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Capitalism, Nationalism, and Copaganda: Biden’s First State of the Union

Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address reveled in nationalism, vague promises, and anti-Russian rhetoric. But, behind all the sloganeering, the speech revealed that Biden intends to stay the course on his disastrous governing strategy of empty promises that have categorically failed the working class and oppressed.

Sybil Davis

March 1, 2022
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Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

In a room filled with maskless war criminals and Ukrainian flags, President Joe Biden said, in perhaps the most obvious sentence ever spoken in that chamber, that he was a capitalist. That’s not shocking to anyone, but it is a wonder that he had to say it, given that every other element of his speech was so focused on protecting American capitalism and imperialism. From defending NATO, to arguing for a more productive U.S. economy, to shouting out the CEO of Intel (who was, inexplicably, in the room for the speech), Biden doubled down on his campaign promise that “nothing would fundamentally change.”

Biden took the stage in the midst of a complex time in his presidency: domestically, his agenda has ground to a total halt as members of his own party bicker amongst themselves. Far from being the “unity” president he promised to be, Biden’s term so far has been incredibly polarized, with a growing number of Republicans believing he fraudulently won the election and the right wing of his own party dictating the congressional agenda. With the State of the Union, Biden needed to re-orient both his presidency and his party ahead of the midterms — elections that seem likely to pummel the Democrats hard. 

Unsurprisingly, the beginning of the speech (though not much of the rest of it) was focused on the conflict in Ukraine. Biden opened with a strong denunciation of Russia, Putin, and the invasion of Ukraine, and attempted to frame this conflict as good versus evil — he went so far as to say “light will triumph over darkness.” Interestingly, Biden spent much of the Russia section of his speech defending the institutions of American imperialism abroad — namely NATO. He frequently referred to U.S. allies as “freedom-loving nations” and “the free world.” 

Additionally, Biden proudly defended the sanctions that the U.S. and other Western nations have levied on Russia. It was a moment of villainous nationalism as elected representatives from both parties applauded as Biden declared that the U.S. is “inflicting pain on Russia.” Of course, the people who will feel the impact of this economic warfare the most isn’t Putin and the other members of the Russian bourgeoisie, but the average Russian worker — the very same worker who may easily be on the streets bravely protesting the war. It bears repeating: sanctions hurt workers and must be opposed by all leftists.

However, Biden did somewhat acknowledge that these sanctions could have a negative impact on the U.S. economy — saying that he would make sure the “pain” was targeted to the “Russian economy” — and announced the release of oil barrels from reserves to combat potential price rises. This is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that Biden and his team are concerned about the political fallout of the economic repercussions of sanctioning as large an economy as Russia. Biden et al. are trying to get ahead of the fallout by addressing it before it happens. Second, it shows that a major reason why the U.S. is sanctioning Russia is to compete in the oil and gas market — a market that Russia dominates, particularly in Europe. The U.S. has been lagging behind for several years and attempts to bring American natural gas and oil to Europe have been slow to catch on. Biden is clearly hoping to use the current crisis to establish the U.S. as a more major player in this industry, and frame it as America coming to the rescue.

Indeed, establishing U.S. economic superiority was a major thrust of Biden’s speech. From calling for more American production to saying, “Buy American: buy American products to support American jobs,” to the chilling chants of “USA, USA” breaking out mid-speech, Biden’s State of the Union showed that economic nationalism isn’t going anywhere — it’s one of the main ways being used to attempt to address the growing contradictions in capitalism. 

A major trend in Biden’s speech was an attempt to marry progressive language with reactionary policy. For example, the Covid section began with Biden waxing poetic about the losses that many have experienced, only for him to turn around and declare that “it is time for Americans to get back to work,” and we “must keep schools open.” The mask mandate for the State of the Union was lifted, so the room was filled with unmasked Congresspeople. Most frustratingly, Biden declared that the U.S. won’t “stop vaccinating the world,” a criminally untrue statement given that patents continue to make vaccines inaccessible to millions. 

Another example of this bizarre rhetorical contradiction was the section on crime. Biden began by eulogizing two NYPD officers who were killed in action and talked about the need for some minor reforms. But his strongest statement was when he declared that “the answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to FUND the police with the resources they need.” Once again, as he has done his entire career, Biden has shown himself to be a die-hard supporter of the police and a firm opponent of any movement for racial justice. Once again, the representative of the party which promised to represent the Black Lives Matter Movement has gone on television and declared that he is in total lock-step with the very institutions they were protesting. This is a noticeable shift from the moment when Nancy Pelosi was leading the Democrats in kneeling while wearing Kente cloth. Tonight, she led the bipartisan standing ovation for funding the police.

These two examples show that Biden has been able, like so many Democrats before him, to go further than Republicans. By presenting himself as an ally of progress and the “common man,” Biden has managed to pacify large sections of the public, which then de-politicizes and de-mobilizes them. Then, in a less adversarial terrain, Biden is able to make advances in the interests of capital and the state — advances that would be fought tooth and nail if they were proposed under a Republican president. Imagine if Trump had said that we need to fund the police and get America back to work. There would undoubtedly be significantly more pushback and resistance than there is now, because Biden has lulled many into a false sense of security. To use the slogan around his election, many have “gone back to brunch,” and Biden is using that complacency to push forward a right-wing agenda. 

Biden closed his speech with a “unity agenda,” a list of empty promises put forward without details in a seeming attempt to touch on every major issue. From attacks on trans people, voting, and reproductive rights, to cancer and the opioid crisis, Biden offered vague assurances that basically amounted to “someone should do something” and continued to advocate for failed legislation — such as the Equality and PRO  Acts, which both have languished on the Congressional floor. Whether or not this “unity agenda” will succeed remains to be seen, but Biden seemed to double down on the strategy that he and his Democratic allies have been following for the past few months — one that has categorically failed up until this point. There was no noticeable shift in policy proposals and, in general, the State of the Union felt like a recycled stump speech with a few paragraphs about Ukraine added to the beginning; an attempt to fool us again with the exact same lines. 

That Biden is not a great orator isn’t a revelation. Nor is his deep ties to defending the establishment and status quo. Nor is his commitment to defending American hegemony abroad. If anything is notable about the speech it’s how Biden is trying to speak to everyone. He has to balance speaking to the Democratic left, the Democratic right, the non-Trumpist Republicans, and (to some extent) the Trump Republicans. It felt, at times, like Biden was running through a checklist — say “Fund the Police” for the Right, talk about protecting trans kids for the Left. More than anything, the State of the Union revealed the political moment that we are in: one of polarization, where there is very little consensus on domestic issues with a Left that is in retreat and a Right that is on the rise. 

Biden ended the speech by saying, “let’s go get them!” without explaining who the “them” is. This, in some ways, is indicative of the entire speech: nationalist imagery and vague assertions about what we need to do. But, unfortunately, the only “them” that will be gotten by the Biden administration is the global working class, as Biden attempts to promote U.S. imperialism abroad and strengthen capitalist relationships at home. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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