President Joe Biden struck a note of optimism at his State of the Union address Tuesday (Feb. 7) night. He portrayed the nation as being on the right track and urged lawmakers to “finish the job,” including passage of stalled police reform legislation after yet another brutal death of an unarmed Black man at the hands of police officers.
The president was upbeat, touting his economic successes days after employers added 517,000 jobs in January, according to the Labor Department’s report on Friday. Job growth was strong across multiple industries, lowering the unemployment rate to 3.4, the lowest since 1969.
But Biden’s unity message, pledging to work alongside Republicans, appeared to fall on deaf ears when he mentioned the debt ceiling crisis.
The chamber erupted into jeers and boos when he mentioned that the Trump administration added more to the national debt than any previous administration. GOP firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia was caught on camera standing and yelling, “Liar.”
The outburst underscored the challenge ahead for the Biden administration. For the first time, he faces a Republican controlled House, which appears more interested in investigating Biden and his family than in legislating.
That high level of partisanship could hinder a top agenda item for the Black community: police reform.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Steven Horsford, a Nevada Democrat, said before Biden’s address that caucus members urged the president to use his bully pulpit for police reform in the aftermath of the fatal Memphis police beating last month of Tyre Nichols, NPR reports.
“It may have been Tyre Nichols yesterday, but it could be any one of us today and tomorrow," Horsford stated.
He added, “Legislative action, executive action and community-based solutions — that's what we're calling for. That's what we spoke to the president and the vice president about. That's what we expect to hear at the State of the Union tonight."
In 2021, the legislative effort to negotiate policing reform collapsed in the evenly divided Senate, despite the groundswell of support in the wake of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“Black America is grieving and continues to experience profound injustice at the hands of our nation’s broken systems. Far too many Black people have lost their lives due to police violence and yet I cannot name a single law that has been passed to address this issue,” said an NAACP statement to BET.com. “While President Biden signed an executive order, we still need strong policies signed into law that will finally end the horrors of police brutality and hold officers accountable for their misconduct.”
Here are five takeaways from Biden's speech:
1. Police reform recommitment
RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols’ mother and stepfather, were Biden’s guests at the address.
The couple buried him Feb. 1 at an emotional funeral attended by Vice President Kamala Harris. Five Black officers were charged with murder for brutally beating to death the father of a 4-year-old son for no apparent reason after a traffic stop.
“There are no words to describe the heartbreak and grief of losing a child. But imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” Biden said, adding that Nichols’ mom told him that faith in God strengthens her to believe that “something good will come from this.”
He called for more law enforcement training and accountability, as well as “more resources to reduce violent crime and gun crime, more community intervention programs, more investments in housing, education, and job training.”
Biden noted that last year he signed an executive order for all federal officers banning chokeholds, restricting no-knock warrants, and other key elements of the George Floyd Act.
“Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true, something good must come from this,” he said. “All of us in this chamber, we need to rise to this moment. We can’t turn away. Let’s do what we know in our hearts we need to do. Let’s come together and finish the job on police reform.”
2. Protect social safety net
Biden vowed to defend social safety net programs, like SNAP (formerly Food Stamps) and TANF, that low-income households depend on, as the GOP attempts to leverage the debt ceiling crisis to cut benefits.
“Some of my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage unless I agree to their economic plans,” the president said. “All of you at home should know what their plans are.”
The clock is ticking on a possible federal government default, as the U.S. Treasury Department uses creative accounting to keep the government financially afloat. On Jan. 19, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified congressional leaders in a letter that she’s taking “extraordinary measures” to keep paying the federal government’s bills because the U.S. hit its debt limit of $31.4 trillion. She urged lawmakers to either suspend or increase the debt ceiling as soon as possible.
Republicans howled Tuesday night when Biden said that the Trump administration ran up the national debt each year.
“How did Congress respond to all that debt? They lifted the debt ceiling three times without preconditions or crisis. They paid America’s bills to prevent economic disaster for our country,” Biden said, adding, “Tonight, I’m asking this Congress to follow suit.”
3. Social Security and Medicare are safe
The president made it clear that Social Security and Medicare will not disappear under his watch.
“I won’t let that happen. Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors,” Biden said. “Americans have been paying into them with every single paycheck since they started working. So tonight, let’s all agree to stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare. Those benefits belong to the American people. They earned them.”
Biden said some GOP lawmakers want Medicare and Social Security “to sunset every five years.”
Indeed, Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, has promoted a plan to “sunset” programs like Social Security, meaning that Congress must reapprove them every five years or they would disappear.
“Next month when I offer my fiscal plan, I ask my Republican friends to offer their plan. We can sit down together and discuss both plans together. My plan will lower the deficit by $2 trillion,” Biden said.
4. Stem fentanyl trafficking
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine, is behind the recent surge in deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, the Black community saw a 44 percent increase in drug overdose deaths. Black Americans between 15 and 24 years old experienced the largest rate increase at 86 percent compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
“Fentanyl is killing more than 70,000 Americans a year,” Biden said. “Let’s launch a major surge to stop fentanyl production, sale, and trafficking, with more drug detection machines to inspect cargo and stop pills and powder at the border.”
According to the White House, border patrol agents seized nearly 15,000 pounds of fentanyl last year. His plan to stem the flow includes working with international partners to disrupt the global fentanyl production supply chain. He plans to focus on seizing chemical ingredients for the drug before it reaches communities while also getting tough traffickers.
5. Inclusive economic growth
As job growth and economic recovery continue, Biden vowed to ensure that everyone benefits.
“I ran for President to fundamentally change things, to make sure the economy works for everyone so we can all feel pride in what we do,” the president said. “To build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down. Because when the middle class does well, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy still do very well. We all do well.”
Biden insisted that manufacturing isn’t dead in America, touting the creation of 8000,000 manufacturing jobs with good salaries.
“My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten,” he stated.
“Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible.”