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Biden’s State of the Union: Hyper-Nationalism and Eroding Legitimacy

President Biden’s hyper-nationalistic State of the Union speech focused on selling himself as a defender of democracy at home and abroad. But it’s not enough to solve his — and the whole U.S. regime’s — crisis of legitimacy.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

March 14, 2024
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President Biden giving his State of the Union speech at a podium in March, 2024.

Just two days after super Tuesday, when Trump effectively clinched the Republican nomination for President, Biden made the case for his second term in a hyper-nationalistic speech that focused on strengthening American interests and selling himself as a vigorous defender of democratic freedoms at home and abroad. As Biden trails Trump in the polls, and the country questions if a clearly haggard 81-year-old should be president for four more years, Biden tried to exhibit vigor, strength, and nationalism. But a speech is not enough to solve the crisis of legitimacy that Biden and the entire U.S. regime are facing in the context of a crisis of neoliberalism, an unfolding U.S.-backed genocide, and the declining hegemony of U.S. imperialism.

Democracy “Under Assault”

The speech began with Biden’s flavor of “American carnage,” painting a bleak picture of democracy in crisis both in the United States and around the world. Biden sought to frame Putin and Russia as public enemy #1, claiming that Putin was seeking to conquer more than just Ukraine. Harkening back to the rise of Hitler and World War II, Biden likened himself to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Putin to Hitler. This comes as the Republican Right is opposing further aid to Ukraine, which has been suffering a series of major setbacks in its war with Russia. Although NATO has been strengthened thanks to the conflict, the weakness of U.S. imperialism is now on full display in Ukraine, and Biden was eager to place the blame for that decline on the Republicans. 

Biden also invoked the specter of the Civil War, saying: “Not since President Lincoln and the Civil War have freedom and democracy been under assault here at home as they are today.” He argued that the Republican Party is challenging the unity of the U.S. project. He spoke directly about January 6, claiming that U.S. democracy was “under assault” and that basic rights like the right to an abortion and the right to vote were being threatened. He argued that since women’s rights, particularly reproductive rights, are under attack, women should once again vote for the Democrats. 

While women have played a central role in recent elections, delivering major gains for Democrats after being mobilized by the 2017 Women’s March, and better-than-expected midterm results to an embattled Democratic Party in 2022, the Democrats have done little to reward them. Biden said that if re-elected he would “restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again,” but the fact is that Biden and his party could have passed a national law to legalize abortion when they had a majority at the start of his term, or when they had a supermajority at the start of Obama’s term, yet they did not. Instead, Biden and the Democrats sat by while Roe wasoverturned on their watch, choosing to use the overturning of a fundamental right to bodily autonomy to fundraise and win elections rather than truly fighting to defend it. Former Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, even embraced and defended anti-abortion Democrats

The Battle for Working-Class Votes

In an attempt to compete with Trump for working-class votes, Biden made several direct appeals to U.S. workers, putting forward a populist argument for an America-First economic policy saying that: “now instead of importing foreign products and exporting American jobs, we’re exporting American products and creating American jobs — right here in America where they belong!” Biden also hypocritically spoke against the trickle down economics which he has himself supported and spearheaded for most of his career. With UAW president Shawn Fain and another UAW worker in the audience, Biden also spoke about supporting the auto workers’ strike, the reopening of the Belvidere auto plant in Illinois, a transition to electric vehicles, and claimed that the U.S. could become the “manufacturing capital of the world” with strong union jobs. He claimed that he, not Trump, was the one in favor of “buying American.” While affirming his love of capitalism and corporations, he argued against the Trump tax cuts and called on corporations and the wealthy to “pay their fair share.” 

This was a Biden reminiscent of his first period in office: promising to put money in the pockets of workers, offering tax credits for new mortgages, and promising lower drug prices, all wrapped up in a nationalistic “made in America” package. 

