest, civil, and smart. This is what we expect from our leaders.