On the State of the Union Speech: What Biden Left Out

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

This is a post about nothing; or rather the nothing that is where one would expect a something to appear. Most of the coverage of the Biden speech — leaving aside, mercifully, the partisan rancor over whether Biden is shouting (strategically, no less) or merely being (at long last) “fiery” slash “feisty” — focuses on policy implications (for good, or ill). All this coverage is so instrumental as to be useless. The worst of it is that it might not be hypocritical; maybe they really believe what they’re saying. Anyhow, you may think our democracy works something like this famous Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) poster, which I have helpfully annotated:

If you do[1], then the outcome of whatever proposals Biden might make will be determined by the correlation of forces in the governing and ruling classes, and will have little to do with the desires or opinions of voters. So why bother with policy, treated as anything other than a talking point engineered to appeal to three of the six basic emotions? (happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger)[2]. In any case, why should I waste my beautiful mind on Biden’s policy policy proposals after how he stiffed us all on Covid:

Anyhow, the dude owes me six hundred bucks.

So, examining what Biden says is useless (with the exception of the pointillist approach of looking for tells to the correlation of forces in the language, which I do not have the energy to do, the [family blogging] time change having thrown me for a loop. I can never remember whether it’s “Fall forward and spring back, or fall back, and spring forward.” For the same reason, this post will not be as link-rich as I like to be). However, I think it will be useful to examine what Biden does not say. Rather than putting on my yellow waders and splashing about in the shadows, I am going to, as it were, pick up my birding binoculars and scan the empty horizon for what I would expect to be there, but is not.

I will look a three lacunae in Biden’s speech: Antitrust Enforcement, Shared Air, and Democrat Complicity. I’ll use AP’s transcript of Biden’s text, as delivered. There are other annotated versions here, here, and here.

Antitrust Enforcement

Many readers view the FTC’s revivified application of antitrust law as one of the few truly bright spots of the Biden administration. From the Guardian, “‘She’s going to prevail’: FTC head Lina Khan is fighting for an anti-monopoly America“:

Across 96 pages of the Yale Law Journal in 2017, Lina Khan set out why she believed the US’s policing of big business was failing. The paper – which targeted Amazon – shook the Silicon Valley establishment and catapulted Khan into the heart of a battle over America’s business orthodoxy and, ultimately, into a role in which she could overhaul it.

Khan’s appointment to lead the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) just four years later angered big tech, but it has become increasingly clear that Khan, and the Biden administration have an even bigger agenda: resetting the federal government’s decades-old stance on competition in a manner unseen in decades.

Charged with enforcing antitrust law and promoting consumer protection, the FTC is nominally the regulator charged with stopping deals that will harm consumers. But under successive administrations – Republican and Democratic – some critics charge the FTC stood by as industry after industry consolidated power in the hands of fewer and fewer companies.

All that changed under Joe Biden, who has consistently attacked the monopolization of US business.

For example:

Last week the FTC sued to block Kroger’s $24.6bn takeover of rival grocer Albertsons. If approved, the agency warned, the U’s largest-ever supermarket merger would raise prices for millions of shoppers.

Stoller remarks:

Khan is “probably the best leader the FTC’s ever had”, argued Matt Stoller, director of research at the American Economic Liberties Project, and a former colleague. “That doesn’t mean she will succeed, or fail. But she’s really stretching all of their resources and trying to use the authority they’ve been granted to fulfill the mission they’ve been charged with.”

And the politics of it all:

With Washington plagued by partisan warring, Khan has also become the subject of intense Republican criticism.

(To be fair, not by Matt Gaetz or J.D. Vance, interestingly.) So here, in the State of the Union speech, is newly self-discovered populist Joe Biden’s full-throated defense of Lina Khan (sound and art via):

Biden does say this:

Look, I’m also getting rid of junk fees — those hidden fees — at the end of your bill that are there without your knowledge. My administration announced we’re cutting credit card late fees from $32 to $8.

So who’s doing that? That’s right, the FTC. From a WhiteHouse.gov FAQ on March 5:

The FTC has proposed a rule that, if finalized as proposed, would ban companies from charging hidden and surprise junk fees and require that prices are listed upfront when consumers make purchases.

But in the SOTU, Biden says nothing about the FTC, not even when they’re doing this Dick Morris-level tiny fix. Biden also says nothing about the 11 antitrust suits the FTC has brought under Lina Khan, including the one against Amazon. If I were Khan, I’d be listening for footsteps behind me.