But three years into Biden’s presidency, working people are still suffering from inflation, out-of-control rents, and an overall sharp increase in the cost of living. If the so-called “soft landing” of the economy sticks, it will be on the backs of workers, many of whom have seen their wages devalued over the course of Biden’s presidency. Meanwhile, the spectacular gaslighting that characterizes Biden’s Panglossian talk of the economy is playing a role in driving many towards anti-immigrant, far-right populist ideas, which Biden has openly promoted. 

On Immigration, Biden Agrees with the Far Right

In fact, parts of Biden’s speech could only be characterized as an anti-immigrant tirade in the service of an absolutely draconian right wing agenda for the border. He touted a “bipartisan bill with the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen” and tried to paint himself as the person who is trying to solve the border crisis — code for unleashing a profoundly right-wing agenda at the border. This is not the first time Biden has tried to outflank the Republicans on the right regarding immigration; both the Republicans and Democrats are complicit in promoting deeply xenophobic rhetoric. 

In one of the most shocking, hateful, and seemingly unscripted moments of the speech, Biden held up a pin given to him by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, highlighting the confluence between himself and one of the most vile far-right figures in Congress. The pin read “Say Her Name: Laken Riley.” Riley was a young woman who was allegedly murdered by an undocumented immigrant. While Riley’s murder is indeed tragic — and an expression of patriarchal violence that befalls women all over the world — Republicans and Democrats are exploiting it to oppress undocumented people, immigrants, and people of color. 

Worse still, the obvious co-optation here of the language of the Black Lives Matter movement — “say her name” — which was meant to fight against the murders of Black people at the hands of police, is not only a slap in the face to those who support that movement — it cynically fosters the right wing notion that the “real” victims in America are white people. It hints at the white supremacist notion that white people are somehow being marginalized in U.S. society. 

As bad as this was, it is what Biden said that was perhaps most offensive. “Laken Riley,” Biden said, “an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal – that’s right. But how many thousands of people are being killed by illegals?” — using white supremacist terminology to refer to undocumented people. While Biden later attempted to distance himself from Trump’s rhetoric around immigration, the truth is that in this speech, Biden sought to highlight his strong agreements with the anti-immigrant Far Right. He also chided Republicans in the audience for not passing the immigration bill last month, which would have further militarized the border.

Genocide Joe

Late in his speech, Biden turned to Gaza where over 30,000 people have been murdered and Israel is trying to starve Palestinians. Hundreds of people were protesting outside and blocking the roads in front of the Capitol. All over the country, there is rising anger at “genocide Joe” who has continued to support Israel and has vetoed ceasefire resolutions at the UN even as the Biden administation has tried to rhetorically distance itself from Israel’s policy in Gaza. The “uncommitted” campaign, which began in Michigan but expanded to many other states, shows the deep-seated rejection of Biden’s genocidal policies. While the goal of the Demcratic figureheads leading the campaign is to corral people back into the Party, it is not clear if this will work; Biden’s support for genocide may lose him the election. 

In his State of the Union speech, Biden shifted course. First he unequivocally supported Israel and condemned Hamas, laying the blame for the genocide squarely on Hamas’ shoulders. Then, he said that he “is working for” a six-week ceasefire, just a few days after Kamala Harris made a similar promise. This is the first public speech in which Biden used the term ceasefire, a demand that has become popular in the movement while at the same time, in the hands of Biden, is used to promote a two-state solution and the continued oppression of Palestinian people.

Biden feigns impotence in the face of Israel, when in reality, the Zionist state’s genocidal military system is funded by the United States. In fact, in the past few weeks, Biden has sent weapons to Israel every 36 hours. While Biden certainly does wish that Netenyahu would de-escalate the genocide — not out of any humanitarian concern, but out of concern for his 2024 prospects and the destabilizing effect the genocide has on the entire Middle East — the U.S. has continually provided the material support for the genocide to continue. 

Biden also promised that the U.S. would build a temporary port for humanitarian aid to enter Gaza. All of this was pitiful attempt to win back those who have seen the Democrats for what they really are: supporters of genocide. It is a clear attempt to co-opt and quell the movement in the streets. 

