Although it was apparently watched by a surprisingly small audience on the major networks, President Biden’s first address to Congress was also surprisingly inspirational. According to a media poll taken after the speech, 85% of those who saw it felt positively about it and a vast majority said it gave them optimism about the American future. In today’s polarized world, that’s a home run.
Biden’s speech was an unapologetic and explicit rejection of Reaganism. Biden declared “[T]rickle-down economics has never worked. It’s time to grow the economy from the bottom and the middle out”. He reminded us that “Decades ago, we used to invest 2 percent of our gross domestic product in America, 2 percent of our gross domestic product in research and development. Today, Mr. Secretary, that’s less than 1 percent”, adding that those investments are the kind that “we made together as one country. And investments that only the government was in a position to make. Time and again, they propel us into the future”. Biden has changed the terms of the debate entirely, as Nick Kristof makes clear when he writes, “The question today, as in the 1930s, is not whether we can afford to make ambitious investments in our people. It’s whether we can afford not to”.
But what was particularly striking about Biden’s speech is how it so clearly focused on class-based policies. Biden explicitly stated that “Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class”. He added, “Nearly 90 percent of the infrastructure jobs created in the American Jobs Plan do not require a college degree. Seventy-five percent don’t require an associate’s degree. The American Jobs Plan is a blue-collar blueprint to build America”. Biden made clear that his ambitious agenda under the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan will be paid for by the rich and corporations, stating, “it’s time for corporate America and the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans to just begin to pay their fair share…We’re going to reward work, not just wealth. We take the top tax bracket for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, those making over $400,000 or more, back up to where it was when George W. Bush was president, when he started, 39.6 percent…We’re going to get rid of the loopholes that allow Americans to make more than $1 million a year and pay a lower tax rate on their capital gains than Americans who receive a paycheck. We’re only going to affect three-tenths of 1 percent of all Americans by that action…The I.R.S. is going to crack down on millionaires and billionaires who cheat on their taxes”. Biden even focused his foreign policy around the middle class, declaring, “The investments I propose tonight also advance a foreign policy, in my view, that benefits the middle class”. As Ed Kilgore notes, the speech was “a well-crafted pitch aimed right at the heart of the GOP’s white working-class constituency”, adding that “The tax plan will be criticized by Republicans as ‘class warfare,’ because it really and proudly is”.
The focus on class is especially interesting in light of a new study that is rattling through the Democratic messaging machine. That study showed that, sadly but unsurprisingly, “linking public policies to race is detrimental for support of those policies…[R]acial framing decreases support for race-neutral progressive policies….Generally, the class frame most successfully increases support for progressive policies across racial and political subgroups…While among Democrats both the class and the class plus race frames cause statistically significant increases in policy support,…among Republicans the class plus race frame causes a statistically significant decrease in policy support”.
Some have pointed to this study as further proof that the Black Lives Matter protests last summer hurt the Democrats in the November elections. But there is a clear difference between advocating for policies and winning elections. As Republicans have recently illustrated, activating the base is often more important than having coherent policy ideas. As one political scientist said about the new study, “there is a trade-off between persuasion and mobilization. Highlighting racial injustice may mobilize nonwhite constituencies and racially progressive whites to engage in politics more forcefully”.
To be clear, Biden’s speech did not entirely ignore race. In fact, he was incredibly forceful in the limited comments he did make, declaring, “we won’t ignore what our intelligence agents have determined to be the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland today: White supremacy is terrorism…We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans…[W]e have to come together to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve, to root out systematic racism in our criminal justice system”.
While Biden was focused on class, Tim Scott’s rebuttal speech was dominated by race, with a side dish of other culture war issues. Said Scott, “I have experienced the pain of discrimination…I’ve also experienced a different kind of intolerance. I get called “Uncle Tom” and the n-word by progressives, by liberals…Today, kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them, and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor…Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination…Race is not a political weapon to settle every issue the way one side wants”. The GOP has now latched on to critical race theory, with a number of GOP-dominated state legislatures trying to pass laws basically banning any discussion of systemic racism in schools. As Christine Emba summarized, Scott’s speech “was a way to signal to the GOP, at least, that he was awake to their preferred line of attack — that the best way to slime Democrats was to portray them as critical race theory-obsessed, reverse-racist oppressors of the everyday Americans who just want to be free to read the spicy parts of old Dr. Seuss books and gender their potatoes in peace”.
These two speeches basically set the tone for the next eighteen months and the 2022 elections. Biden and the Democrats are betting that passing popular policies supported by class-based rhetoric will peel away enough Republicans to perhaps maintain control of Congress in 2022. Republicans will instead be focusing on race, the culture war, and massive voter suppression to carry them to victory. The differences couldn’t be more stark.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on May 5, 2021.