And what does it tell us about the enemies he will and won’t make?
If there’s one thing the readers of this newsletter definitely haven’t read yet today, it’s a reaction to last night’s State of the Union address.
Like many, we were hoping to see President Joe Biden adopt a new overall message to the American people as his poll numbers have sagged and Democrats brace for a rough midterm election in just eight short months. We’ve been making our pitch for the last few months about what that message should be: Biden ought to use his powers to crack down on corporate villains, and heavily publicize doing so. The ubiquity of already unpopular enemies and latent presidential powers gives Biden the chance to clarify to the public what exactly he stands for. Our Jeff Hauser and Max Moran laid out the case for this “Corporate Crackdown” message in Democracy Journal in January.
While Biden made a few nods in that direction last night, there were no definitive policy pronouncements or (far worse, in our view) clear and assertive messages. Biden is still married to reviving a long-lost vision of bipartisanship. Never mind that the same Republicans he’s desperate to welcome into the fold literally did not applaud the ideal of bipartisanship he is pushing. Instead, the rising stars of the party Biden hopes to woo started jeering him while talking about soldiers killed in action, and when he was clearly about to speak about his own late son.
When Republicans scream who they are to Biden — in his face, during a State of the Union address — he should believe them. Appealing to the better nature of a Republican party which would rather destroy the fabric of democracy than grant Biden a legislative win is a plan to stand by while Trump’s resurgent party plunges the country into authoritarianism. Instead, Biden ought to be both doing everything he can within his existing powers, and most importantly, signaling that to the voting public.
So that’s our analysis of the overarching themes. But you’re here for the policy analysis, so let’s get to it!
One area where President Biden was very happy to talk policy specifics was sanctions that the U.S. would levy against Putin, his government, and his oligarchic cronies. In particular, Biden touted sanctions on Russian financial institutions, including blocking Russian institutions from using the SWIFT payment system. He also announced that Russian planes would not be allowed to enter US airspace, imitating a more timely (and relevant) move by the EU.
However, even here there was a clear lack of willingness to take on domestic adversaries. As Trump and other Republicans (including a number of elected officials) have been unconcerned and sometimes outright supportive of Russian aggression, Biden would not condemn in the strongest possible language the Americans who would see our country turn into a similarly autocratic, ethno-nationalist state with imperial aspirations to reclaim a past that never truly existed. While the measures taken against Russia have been aggressive, the fascistic elephants in the room remain an afterthought.
On another, Corporate Crackdown-style note, the prospect of seizing Russian oligarchs’ wrongfully-gotten assets used for money laundering — such as yachts, properties, and fine art — had lawmakers leaping to their feet with applause. This should be a lesson that attacking the symbols of opulence, particularly when they’ve been gotten illegally, is good politics and good policy.
Moreover, taking this situation as an opportunity to turn up the heat on American plutocrats for gutting financial regulation could have been a powerful addition to the speech. Biden could build on strong public support for sanctions to attack the labyrinthine nature of the finance sector. Sadly, many of the rich and powerful vocally oppose meaningful regulations to ensure targeted measures can hit individual oligarchs with surgical precision — so Biden should call out obstructors by name as aiding Putin’s cause and dare them to defend their perfidy.
INFRASTRUCTURE AND ECONOMY
Biden talked up the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, his two signature pieces of legislation. However, by doing so, Biden made clear that he has made little progress in recent months. (The words “Build Back Better” were glaring in their absence from the hourlong address.) As in past executive orders, Biden commendably discussed corporate consolidation and the harm it has wrought on the US economy. However, he missed a lay-up opportunity to talk up revitalized antitrust enforcement by making it a more central piece of the economic agenda and noting that greedy corporations are getting scared by Lina Khan’s FTC and Jonathan Kanter’s DOJ Antitrust Division.
