A year ago, President Joe Biden stood before a joint session of Congress to describe his soaring vision to transform the American economy. When he returned to the House chamber for his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, that vision remained unrealized, stymied by the centrists in his party. But his calls to resurrect jettisoned elements of that agenda offered some cover to the much-maligned progressives in his party, his populist message dovetailing — at least in part — with the desires of Democrats’ left flank.
Biden called for lowering the costs of prescription drugs, establishing universal pre-K, and enacting ambitious measures to combat climate change from the House lectern. Those were pillars of the defunct Build Back Better Act, his sweeping domestic agenda designed to pass the Senate with only Democratic votes that died in the Senate last December. He even gave a nod to raising a $15 minimum wage and a bill to strengthen federal labor laws. “I call it building a better America,” the president said, a nod to the “Build Back Better” slogan he clung to during his campaign and first year of the presidency but abandoned after his signature bill died. He offered no pathways for achieving any of these priorities. Just as well, since few exist.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), a member of the left-wing “Squad” who gave the progressive response on behalf of the Working Families’ Party, noted many of those priorities, too. She didn’t shy away from “Build Back Better” as Biden did, mentioning it by name as an “agenda to create an America where we all have the opportunity to thrive” with the ability to “address decades of rising inequality and injustice.”
“No one fought harder for President Biden’s agenda than progressives,” Tlaib said, noting that her progressive colleagues “rallied with our supporters, held town halls in our communities, engaged new people, and we even played hardball in Congress.” It was a reminder that progressives, who had crafted the agenda alongside the Biden administration, were on the president’s side.
Tlaib’s speech only reached a fraction of the millions of Americans who tuned in to watch Biden, but you wouldn’t have known it from the consternation her decision to deliver a rebuttal stirred in her moderate colleagues. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, called response speeches from Biden’s own party “a little bit purposeless.” She suggested that “if somebody wants to advocate for a piece of legislation they really care about, there’s a lot of time to do that.” Rep. Josh Gottheimer called Tlaib’s address “massively counterproductive,” and compared the exercise to “keying your own car.” (Gottheimer did a bit of “keying” himself on Tuesday when he and Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick delivered their own response address on behalf of No Labels, a bipartisan centrist organization.)
But Tlaib’s remarks were more of a buffing than a keying, praising many of the same economic priorities Biden named. “I just hope my colleagues listen to the speech,” Tlaib told me on Tuesday afternoon. She explained that “President Biden successfully brought people in the room that usually aren’t in the room together,” citing the working- and lower-class Americans with the most to gain from his proposed economic investments. “He gave this visionary agenda around Build Back Better that very much needs to be at the front and center.”
Progressive lawmakers defended Tlaib’s decision. The purpose of the speech is to show “support for the President’s agenda and to urge Democrats to get behind him,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) told reporters. “We’ve lost sight of the fact that Build Back Better was a major part of the President’s agenda,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who gave the Working Families Party’s response last year, told me on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s really important for us to keep racial equity at the top of the agenda,” he added, “and most of the equity, if not all of it, is in Build Back Better.”
For the little daylight between Biden’s speech and progressives on matters of class, they found more difference in matters of race. Biden earned a rare standing ovation from Republicans when he said “the answer is to FUND the police” — all caps are the White House’s emphasis — “not to defund the police.”
Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who helped lead the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson before entering Congress, criticized Biden for that line. “You didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech,” she tweeted.
Tlaib skipped the progressive catch phrase in her remarks, but outlined a progressive police reform agenda that included an end to qualified immunity, which protects law enforcement for being held accountable for abusive actions. “We can’t police away homelessness, poverty or the mental health crisis in our country,” she said.
Tlaib also made mention of the executive authority Biden could use to achieve a host of progressive priorities, including canceling student debt and banning federal fossil fuel leasing and drilling. In his speech, Biden didn’t go nearly as far, hewing mostly to his promise to use his administration’s power to crack down on corporate monopolies.
But most striking was the ways in which the president and his progressive responder described the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. In her remarks, Tlaib condemned the recent Republican Party decision to treat the riots as “legitimate political discourse.” Biden made no explicit mention of the attack at all, in keeping with his speech’s overall moderate tone.
It was a conspicuous omission, given the swarms of Capitol Police and tall mesh fences erected around the Capitol in advance of the speech, clear signs that the day and the divides it exposed weren’t yet behind him. Biden kept his focus on the future instead. “As hard as these times have been, I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life, because I see the future that is within our grasp,” he said, “Because I know there is simply nothing beyond our capacity.”
Tlaib may have preached some of the same policy priorities as Biden on Tuesday, but she served her optimism with caution. “With the majority of the Build Back Better agenda stalled, Mr. President, the work is unfinished,” she said. “But we are ready to jumpstart our work again. ”