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With his approval numbers continuing their steady decline and a potentially bruising midterm contest looming, President Biden used his first State of the Union address to lay out a policy agenda that enjoys overwhelming popular support. Yet, as intuitive as that approach appears on its face, it’s a safe bet that the speech will not make a lasting difference for Biden or his party’s political fortunes. That’s in part because most of the policies that Biden touted require congressional approval and have no discernible path forward in the 50-50 Senate (not to mention the fact that only a small fraction of Americans tuned in to listen).
But even in the relatively rare moments when Biden did focus on popular steps his administration is taking independent of Congress, his delivery all but ensured that those proposals would fade from public consciousness almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Case in point: The abundance of articles offering “takeaways from the SOTU” are devoid of references to Biden’s myriad promises to crack down on corporate misbehavior, from the shipping industry to nursing homes and beyond.
The lesson should be clear: In a crowded information environment, simply adopting populist policies—even entirely achievable ones—is not enough. Biden needs a populist communications strategy to match. To drive media coverage and get his agenda in front of even the most disengaged voters, Biden should start picking fights with specific corporate villains.
Although it was easy to miss among the references to various landmark bills, Biden’s State of the Union did include multiple, important promises when it comes to corporate accountability. He vowed to crack down on international shipping cartels that have raised prices by “as much as 1,000 percent and made record profits.” He promised new rules for nursing homes to “make sure [Americans’] loved ones get the care they deserve and that they expect,” and called out “Wall Street firms” for driving down quality and driving up costs in the nursing homes they acquire. He pledged action against consolidated meatpacking companies as well.
Even where he didn’t get as explicit about his policy prescriptions, Biden continued to hit on themes of corporate greed. He condemned the pharmaceutical industry’s price-gouging and called for accountability for social media platforms for the “national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.” He bemoaned that corporations are not paying their fair share in taxes, noting that “last year, 55 of the Fortune 500 companies earned $40 billion in profit and paid zero in federal taxes.”
We know from polling that policies and rhetoric like these are wildly popular. In our deeply divided country, anger at elite impunity and a desire to see it end are among the rare uniting forces that we have left.
But for Biden to harness that anger and reap the associated political rewards, people need to know that he’s fighting these battles on their behalf. Simply telling them so in speeches (or campaign ads or tweets, etc.) will not cut it. Nor can the White House wait for voters to feel the effects of its efforts; results may take time, and even then voters do not always reliably attribute improvements in their condition to the policies and politicians responsible. In other words, without a concerted strategy to draw and sustain attention to this administration’s efforts to hold corporations accountable and to take credit for the results, the political benefits could turn out to be quite paltry.
To avoid this outcome, the Biden administration needs to lean into conflict. Announcing new policies is all well and good, but ensuring that they don’t get lost in the information deluge requires keeping them relevant. Through ongoing fights discussed across all platforms—with specific faces and logos attached to corporate villains—the president can train the media spotlight on the ways his administration is battling on the public’s behalf. Sustained attention requires sustained conflict, not just ticking a box off one time, even within a high-profile speech.
This is decidedly not the president’s first instinct. In Tuesday’s State of the Union, Biden referenced the names of a total of three companies (Intel, GM, and Pfizer) and one CEO (Pat Gelsinger). In each case, it was to praise them. When it came to calling out corporate abuses, in contrast, he was much more abstract. “Half a dozen” ocean carriers, “four meatpacking companies,” “Wall Street firms,” “social media companies,” and other unnamed looming corporate villains are responsible for our woes.
Imagine, instead, if President Biden had gotten more specific. He could have, for example, named the pharmaceutical companies that make insulin for $10 a vial and sell it for 30 times that much. While he was at it, he could have named their CEOs and noted the salaries they earned after price-gouging patients. The same goes for any of the other industries that he targeted. Among the Wall Street firms that have been destroying nursing homes, for example, is Blackstone. Blackstone’s CEO Stephen Schwarzman made over $1 billion last year.
Had Biden named any of these companies or individuals, it would have surely dominated SOTU reactions. With any luck, it would have even provoked the CEOs into ill-advised, petulant responses that extended the coverage further. Who can forget when Amazon executives went on the attack against Sen. Bernie Sanders last year to defend Jeff Bezos’s fragile ego? That famously resulted in multiple news cycles dominated by stories of Amazon’s poor working conditions and, specifically, the frequency with which drivers were forced to urinate in water bottles because they lacked regular access to a restroom.
Blackstone’s Schwarzman, for his part, is as thin-skinned as he is rich (which is saying something, as he is worth approximately $38 billion). Remember in 2010, when President Obama contemplated ending the tax loophole enjoyed by private equity firms, which to this day allows them to categorize their income as investment profits, hence paying only 20 percent in tax instead of the top marginal income tax rate of 37 percent? An outraged Schwarzman declared in response: “It’s a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” After Charlottesville and Trump’s embrace of hate, Schwarzman was aghast at being called a Nazi for his enthusiastic support of Donald Trump.
Would the Biden administration be able to prod a response out of this guy? Could they win a messaging battle with the world’s most petulant plutocrat? Frankly, any staffer unsure of being able to beat Schwarzman in a messaging battle should resign.
Even if companies’ public relations professionals were able to keep their CEOs in check and avoid PR disasters like those, however, the simple fact of naming names and tying specific corporations to their bad behavior would help channel public anger and buoy an accountability agenda. As any Hollywood screenwriter knows, a narrative is much more compelling with a clear villain.
Corporations and their leaders, unsurprisingly, do not relish this prospect. They much prefer to wage their battle against the public interest behind closed doors, in Congress and the executive branch, while pouring money into maintaining a clean brand in public. But there’s no reason that President Biden should honor that preference. It’s time that he brought this fight out into the open.
On Tuesday night, President Biden once again affirmed his desire for “unity.” And while winning over most Republican lawmakers remains obviously futile, a corporate accountability agenda holds promise for uniting voters from across the political spectrum. To galvanize that energy, however, Biden is going to have to be willing to create at least one stark divide: between the public and some common corporate enemies.