Of course, the big economic issue of the moment is inflation, which Biden said would be his top priority in the year ahead. He called on Republicans to end their dangerous blockade of his Federal Reserve nominees, but also laid the blame for this economic woe at the feet of 40 years of neoliberalism. “That trickle-down theory led to weaker economic growth…and a widening gap between the top and everyone else,” Biden said, adding to the business community “I think I have a better idea to fight inflation: Lower your costs, not your wages.” This was some of the best rhetoric of the night on domestic issues, but it would have been even better if Biden backed it up with evidence that he means what he’s saying. He could have…
- Highlighted his antitrust enforcers’ heroic efforts to stave off a pandemic-induced merger wave
- Praised his Labor Department’s efforts to re-tilt policy away from management and toward workers
- Or announced new initiatives focused on the companies openly bragging about using inflation as a cover for price hikes.
It’s one thing to say some of the right things in front of a camera, but it’s another thing to actualize them through concrete policy.
Even when Biden did have a clear(er) message on corporate responsibility for price hikes, as with shipping cartels, the speech did little to communicate specific policy priorities in a way that made them relatable to peoples’ lives. Biden chose not to explicitly cast individual greedy corporatists as villains his administration would fight, in the hopes of being able to work with corporatist legislators down the line (which has been going great so far!). We aren’t asking for the President to address the nation on specific reforms to ocean logistics, but naming and shaming the specific shipping CEOs gloating about price-gouging, making clear that the administration will actually prosecute illegal cartelization…those sound like applause lines to us!
The “attention economy” is increasingly competitive. Imagine how much more effective an attack on shipping profiteering would be if there were ongoing conflict. Could Biden goad a shipping executive to take offense and respond publicly? Would not an extended back and forth of Biden and his team battling with a profiteering corporate goliath be good politics? Date for Progress polling in conjunction with RDP strongly suggests so!
Biden announced a new “chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud” at the Department of Justice last night. This is partly a response to the media panic about fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program, which overall, was a crucial and successful component of the pandemic response. Prosecuting fraud is a worthwhile goal, of course, but the question is what fraud this prosecutor will prioritize: the private equity companies flush with cash whose portfolio firms still received unneeded PPP assistance, say, or desperate people who committed unsophisticated crimes in an effort to get by? The easiest cases for this prosecutor to bring will be for crimes equivalent to a starving person stealing a loaf of bread. (And those cases are most likely to please Senator Joe Manchin, who more or less killed the Build Back Better Act out of racist obsession with so-called “welfare queens.”) That isn’t justice, and isn’t what the DOJ should be spending its limited resources on.
Biden’s long diatribe about funding the police has been well analyzed by others. It’s worth noting that Rep. Cori Bush attended the speech in a shirt emblazoned with “18,000,” referring to the 18,000 petitions for clemency which are pending on Biden’s desk which he hasn’t acted upon. That’s a crucial criminal justice matter entirely within the President’s hands.
And there’s another question about prosecuting pandemic fraud: does it extend to fraudsters within the federal government? We’re thinking here especially about insider trading, in both Congress (hello David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler!) and the Federal Reserve. There’s now evidence of trading misconduct at all levels of the Fed’s leadership, from regional bank presidents to former Vice Chair Richard Clarida to even Chair Jerome Powell. We appreciated Biden’s call on Republicans to end their outrageous blockade of his Fed nominees in the midst of an inflation crisis, but will justice be served for the central bank leaders undermining trust in the institution?
Biden announced that his Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would “set higher standards for nursing homes” in response to the tragic spread of COVID-19 in poorly-run elder living facilities over the last few years. This is excellent — and even better would be special attention across the board to the fact that most of the worst-performing nursing homes were owned by predatory private equity companies, which have no financial incentive to provide for their tenants’ actual care. Biden alluded to this, but announced no measures aimed at the financiers of abuse toward Medicare patients. We’d love to see CMS collaborate with, say, Gary Gensler’s Securities and Exchange Commission to target the root financial drivers of these unconscionable abuses. As noted above, provoking a back and forth with a billionaire seeking his or her next billion by cutting corners in taking care of seniors would help garner a government crackdown on misbehavior more attention.
