Six progressive takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union speech

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Progressives have kept President Biden close during his first term in office, pushing him to embrace their preferred policies, while pulling him in just enough to create a genuine alliance.

On Tuesday night, those efforts were on full display. During Biden’s State of the Union speech, progressives heard the president reference their loftiest priorities, from income inequality and higher taxes for the mega-wealthy, to health care and increased spending for social causes and education.

Biden’s reverence for the left — delivered from the bully pulpit in front of a divided Congress — was a full-circle moment for progressives who gave him their votes of confidence two years ago.

Here are the six biggest progressive takeaways from the SOTU:

Biden wants to tax the rich

President Joe Biden greets Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts after Biden delivered the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Biden has spent a lifetime in politics as a moderate Democrat, newly adopting much of the left wing’s ideology while maintaining some of his more innate centrist leanings. That’s been especially the case when it comes to financial concerns.

During his formal address, however, the president gave one of the clearest indications that he has been listening to liberals on the country’s economic imbalances.

He talked at length about taxing the wealthy and corporate greed, music to the ears of hopeful progressives, who have made tax reform for the ultra-rich central parts of their platform.

“I’m a capitalist. But just pay your fair share,” Biden said, putting his position in simple terms for Americans who often grimace at progressives’ use of the phrase “socialist.”

“The idea that in 2020, 55 of the biggest companies in America made $40 billion in profits and paid zero in federal income taxes? That’s simply not fair. But now, because of the law I signed, billion-dollar companies have to pay a minimum of 15 percent – God love them!” Biden said.

Wanting to levy more taxes on extremely wealthy individuals is not new to Biden. During and following the 2020 election, he took on a reformist agenda popularized by progressive Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and has been calling for tax restructuring during much of his first term in office.

“Under my plan, nobody earning less than $400,000 a year will pay an additional penny in taxes. Nobody. Not one penny,” Biden said. “Let’s finish the job. We have to reward work, not just wealth. Pass my proposal for a billionaire minimum tax,” he went on, “no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a schoolteacher or a firefighter.”

Corporations are put on warning

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.

In case any Republicans were unclear on his stance on the issue, Biden went to great lengths to underscore his position on holding corporations accountable.

He specifically criticized several industries, such as pharmaceutical and oil companies, that he believes are in need of reform, and sketched out a rough roadmap for making realistic headway from Capitol Hill and the White House.

“They aren’t just taking advantage of the tax code. They’re taking advantage of you, the American consumer,” he said about large corporations. “Capitalism without competition is not capitalism. It’s extortion. It’s exploitation.”

Biden also urged companies themselves to take action.

“Corporations ought to do the right thing,” he said emphatically at another point in his speech. “That’s why I propose that we quadruple the tax on corporate stock buybacks to encourage long term investments instead. They will still make a considerable profit. Let’s finish the job and close the loopholes that allow the very wealthy to avoid paying their taxes.”

Big Pharma draws Biden’s ire

President Biden gives
President Biden gives

President Biden gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. (Greg Nash)

No two words rile up progressives like “Big Pharma.”

And it seems Biden is now feeling their anger. Tackling corruption and high prices in the pharmaceutical industry has been one of liberals’ biggest targets for years, with progressive lawmakers and activists often pushing for more focus and attention to the issue across Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Some members here are threatening to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act,” Biden said, teeing off what became an ad hoc version of his prepared remarks about drug prices. “As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year,” he joked, adding a line that wasn’t pre-planned.

“Make no mistake, if you try to do anything to raise the cost of prescription drugs, I will veto it,” he declared.

Biden then criticized what he and progressives agree are major flaws in the industry’s current system, which causes patients to pay high prices to get their medication filled, often at the cost of their health and overall wellbeing.

“We pay more for prescription drugs than any major country on Earth,” Biden said, driving home the point. “Big Pharma has been unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars – and making record profits,” he said. “Not anymore.”

Medicare gets a sharper mention

President Biden
President Biden

President Biden gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, February 7, 2023. (Greg Nash)

Biden didn’t just limit his sweeping critiques to drug makers, but also addressed Medicare, another top priority for progressives like Sanders and several prominent House progressives who believe the program should be extended to all Americans cost-free.

While the president didn’t go as far as to adopt the left’s universal health care platform, he did mention a series of tweaks that would theoretically help improve the country’s overall economic standing.

“We capped the cost of insulin at $35 a month for seniors on Medicare,” he said, listing a key accomplishment and making an appeal to older residents, a large and loyal voting bloc who bear the brunt of expensive medications.

“We’re finally giving Medicare the power to negotiate drug prices. Bringing down prescription drug costs doesn’t just save seniors money,” he explained, “it will cut the federal deficit, saving taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars on the prescription drugs the government buys for Medicare. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

Importance of climate change is addressed

President Joe Biden arrives to deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Progressives in and out of Congress have been proudly touting Biden’s work on climate change – an area that no prior administration has taken on so robustly.

One of the president’s biggest accomplishments so far, signing the Inflation Reduction Act, was widely considered by climate hawks and other advocates to be a solid first step in working to chip away at one of the biggest problems facing his and future generations.

“The Inflation Reduction Act is also the most significant investment ever to tackle the climate crisis,” he said. “We have an obligation to our children and grandchildren to confront it. I’m proud of how America is at last stepping up to the challenge.

A point of contention, still, is the issue of oil. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was in attendance during the address, likely paying special attention to how the president would contend with the reality that, at least for the time being, the country is still largely reliant on fossil fuels.

“We’re still going to need oil and gas for a while,” Biden said casually, inserting a line that wasn’t in the speech transcript released by the White House. “But there’s so much left to do.”

Unions still a priority

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Biden got some flak from union leaders and labor activists recently when he worked to temporarily stop what would have been a massive strike within the rail industry that could have put millions of Americans in a tough position and caused significant economic carnage.

Earlier Tuesday, the news that Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, the Cabinet secretary who many progressives consider a critical ally, is leaving the administration added a new element of unpredictability to the labor community who have come to rely on Biden to fulfill his campaign pledge to stand up for workers’ rights.

With that backdrop, the president used a portion of his time to reiterate his commitment to workers and employees trying to unionize.

“I’m so sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing,” he fumed.  “Pass the PRO Act,” he urged Congress. “Let’s guarantee all workers a living wage.”

The PRO Act has been a main agenda item for liberal lawmakers working alongside the labor community and the White House. And he didn’t stop there. Biden also made a point to address related concerns when workers aren’t able to bargain collectively for rights, including families.

“Let’s also make sure working parents can afford to raise a family with sick days, paid family and medical leave, and affordable child care that will enable millions more people to go to work,” he said. “Let’s also restore the full Child Tax Credit, which gave tens of millions of parents some breathing room and cut child poverty in half, to the lowest level in history.

“And by the way, when we do all of these things, we increase productivity. We increase economic growth.”

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