Whether or not you like the United States, what the “world’s most powerful man” says affects both allies and adversaries.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, in his first State of the Union address since the Democrats lost the House of Representatives, President Joe Biden outlined the broad features of his plan for the United States in the 21st century, something he has been trying to put together since the beginning of his term.
The United States may well be a country replete with social problems, lumbering under a stressful economic model and often posturing as worldwide defenders of democratic ideals that it does not always practice at home. But, until it is superseded by China — something that will happen this century, even if we don’t yet know when — its decisions continue to have global effects.
What it sets out to do, as represented by the president, is typically delineated in a succinct program during an opening address, known as the State of the Union, to both houses of Congress. For that reason, even though much of what is said can be guessed in advance or is already in progress, people listen to this programmatic speech by the head of government with rapt attention and comment on it exhaustively from Canberra to the Azores. Although the proposals outlined are primarily domestic in nature, the “butterfly effect” (or, in this case, perhaps more aptly called the “eagle effect”) triggers changes in the lives of many people — and it is a lot of people, more than 7.8 billion souls as of Jan. 1.
Observers often comment that Biden is too old, that his mind is no longer functioning at 100%, that he stutters and mangles words. It doesn’t matter. Donald Trump used to spew absurdities in every direction, but that didn’t mean what he said wasn’t important.
The entire news media covered his address. We examined many of the reports, but opted for The Economist and The New York Times as our principal reference points.
And what did Biden say — or, rather, what does he want to do, assuming, of course, he isn’t stopped by the roughly 50% of Americans who do not approve of him, led by the ferociously partisan and unabashedly unethical Mitch McConnell?
Since he took office, Biden has signed three initiatives into law concerning infrastructure, semiconductors and the environment valued at about $2 trillion. These bills have multiple objectives: reindustrializing the nation, strengthening national security, revitalizing neglected regions, creating jobs and reducing carbon emissions — all at the same time. These objectives harbor some contradictions, such as the push to strengthen industrial production while simultaneously wishing to maintain a conflict-free relationship with China. And trying not to antagonize the all-powerful oil companies while increasing the production of green energy. Or wanting to limit the activities of greedy billionaires as well as improving worker conditions. But politics is like that, the art of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable.
On a political level, the president needs to develop bipartisan agreements with an opposition that is not the least bit interested. McConnell has explicitly stated that his goal is not to improve the country, but rather to stand in the president’s way.
But if Biden is able to accomplish what he has set out to do, even in part, it would result in the most significant policy changes since the era or Ronald Reagan. Biden’s Building a Better America infrastructure law apportions $1.2 trillion for roads, bridges and a green electricity grid. His semiconductor bill has $280 billion for the domestic manufacture of chips, and his Inflation Reduction Act includes $400 billion (though some think that amount will double) in subsidies for green technology in the next 10 years. Aside from these budgeted expenditures, there will be innumerable bureaucratic details, and much of the success will depend on how stakeholders (private industry as well as workers) interpret the parameters, whether they choose to lobby against implementation or simply drag their feet.
There is also the question of a lack of workers specialized in the new industries, and the fact that a great deal of production does not actually require workers since it is done by robots.
Some of the investments will take time to bear fruit. It will be necessary to import certain equipment at first, though these imports will later be taxed once domestic manufacture has picked up, something which may well irritate exporting nations and make them hesitant to collaborate. And some technologies, like solar panels, may well never be as cheap to manufacture domestically as the imported equipment.
In 2022, the country ran its largest budget deficit since 1970. The numbers show that the country exported more, but also imported far more than the value of its exports. It is difficult to see how this trend might be reversed in the near future.
Inflation is another problem that the U.S. will need to bring under control for the projected numbers to hold up. But inflation tends to increase as economic activity heats up, and the country has yet to fully recover from the inflation brought about by the pandemic, which made many goods scarce — and therefore more expensive.
Finally, there is the challenge posed by the fact that the United States is exactly that, 50 states governed by different laws. It will be necessary to create new federal laws, and shield them from state law, a process that requires a great deal of negotiation that is not always successful.
A related issue involves deficiencies in the health care system that need fixing although no one seems to know exactly how to do so. For starters, there is no single health care system, in contrast to other large economies around the world. The majority of health care is private, has a powerful lobby, and is rarely open to concessions, something that is notable in the cost of medication, a largely unregulated market. The Inflation Reduction Act mentioned above proposes caps on drug prices, but in the absence of a national cap, limits will need to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
There is no doubt the United States is on course to bring about great systemic changes, many of which have already taken place in Europe in the last decades. There should also be no doubt that Biden’s speech is overly optimistic, given that many of his objectives will demand lengthy discussion and face hostility from the Republicans, who have long made clear — since Newt Gingrich’s stint as speaker in the 1990s — that they are principally interested in the party, not the country.
The final question is whether Biden will run for a second term in 2024, and whether he can win, an outcome that will be necessary to sustain most of his agenda.
He is currently 80 years old, and though he is not an invalid, he does not appear to have the energy for six more years of governing. If the Republicans don’t opt for Trump, something which seems less probable these days, they will choose current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will be a fierce opponent with little appetite for green energy or other similarly wimpy ideas.
In the meantime, the world awaits. It is our destiny, the need to worry about what is going on in our own country while staying preoccupied with what is happening in other countries whose decisions will affect us.
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