One portion of Biden’s speech veered into essentially a public service announcement about COVID-19 safety, which is perfectly fair. Notably, Biden said that while he couldn’t promise there would not be more Covid-19 variants, he did promise that the federal government would do “everything in our power to be ready” if it happens. As it happens, there’s a great deal within Biden’s power which he hasn’t done — because doing so would anger Big Pharma and medical device manufacturers. Will Biden at long last back and lobby for the India/South Africa waiver on intellectual property restrictions for Covid-19 treatments? Will he commit to open-sourcing the Walter Reed Covid-19 vaccine if it proves effective against variants? Will he use the Defense Production Act whenever and however necessary to provide crucial medical equipment to the world? Until he does, he will be lying when he says the government will do “everything in our power to be ready” for future variants.
Biden also invoked memories of his late son Beau in announcing that the VA would offer increased access to cancer-care and other benefits for soldiers’ toxic exposure to burn pits and other pollutants while in the military. While we celebrate any expansion of access to critical healthcare, as well as intentional reforms levied at the notoriously dysfunctional VA system, this bandaid redress of the consequences of military toxicity fails to acknowledge that these cancer-causing practices are themselves unnecessary. From the burn pits Biden referenced to the military’s continued use of PFAS chemicals, American service members, their families, and surrounding environments are continuously exposed to extraordinarily poisonous practices that Biden could direct his DOD to acknowledge and to end. If he wants to meaningfully address the health and wellbeing of veterans, he should.
DATA PRIVACY AND BIG TECH
Biden used his speech to urge Congress to pass new data privacy protections, calling on them to “hold social media accountable” and accusing companies of using “our children for profit.” His call included updated protections on how personal data can be used and — most notably — prohibiting targeted advertising for children. This would be a major change in federal tech policy, and potentially a test-run for an even bigger change: banning targeted ad tech outright. But it’s also reflective of yet another consequence of Democrats putting all their eggs in one Build Back Better basket: $500 million over a decade that would have gone towards creating a division focused on privacy within the FTC never came to fruition.
Still, we’re glad to see the White House recognizes that disdain for Big Tech is truly one of the things which brings Americans together. But this begs the question: why not talk up the administration’s historic antitrust investigations into Google and Meta? Moreover, why not pursue the dozens of other white-collar crime cases begging to be brought against these firms, from Google’s bid-rigging to Mark Zuckerberg’s insider trading?
As the midterms draw near, Democrats will only get so much mileage out of their initial legislative victories such as ARP and IIJA. It is necessary both for more productive policy and for Biden’s political agenda to lean more into the areas where he has pursued aggressive executive action to protect the American people. Foremost among those areas is increasing scrutiny of corporate malfeasance. Under Biden, banks and financial firms are finally facing scrutiny that has been legally mandated for more than a decade under Dodd-Frank. And mega-corporations have suddenly found themselves without any get-out-of-jail-free cards to manipulate or corner markets.
But instead of lionizing these efforts and the agencies carrying them out, the prevailing Democratic messaging strategy relegates them to bureaucratic obscurity. There is reluctance to make Gensler, Chopra, Kanter, Khan, or others into heroes because that would necessitate treating the firms they regulate as villains. Of course, in reality these firms are villainous. They have gone without proportionate punishment for white-collar and financial crimes for decades. They openly admit to manipulating prices and gouging consumers to line their pockets. They are not only willing, but eager, to take credit for driving small businesses out of the market and undermining workers’ basic rights.
These are pivotal times for the world and the United States. They call for pivotal leadership; a business-as-usual approach laden with pleas for bipartisanship and unity will continue to fall on deaf ears. Democrats can either lean into the popular parts of their agenda, particularly tackling notoriously unpopular corporate power, or they can wait and let a Republican party that is ever more beholden to white supremacists and Putin-worshiping stooges make the pivotal move and watch the country lurch into illiberal democracy — or worse. Milquetoast third-way centrism is dull and repels rather than attracts attention. Republicans and corporations are eager to obstruct change in any way possible. They are practically casting themselves as the villains. We implore President Biden: give them the role.