Shared Air

Here is what Biden has to say on shared air, the medium through which an asymptomatic, airborne Level Three Biohazard spread, infects us, and has taken over a million lives (more under Biden than under his “predecessor”):

Here is Biden on Covid:

The pandemic no longer controls our lives. The vaccine that saved us from COVID is — are now being used to beat cancer.

Readers, you probably know [pounds head on desk] what I’m about to say here, and can say it better than I am about to. Biden has nothing to say about airborne transmission (and never has said anything; “Doctor Biden,” for example, has never gone on Good Morning America to build a Corsi-Rosenthal box with some cute kids). Because the hegemonic factions of our governing class have no permission structure to talk about shared air, they cannot talk about cleaning shared air (or spending the money and creating the regulations to do so). The something BIden does say is almost as bad, and certainly as stupid. Covid “controls your life” if you’re infected with it, whether you know you’re infected or not. It most certainly “controls your life” if somebody who breathe the virus into your shared air gives you Long Covid. And if you’ve adopted the “personal risk assessment” strategy promoted by the Biden administration in its effort to destroy public health, that’s controlling your life, too. Oh, Newsweek rates Biden’s claim on Covid vaccines and cancer TRUE. They say:

It seems that only a bad faith or narrow interpretation of Biden’s comments could have driven the idea that he was literally referring to the treatments developed by Pfizer, Moderna and others, and not new technologies.

mRNA technology used to develop the COVID vaccines is being used in new trials to treat a potentially wide range of cancers. The White House announced $24 million in funding last August which would, in part, explore the use of mRNA vaccination technology in the treatment of cancer.

Newsweek’s full of it, and refuses to accept the plain meaning of Biden’s words (which were presumably vetted by a phalanx of White House staffers, former Covid Czar Zeints, etc. They all approved the lie. If you think “the vaccine that saved us from COVID” and “technology used to develop the COVID vaccines” are the same thing, then I have some bridge technology that I would like to sell you. It should be very easy.

Democrat Complicity

On abortion, Biden says this:

Like most Americans, I believe Roe v. Wade got it right.

I thank Vice President Harris for being an incredible leader defending reproductive freedom and so much more. Thank you.

My predecessor came to office determined to see Roe v. Wade overturned. He’s the reason it was overturned, and he brags about it. Look at the chaos that has resulted.

If you — if you, the American people, send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again.

Roe was decided in 1973. Here is a site that lists “House and Senate Concurrence with Presidents” (that is, when all are from the same party). 1977-1980 (the Carter Administration); 1993-1994 (the Clinton Adminstration); and 2009-2010 (the Obama Adminstration). It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if Roe was never “the law of the land,” it’s because Democrats didn’t pass the law (and if they thought other things were more important, then what is Biden whinging for?). To be fair, though, it’s easy to avoid that conclusion if you’re a Democrat. Oh, and every single judge that overturned Roe was moved up the ladder until they got to the Supreme Court with Democrat complicity, since they never made Roe a litmus test (due to the Norms Fairy, or something). And here is what Biden has to say about that:

If a Democrat administration was complicit in any disaster that befell the American people, especially the working class, you will hear, in a pattern so obvious as to verge on pathology, nothing about that from Biden, although, as with Roe, you will hear about a Democrat effort to claim credit for “fighting” to solve the problem they themselves created. (Biden’s remarks on deindustrialization are so scattered and vacuous I can’t pull out a quote, but you can bet he will say nothing about Bill Clinton and NAFTA.)



As the Financial Times points out, Biden’s SOTU was really the opening speech of the Presidential campaign of 2024:

So we’re talking the morning after the State of the Union on Friday. And, Ed, before we dive into this, the content of the speech, have you ever seen a State of the Union address like the one that we saw last night?

[EDWARD LUCE:] No. I mean, it’s a good question. A lot of them are forgettable because they’re laundry lists of presidents’ legislative agenda. Biden’s in particular have been quite forgettable. Last night was unforgettable. Not just because of the moment, which is the worst possible polling numbers that Biden’s had since he became president, but also because it was a campaign State of the Union. This wasn’t a laundry list.

It was totally a laundry list; see the transcripts. More:

This was the kick-off, really, of his 2024 campaign, and he spoke with the sort of energy of a politician on the campaign trail. So it was very, very different beast to your, to your run-of-the-mill State of the Union, most of which do get instantly forgotten. This one won’t be forgotten.

We’ll see whether it will be forgotten or not. However, you can be sure that with Biden on the campaign trail, you will hear nothing about the FTC and antitrust, nothing about cleaning shared air, and nothing about Democrat responsibility for any of the problems we face, which are numerous.


