President Biden’s promise to be a “unity” president took another step backward when he used his State of the Union address to turn progressive demagoguery up to 11. Biden declared, “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset.”
Biden, sadly, is no stranger to rank and repulsive demagoguery. He once accused then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) of wanting to “put y’all back in chains” for releasing a budget plan that failed to properly fund Biden’s preferred top-down, command and control policies. That’s right, if you mess with Joe, you’re a slave trader.
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Republicans aren’t angling to “sunset” Medicare and Social Security, but, as Biden knows full well, many people of good faith have correctly argued that entitlement programs are at risk of being suffocated under their own weight without reform, with lower-income Americans suffering the worst consequences. Biden apparently missed an important chapter in budget and entitlement reform history when Al Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, said, “We can’t save Medicare as we know it. We can only save Medicare if we change it.” Lieberman further chided progressive demagogues when he made the case for very gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67. He said, “What is radical, and irresponsible, is pretending this problem will fix itself.”
Biden’s shameful moment wasn’t just “Joe being Joe” but a calculated and foolish indulgence in the tribal partisanship that makes durable solutions on any big policy challenge much more difficult to achieve.
And even if Biden decides to stop calling his duly elected budget partners “hostage takers,” good luck finding the funds to tackle unfinished priorities like infrastructure of transmission. Biden is selling the big budget lie that we can fix big problems like climate change and secure entitlements without setting priorities and making hard choices. As the Peter Peterson Foundation warns:
Biden can demagogue House Republicans all he wants but if he doesn’t join with them to enact fiscal guardrails, he won’t be able to fund entitlement programs, his climate goals or anything else.
The highlight of Biden’s speech came when he mentioned the good work of President George W. Bush, who partnered with activists like U2’s Bono on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Bush’s foresight and willingness to spend political capital to tackle the AIDS crisis in Africa was America’s finest moment since the Marshall Plan and a very recent example of the good that can come when elected officials put service over self and act like adults.
Bono, who was in the visitors’ gallery for the State of the Union, may want to remind this White House of a key passage in his memoir, Surrender. Bono writes, “The search for common ground starts with a search for higher ground. Even with your opponents. Especially with your opponents. A lightbulb moment for me and a conviction that’s informed my life as a campaigner ever since. The simple but profound idea that you don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you do agree on is important enough.”
If Biden really views climate change as an “existential threat” he may want to rethink his approach. Mentioning permitting reform, for instance, would have only earned him goodwill while helping capital flow to projects he supports. And, yes, the heckling during his speech shows the degree to which our politics have degenerated. But surly House Republicans aren’t responsible for Biden’s decision not to act presidential. His lower ground State of the Union address was an existential threat to the progress he wants to achieve.