However, taking up the call for a ceasefire is a gamble for the Biden administration: Netanyahu is promising a ground invasion of Rafah, while Biden is calling for a ceasefire. If Netanyahu goes ahead with the ground invasion, it will express declining U.S. imperialist hegemony — an ally of the U.S. will openly defy the will of President Biden. 

This gamble is precisely the kind the Democratic Party is so good at: in the face of any progressive demand — ending the genocide, student loan debt forgiveness, fighting climate change — they feign impotence but pledge symbolic support while continuing to fund and support reactionary policies that destroy the lives of working class and oppressed people all over the world. 

This is the bread and butter of the lesser evilism that has fueled the Democratic Party — the argument that “we support your demands, we just can’t do anything about it right now, vote for us and then maybe we’ll be able to do something.” The problem for the Democrats is that this strategy is facing challenges amid very real geopolitical tensions and a decline in U.S. imperialist hegemony, alongside a crisis of neoliberalism and of capital accumulation. This situation, combined with the strategy of Democratic feigned impotence, is fueling a Far Right that promises a strong hand, and nationalist and authoritarian measures that they promise will benefit the U.S. working class. 

Biden hoped to be a paragon of vigor and presidential strength in this State of the Union. Overall, it was a successful night for him. He didn’t have any major gaffes and managed to give a relatively impassioned speech. He promised to counter Trump’s chauvinist America-First populism with his own flavor of America First, which, like Trump’s, represents demagoguery towards the working class, a promise of manufacturing jobs, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Biden claims to represent a bulwark against Trumpist authoritarianism and represent “new ideas” and a way forward. With the help of a good speech writer and the likes of Shawn Fain, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Biden’s image is being revived though there are still real challenges to his ability to recover in the polls. 

What Does This Mean for Socialists? 

Lenin spoke of the early 20th century as the epoch of crisis, wars, and revolutions. In the current moment, that century-old characterization is revitalized. If there is anything we agree with Biden on in his speech, it is precisely that we are indeed living through times of crisis, geopolitical tensions, and the rise of a Far Right nationally and internationally. The features of a world in crisis that led to the depression and two world wars seems on the horizon. Biden knows it. Trump knows it. And we must also know it. 

For us, this means the necessity to strengthen our internationalism, refusing to side with NATO or Russia in the proxy war unfolding in Ukraine, fighting against Israel’s U.S.-backed genocidal assault on Gaza. It means standing against anti-immigrant hate, against ICE, and against borders, highlighting that we are one working class around the world and that nationalism only serves the capitalists. It means fighting against the genocide — demanding an end to the siege, an end of all U.S. aid to Israel, and fighting for true liberation for Palestine, which means a free, socialist Palestine, from the river to the sea. 

It means standing with the struggles of workers and against the co-optation of the Democrats who, allied with the union leaderships, are trying to divert the new militancy of the workers movement. It means fighting for our rights in the streets and in the workplaces, not leaving the defense of abortion, trans rights, and voting rights up to the Democrats who use our fear about the attacks on our rights to win elections. 

In the next few months, we will no doubt enter a moment where the white supremacist bombast of Trump and the Far Right will highlight the very real dangers we are up against domestically. The unsettling Republican response to the State of the Union by Alabama Senator Katie Britt at her kitchen table highlights just how terrifying this new far right is. There is no doubt that in that context, many will turn to Biden as the lesser evil once again. “At least he can be pressured” — they will say, perhaps even pointing to the call for a ceasefire. 

But we must find another way forward. And this way forward is with the working class and oppressed people, building our strength in the streets and in our workplaces, with protests, pickets and strikes. And we must build a political alternative, a working-class party that fights for socialism, so that those many millions of people who are uncommitted to Biden can build a political alternative with a real solution to the problems facing working-class and oppressed people. So that we can turn the impending wars between nations into class wars and overturn this capitalist system that both Biden and Trump, Democrats and Republicans represent, opening the way for a socialist society. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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