[1] Actually, while I think this graphic is impactful and accurate at a high level, even today, it’s still static and not dynamic. Not being a graphic artist, I don’t know how to express the dynamism of class relations. Perhaps a reader can point me to something better.

[2] Six is the result of a lazy search for Paul Eckaman’s work; there are other typologies for the emotional spectrum, rather like there are color wheels with six, or sixteen slices, or other numbers.

APPENDIX Biden’s Demeanor

Here are some still shots of Biden’s microexpressions from the first seven minutes of his speech (that is, before he really went on the attack against his “predecessor”):

Look at the set of Biden’s mouth. I think it’s safe to say that Biden’s two dogs, Major and Commander, are vicious because their master is vicious.

APPENDIX Biden’s Diagnosis

The Babylon Bee has the best joke: DC-Area Pharmacies All Out Of Stimulants. But as I wrote:

As readers know, I’m not a fan of remote diagnosis (and I’m still waiting for a White House “reporter” to ask Biden to count backwards by sevens during a presser). That said, the dogs aren’t barking in the night on this. The first non-barking dog is the White House: Given the givens, it seems reasonable to conclude that no cognitive tests were run because the White House, at a minimum, was unsure what the results would be. Therefore, the conclusion that “Biden has cognitive issues, known to his inner circle,” seems inescapable (and says nothing about their nature or degree, or the effects of hyypothesized “juice”). By the same token, I would expect the efficient Republican oppo machine to have produced serious, medically-driven videos documenting Biden’s gait, flubs, etc., by now. That hasn’t happened either. Perhaps they want to prop Biden up just as much as Democrats do?

That’s what we know, and we don’t and can’t know more. I really do think the snark about Biden’s cognitive issues should slow down, and at this point it’s mere lazy cynicism. We don’t know what we would need to know to make a diagnosis, so let’s not use words (“dementia”) that imply that we do. Biden gave a very good performance at the SOTU, and under enormous stress. All we can do is watch how he continues to do on the campaign trail, which is the only data that really matters.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carolinian

    Thanks for the fact check. Over on the right they’ve been going on about how he apologized for saying the Athens, GA murder suspect was “illegal.” He didn’t apologize for getting the victim’s name wrong.

    Which is personality stuff but surely it’s Biden’s personality that repels some as much as his age and his erratic policies. Shouting may not help.

  2. jsn

    Thank you for enduring this so we didn’t have to!

    I thought about possibly watching with the sound off because it was obvious the words would be distraction where they weren’t misdirection, so I thank you doubly for the sequence of stills!

    The reductio ad absurdum of kabuki/kayfabe democracy is coming into view.

  3. Watt4Bob

    I don’t care as much about Biden’s current issues with dementia, as I do with his history of cruelty. The man has never failed to kiss-up and kick-down, as required by the folks who inflicted him on us.

    Think of genocide Joe as the political analogue to Jack Welch, long lauded as a managerial genius, but subsequently understood to be a crude corporate hatchet man, wrecking for personal gain.

    Like Jack, Joe is a wrecker.

    Biden wrangled Clarence Thomas onto the SCOTUS, in part by helping cast doubt on the testimony of Anita Hill.

    Biden is largely responsible for the fact that credit card debt is hard to resolve through bankruptcy.

    Biden is responsible for the fact that Student Debt is virtually impossible to eliminate through bankruptcy.

    Biden is representative of everything that is wrong with the democrats.

    If Biden were to be re-elected, I have no doubt that it is he who would be most likely to inform us that we, as a nation, can no longer afford “entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare.

    And of course, Biden still owes me $600.

    1. ambrit

      “And of course, Biden still owes me $600.”
      The Government can introduce the Central Bank Digital Currency, (CBDC) and pay that $600 USD off via “FedCoin.” That might fly, along with the other porkers. {Would that be an example of the fabulous Beltway Porcine Macrolage I keep reading about?}
      “Happiness is just a keystroke away!”

  4. Belle

    Forget the 600. Biden and the Democrats promised the HEROES Act, which promised up to $10k in hazard pay for essential workers. (As someone who was classified as such by my employer during COVID, I would qualify.) They never even voted on it.
    As for cancer vaccines, Cuba is making some. We can’t get them here.

  5. Rip Van Winkle

    If I want to find out what comes after “trillion” I will turn on Sesame Street.

  6. Darthbobber

    I’m hard pressed to think of any examples in my lifetime of a political party’s leaders voluntarily bringing up their own complicity in major problems. That Biden doesn’t choose to break with that tradition doesn’t make him stand out in the crowd.

    For me, it was a VERY forgettable state of the union, though he didn’t underperform my expectations, which would hardly have been possible in any case.

