Joe Biden freestyled all around and off of his prepared text in Wednesday night’s not-technically-a-State-of-the-Union address to Congress, adding riffs about deer wearing Kevlar vests (in a section about gun control) and chasing Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell. But he didn’t ever deflect an inch, in the larger thematic sense, from saying exactly what the previous 97 days of his presidency had prepared the country to hear: that he has spent a bunch of money already, and is ready to spend a lot more, to make America back into the internationally envied juggernaut of economic growth and high living standards that it, at least in his memory, once was.
One of Biden’s strengths as a politician is that he gets visibly fired up about the kind of American Century patriotism rhetoric that feels perfunctory when other politicians deliver it. And on Wednesday he delivered a lot of it. “America is on the move again,” he declared early on, adding also that America is “ready for takeoff,” has “no quit,” and “can’t stop now.”
Biden framed progress towards mass vaccination as “one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen,” and referred to the transcontinental railroad, the moon landing, and World War II before pitching his American Jobs Plan infrastructure bill. (He concluded his description of that proposal by saying that ”American tax dollars are going to be used to buy American products made in America that create American jobs.”) He said the U.S would create an “arsenal of vaccines” for the rest of the world, making an explicit connection to FDR’s “arsenal of democracy.” He described federal funding of medical research, pre-K, and community college as critically needed responses to China and other countries which are “closing in fast,” summarizing his fiscal strategy like so: “We have to show not just that we are back, but that we are here to stay.”
All presidents, in their big speeches, refer to triumphant moments of American history and claim to aspire to international preeminence. Few, in modern times, have done so with such intensity by way of arguing for the expansion of the social-welfare state—or concluded, as Biden did, by all but challenging Congress to pass an agenda of spending and liberal civil-rights reforms in order to, in effect, stick it to America’s enemies. Here was the opening of that section:
Can our democracy overcome the lies, anger, hate and fears that have pulled us apart?
America’s adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting it can’t. They believe we are too full of anger and division and rage. They look at the images of the mob that assaulted this Capitol as proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.
They are wrong. And we have to prove them wrong.
Spoiler: He thinks we will. “In another era when our democracy was tested,” Biden said toward the end of the speech, “Franklin Roosevelt reminded us: In America, we do our part. That’s all I’m asking. That we all do our part. And if we do, then we will meet the central challenge of the age by proving that democracy is durable and strong. The autocrats will not win the future. America will. The future will belong to America.” You could almost call it a promise to, let’s say, make the United States very, very good again, but, you know, not in that way.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.