Predictably, the 2023 State of the Union was overwhelmed by the effort to sell economic successes to an American people who are, by and large, not in the mood to hear it. President Biden’s trademark avuncular tone was in full effect, peppered with his typical anecdotal digressions and fawning references to his political allies. At their best, speeches of this nature are a stirring appeal to our common interests and moral convictions, but at their worst they are an exercise in manufacturing political peace by concealing existing divisions. The most vulnerable, and thus the ones who have the most stake in an alteration of the status quo, are always the ones most adversely affected by the latter.
This is the first State of the Union address given after the historic reversal of Roe v. Wade just months ago. Biden’s remarks on the issue were noticeably brief; an understandably measured response to a political situation that is both new and evolving. What Biden did say is quite revealing about the current state of national abortion politics, a noteworthy rhetorical shift from the Constitutional principle of personal privacy to the assertion that the right to abortion is in and of itself a human right. Biden not-subtly links this to the human rights of immigrants, a grotesque rhetorical flourish in light of the US government's repeated failure to safeguard those very same rights. There is little justification for this newly black-and-white approach to the issue, which had heretofore been regarded as a balancing act between the human dignity of the mother and the unborn child. Previously, Gonzales v. Carhart, a decision upholding the constitutionality of a federal ban on partial-birth abortions, was able to coexist with Roe, with Justice Kennedy writing for the majority that “the government may use its voice and its regulatory authority to show its profound respect for the life within the woman,” and that “the Act expresses respect for the dignity of human life.” The polemicizing of abortion as a political issue has resulted in a wholesale abandonment of this jurisprudence of human dignity in favor of a valorization of abortion itself, completely abstracted from the humanity of both the unborn child and her mother. Biden’s remarks have, intentionally or not, translated this into a mission statement.
No examination of where Biden’s subordination of principle to politics is complete without analyzing his approach to racial justice. Biden’s performance in the 2022 State of the Union on this point drew heavy criticism from the likes of Representative Cori Bush of Missouri. Bush’s disappointment centered on Biden’s “fund the police'' phraseology, one that was calculated as a rebuke to on-the-ground protests demanding change and accountability in the face of the tragic murders like those of Micheal Brown, Jr. and George Floyd. "We should all agree,” said Biden last year, “The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police. Fund them with resources and training they need to protect our communities." Biden was perceived by Bush and others as allowing his approach to be framed by the distortions of opponents of racial equity in criminal justice, Bush describing it as “answer[ing] the call of partisan attacks.” The President seems not to have taken this criticism to heart; despite name-checking Floyd and the recently-killed Tyre Nichols, he offered little beyond vague platitudes. He touted the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that was killed in the Senate amidst Biden’s reassurances of “productive discussions” while simultaneously nodding to his previous policy prescriptions with no hint of changing course.
This is part of a long-term pattern for Biden, whose legacy is forever marred by his leadership of the anti-bussing effort — popular among self-satisfied Northern white liberals in the 1970s — in spite of his then-contemporary efforts to attach himself to civil rights causes and support for integration in housing. Biden’s much-touted ownership of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, an act whose disparate impact on communities of color is felt to this day, was also bound together measures that (admittedly incidentally) increased police accountability. What emerges is the image of a politician whose commitment to racial justice is self-interested and in constant tension with his commitment to upholding his party line. This was fully on display in his address, where his admirable efforts to make the increasingly impossible-to-ignore problem of police lynchings of Black people a national issue was coupled with reflexive responses to caricatures of the “Defund the Police” slogan by the political opponents of the Movement for Black Lives.
Biden concluded his address with characteristic optimism: “Because the soul of this nation is strong, because backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the state of the Union is strong.” The inescapable perception that those in power have no higher principle than self-aggrandizement, that those who lack voices and political power will continued to be ignored and dehumanized in the name of political expediency strongly gives the lie to this celebratory statement.