What should we take away from Biden’s first State of the Union?

OPINION: The president mentioned many significant policy positions in his address to the nation. But he faces several challenges, including a Republican Party determined to reject his agenda.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden just delivered his first State of the Union to the nation (and the world). In a moment when tensions are high due to COVID, war in Ukraine, unemployment and concerns about public safety, Biden needed to address the nation as a unifier and leader. He needed to show Americans and the rest of the world that his commitment to democracy is unwavering. 

During his long speech, Biden struck a tone that covered everything from international relations and our commitment to supporting Ukraine, building more significant infrastructure and returning to “normal” post-COVID. We know there was a Republican response, a progressive Democrat response, and a response from the Congressional Black Caucus. If Biden wants to be seen as a strong leader, he must build more substantive coalitions with Democrats within his own party and the few thoughtful Republicans remaining in Congress. 

Biden wants to unify his “fellow Americans” and the divisions in our party system. That may be a touch naïve for this president. It appears the president truly wants Congress to return to a functioning bipartisan body filled with public servants who want to preserve democracy and work on behalf of all Americans. Sadly, the right-wing faction of the Republican Party has taken control of the party. It was dismaying to see the number of Republicans who refused to stand when President Biden proposed policies that all elected officials should agree upon—gun safety, voting rights and rights for immigrant and LGBTQ+ Americans. It should be noted that Republicans did stand when Biden urged Congress to continue to fund the police. Take that as you will, but I will be looking forward to the type of legislation Congress puts forth when it comes to policing, addressing crime, and mass incarceration, and I pray they will avoid a return to the draconian policies of the mid-1990s. 

First things first: I don’t want to put too much stock in a State of the Union speech. It is one part pomp and circumstance where elected members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the joint chiefs of staff in their military regalia and a few select guests convene to hear the president’s policy platform. The policy platform then transforms into a budget prescription for the president and Congress to enact said policies. Biden has always stated that a budget is a moral document, so it should come as no surprise that Biden mentioned our commitment to helping Ukraine and promoting democracy abroad as well as fighting to pass the American Rescue Plan early in his speech.

Biden mentioned so many significant policy positions in his first State of the Union. What I’ll be paying attention to are the actions of Congress in the subsequent days, weeks and months as Democrats try to pass legislation on issues pertaining to cancer funding, veteran benefits, job creation, supporting the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, and universal background checks for gun ownership.

President Joe Biden departs after delivering the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Saul Loeb – Pool/Getty Images)

The rubber will continue to meet the road on issues of securing the southern border, as evidenced by Republicans chanting “Build the wall,” a poignant chant from the Trump era. Some of you may remember that the important policy proposal pertaining to our Southern border and widespread immigration was given to Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been relatively absent from the public eye. Vice President Harris has been tasked with fixing an immigration system that has eluded presidents, both Democrat and Republican, for decades. 

The State of the Union was largely filled with pageantry—as most States of the Union are—but what details can Americans truly take away from this speech? Indeed, there were bipartisan shows of support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian ambassador when Biden began his speech. However, moving beyond dressing in blue and yellow, what are the details of the American response on an international scale? What sacrifices will need to be made by the American people? Will our forces be forced to engage with Russia at some point, even though the president says they will not? Some details about our involvement abroad were left unclear, and we will need to wait to see just how Congress plans to work together to promote democracy abroad—even while our democracy at home is so tenuous and fragile.

As the president said, “This is our moment.” I truly pray the country can rise to the occasion. I am normally an optimistic person, but what we are witnessing in statehouses across the country gives me pause. States like Texas, Florida and Arizona have thrown down the gauntlet and have passed or are attempting to pass regressive legislation that will decrease or erase the democratic rights of trans children and their parents, those who identify as LGBTQ, immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and those merely trying to exercise their rights at the ballot box. 

Time will tell. Biden knows the midterm elections are around the corner. COVID is still real. Unemployment and inflation are hitting American families in ways not seen. The opioid crisis continues to ravage communities. However, Biden must recognize that the members of the Republican Party have made it their mission to reject any policy coming from his office. I sincerely hope that Biden remembers that he has the power of executive orders, and he can reach across the aisle but should not linger when his advances for bipartisanship are flatly rejected. 

The president is trying to clean up the mess of his predecessor while securing the nation and promoting economic and public safety. Let’s see if Congress can do what they were elected to do and pass legislation that will protect Americans and get this country moving in the right direction. 

Christina Greer is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, a political analyst at thegrio.com, and the author of “Black Ethnics”. Her research and teaching focus on American politics, black ethnic politics, urban politics, and campaigns and elections.

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