At his first State of the Union address to both chambers of the United States Congress on 1 March, President Biden outlined his domestic agenda, laid out the direction of travel for public policy reform in the US and identified key areas of investment in the realm of government services. This was especially important given midterm elections scheduled for later this year: Mr. Biden’s proposals for public service reform could be vital to encourage voters to turn out for the Democratic Party.
The first portion of Mr. Biden’s speech was dominated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Biden welcomed the Ukrainian ambassador to the Capitol, praised the united Western response to Russian aggression, announced further measures to squeeze Russia from the international community and promised to defend NATO’s territory ‘with the full force of our collective power’. Members of Congress from both parties, many holding Ukrainian flags or dressed in Ukraine’s national colours, rose to their feet to applaud the Commander-in-Chief as he commended the courage of the Ukrainian people and pledged his country to their aid.
The reception to the second half of Mr. Biden’s speech, however, was more divided among party lines. This portion of the address was devoted to the President’s policy priorities and plans for reforming public services. Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda has stalled in recent months amid opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats in Congress; this perceived legislative inertia, combined with a devastating wave of Covid-19 in late 2021 and early 2022 and an escalating cost of living crisis, has contributed to flagging approval ratings for the administration. This State of the Union speech therefore presented an opportunity for the President to revive his fortunes and those of his party ahead of November’s elections to Congress.
Mr. Biden had previously stated his aspiration for his administration’s flagship $1.7 trillion Build Back Better Act, an ambitious programme to fund social programmes and climate change mitigation stalled in the Senate since December, to pass in chunks more palatable to sceptical Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. With this speech, he confirmed that this remained his policy: even without uttering the name of the legislation, Mr. Biden stressed that he planned to press on with elements of ‘the plan’. Some chunks of the original plan, however, enjoyed greater prominence in his speech than others:
While these policies had previously been part of his agenda, Mr. Biden cast them as measures to bring down inflation: lowering the price of electric vehicles would insulate Americans against petrol price rises, reducing childcare costs would allow parents (especially women) to get back to work.
Is the political climate favourable to the President’s agenda? Mr. Biden made numerous appeals for his fellow politicians and countrymen to come together on a number of issues, and by striking a deliberately moderate tone he attempted to forge a middle ground. Most significantly, both Republican and Democratic members of Congress rose to their feet and applauded him when he declared the answer to rising crime was not to ‘defund the police’, a policy associated closely with the Democratic Party’s left wing, but rather to ‘fund the police’.
Indeed, in one of the President’s calls for bipartisanship and unity, he urged members of Congress to ‘stop seeing each other as enemies and start seeing each other for who we really are: fellow Americans’. However, in practice, Mr. Biden’s chances of implementing the public service reforms he wishes to see are in large part contingent on whether Republicans maintain their unity in the Senate and whether the fissures between progressive and centrist Democrats persist – which appears likely, given a subsequent speech by prominent Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib blaming criticising many of her party-colleagues.
US policymakers have in the past year demonstrated they remain capable of setting aside political differences and enacting important policy changes, as seen by the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill worth over $1 trillion into law. This will mean wide-ranging investment into physical road and bridge infrastructure, rail transport, public transit and many other crucial aspects of public services. Whether, however, Congress is able to overcome its divisions again to implement Mr. Biden’s priorities and public service reforms remains to be seen – this will have direct and far-reaching implications for government services in the US and the President’s own electoral fortunes.