“Finish the job” was a fitting theme for President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address. It provided a valuable oratorical perch from which Biden could both tout his impressive legislative successes of the last two years and call on Congress to pass laws that, to quote Biden himself, help build an economy and support a society “from the bottom up and the middle out.”
But Biden needs to heed his own call to “finish the job.” That’s glaring omission number one.
To achieve his policy goals, Biden is not totally dependent upon Congress. He can accomplish much by pursuing an aggressive regulatory agenda to implement existing laws, such as the Clean Air Act or the Dodd-Frank Act, that awaited him on his inauguration day.
The story of the last two years has largely been a failure to do that. The tea leaves, in the form of Biden’s recently released Fall 2022 regulatory agenda, suggest his administration does not plan to take a more assertive approach to regulation next year, either.
This concern applies equally to new laws Congress sent Biden, particularly the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. When it comes to implementing these laws, the task of “finishing the job” falls squarely on Biden’s shoulders. That means quickly rolling out the funding those laws authorized and establishing their programs, such as the Inflation Reduction Act’s new charges for methane emissions from covered oil and gas development facilities.
A Rhetorical Failure
In Tuesday’s speech, Biden also called on Congress to take new legislative action on a broad array of policy goals: strengthening workers’ right to organize; preventing the pharmaceutical industry from gouging consumers; and protecting kids’ privacy on the internet, to name a few. I’m skeptical such measures will pass in this divided Congress, but if they do, the task of implementation will once again fall to Biden. It will be Biden’s job to “finish.”
With respect to the second glaring omission, Biden missed a golden opportunity to begin reconnecting the American people to our government — a rhetorical link that our nation desperately needs after more than 40 years of dangerous neoliberal ideology that has successfully pushed us apart. Biden’s rhetoric still tended to reflect and reinforce this view, which holds that we, the people, are somehow conceptually distinct from our government. Under this blinkered approach, the American people are largely passive objects of public policy, with very little agency to control it outside of the episodic exercise of voting.
Biden can and should begin promoting a different vision of Americans’ relationship to government — one that, until recently, had always been an essential element of our collective political thought. According to this recovered vision, Americans and our government are inextricably intertwined: “We, the people” are our government. Recent polling indicates that Biden has a big challenge ahead of him on this score.
Yet, if being American means anything, it means we have agency over our shared fate as a nation. And exercising that agency demands more than participating in elections.
Biden seemed to recognize this vision in a brief moment toward the end of his speech, when he asserted that it was within our power as Americans to “protect our democracy” after it had been pushed to the breaking point by the January 6 insurrection. According to the president, we can reclaim our government, and we can begin the hard work of rebuilding social trust, the deterioration of which has contributed greatly to the instability of our democratic institutions.
As he put it, “We are not bystanders to history. We are not powerless before the forces that confront us. It is within our power, of We the People. We are facing the test of our time and the time for choosing is at hand.”
In short, we have agency over this aspect of our shared project as a people. This passage was soaring, but it ended abruptly — and the president moved on.
Instead, Biden could have continued by inviting the public to imagine other ways they could reclaim government — other ways they could exercise agency as public citizens. The regulatory system, over which Biden has unique control, would have been one potential option to highlight.
Just as he promised to “see” Republican representatives “at the groundbreaking” of infrastructure projects in their home districts, Biden could have invited members of the public to meet him at rulemaking hearings on issues they care about, whether it’s climate change, the drug overdose epidemic, or police brutality.
This was the second State of the Union address in which Biden sought to restore unity among Democrats and Republicans for the good of our country. It might be more productive, though, if Biden instead focused on restoring unity between we, the people, and our government. If the heckling was any indication, Republicans are more interested in landing plum interview spots on Fox News than advancing the common good. For the foreseeable future, it seems the best hope for “finishing the job” lies with the Biden administration and the American people themselves.
Banner image courtesy of the White House.