  7. Ed S.

    Spouse and I watched the entire speech (replay). The spin that it was a strong performance is a relative assessment: he was MUCH better than in the typical day-to-day snippets but it was an odd speech to watch overall. First, with the exception of a few minor ad-libs, he shouted almost the entire speech. There was no sense of a crescendo or buildup at all. It felt very disjointed; the transitions from topic to topic were incredibly abrupt and sounded almost as if different constituencies provided different sections which were cut and pasted together. The first few minutes started with Ukraine/Putin, lurched to January 6, then free and fair election, then lurched to IVF, then a vague threat to the Supreme Court (it doesn’t read that way in the transcript, but felt that way in the performance), and “I’ll restore Roe” and then on the Pandemic.

    His performance toward the end clearly slowed and was not the same as the first part (the “juice” wearing off?). And as for the few interactions with the audience, yes he managed a bit, but given he’s been a politician for 50+ years, I suspect there’s still a bit of “muscle memory” left. Hardly a convincing demonstration of his fitness. Further off-putting was the chanting and cheering – spouse commented that it was like a high-school pep rally. There was nothing dignified about it.

    And while I do agree that we shouldn’t attempt to diagnose his health from a distance (IANA_DR.), what I do notice from watching PBS Newshour is him typically sitting in the Oval Office with a dignitary and having a discussion – but with a notecard(s) on his lap to keep him on track and on point. And not just occasionally – every time. Once you see that, you can’t un-see it. That, to me, speaks of an inability to carry on a simple, impromptu conversation. And what is broadcast of these interactions are trivial: literally “I’m here with XXX, my good friend from YYY and we discussed the issues around 1, 2, and 3 and it was productive”. As you watch, you can see him referring to / reading the card.

    To summarize: if you’re a staunch D, then is was a great speech which hit on all of the ‘accomplishments’ of the past three years and he’s more than able to complete a second term. If you’re a staunch R, well you probably didn’t bother watching. For the rest of us, it was a reminder of just how much trouble we’re in.

  8. Knot Me

    It is my understanding that mRNA vaccines were a last resort for cancer patients who had run the gamut for treatments. It is also understood that the mRNA meds did not have such a great track record in this particular aspect of oncology.
    Specific to the speech, though Biden performed well, the content was canned and impersonal. It was basically a rah rah speech with very little to digest. At one point he seemed to be just an old guy screaming with clenched fists while telling the kids to get the hell off his lawn. Meh, an hour wasted.

  9. The Rev Kev

    The way that Biden again and again said that he wants re-election to finish the job tells me that what ever he has done the first three years, that is it as far as he is concerned. Anything that comes after will be just fine tuning. I noticed too that the personal attack on Xi Jinping was even more vitriolic than that against Putin whom he tried to make out to be the second Austrian corporal. Maybe a shift in his admin going after China soon rather than just Russia? And then there was the old ‘let’s defeat cancer’ pitch which he used before. Overall it sounds like his admin, after only three years, has run out of steam which I put down to their obsession with the Ukraine for those years which is now blowing up in their faces. So at the end of the day it was not Covid that brought his admin down nor was it constant attacks by Republicans with the return of Trump. I think personally that it was the Russian military that fought down the forty odd nations of the Collective West/NATO and destroyed Project Ukraine – while demilitarizing Europe – which wrecked the main focus of his regime.

  10. fjallstrom

    Regarding the iww poster, I think there’s some dynamism. The red flag and the raised shovel shows that some dynamic changes might be a foot.

    1. Samuel Conner

      The “layer cake” structure obscures dynamic aspects such as the precarity of the PMC.

      Another poorly-represented dynamic aspect is the recruitment of part of the base into the enforcement system to keep the rest of the base under control.

      I’d like a scale along one side of the chart tracking the proportion of the population at each “level” that has sociopathic personality traits. I have the impression that it is quite high in the upper levels.

  11. steppenwolf fetchit

    In those microexpression-capture shots, Speaker Johnson seemed most in control of his microexpressions.
    The first three shots make him look serenely poker-faced to me, and the last two shots show sad weary resignation, whether felt or feigned. If feigned, then feigned quite well.

    I heard the speech over radio. I found it entertaining. My feeling is that he is/was right about Trump, but wrong about some of his own achievements. He was wrongest about the covid pandemic being over, thanks to him. And that was most upsetting, because lives are most at stake ( short of more wars) based on people-for-Biden failing to realize that the panendemic quietly smolders and festers all around them.
    ” You’re soaking in it!” as Madge used to say in those Palmolive dishwashing liquid commercials.

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