BY DANIEL SILLETT
US President Joe Biden, pictured here in November 2021, gave his State of the Union address to Congress on 1st March.
The US President’s State of the Union Address is typically a forum for the President to give themselves a pat on the back for what they’ve done so far, and to give Congress a boot up the backside with what to expect on the agenda for the coming year. For President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address 2022, however, one could argue there was little to celebrate. Many Americans disdain his handling of Covid-19. Despite the perceived significance of the Address, given the Ukraine crisis and the historical tension between the US and Russia, 7.5 million fewer people tuned in than for Trump’s first Address in 2018. That’s more of a political statement than President Biden gave.
In such extreme circumstances, Biden was forced to devote a substantial portion of the speech to displaying American support for Ukraine. Biden claimed that Vladimir Putin is a ‘dictator’ who was ‘badly miscalculated’ in deciding to conduct a full-scale invasion. He pledged continued support to Ukraine, which he recognised as an ally of NATO, in addition to turmoil for Russian oligarchs. Consequently, the US has closed its airspace to all Russian flights.
This fails to explain the severely poor viewing of Biden’s speech, however. In the past, flailing presidents have been buoyed by foreign crises. President Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed following 9/11, as the President became a unifier-in-chief, rallying the nation behind him regardless of their political colour. Ostensibly, Biden has broken this pattern. This is likely because Americans do not want a war: everyone knows if any NATO member gets involved, the whole alliance must commit as well. Before you know it, hey-presto, we have World War 3. Putin’s war is a whole different kettle of fish to Iraq or Afghanistan, and that may well be to President Biden’s detriment on the home front.
Earlier in his presidency, Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery package, part of his broader agenda, included $1400 stimulus checks and a child tax credit. The bill is not worlds apart from other European responses to Covid-19, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak also footing the bill for UK government schemes. Yet this means the consequences are mirrored as well, in the form of high inflation.
US inflation soared to 7.5% in February, causing the all-too-familiar cost of living crisis to hit everyday America. Therefore, despite much of his agenda not passing, many people are blaming Biden’s Build Back Better spending on their daily struggle against rampant prices, increasing at their fastest rate in the US for over 40 years. It was integral for Biden to lay out his plans to stop inflation in its tracks in his State of the Union Address. However, his solutions are insufficient, in fact contradictory, given the current supply issues resulting from Russian sanctions.
Biden made it very clear that he does not want to cut wages, he wants to cut costs. This will be achieved, he claims, through making things in America. There will be no need to suffer the costs of tariffs, supply-side issues and high inflation elsewhere if Americans buy American goods. At least, this is what the gospel says. But the reality indicates something very different.
For starters, it is impossible to make everything in America. Like all other developed Western countries, the US is dependent on imports of component parts from China, Southeast Asia and indeed Europe itself. Its main trading partner is China, importing $429 billion worth of produce in 2019, including computers, broadcasting equipment and vehicle parts. Unless Biden can find his own magic money tree lying around, blossoming hundreds of billions of dollars with which he can set Americans to work producing American goods, the plan will fail. You cannot make bread without flour; if you cannot grow the wheat to make that flour in your garden, you have to buy it from somebody else’s garden.
More significantly, in the context of the Ukraine crisis, the US has placed sanctions on Russia, which happens to be one of the world’s largest producers of natural gas and oil. The unpopularity of Putin’s war and the widespread sanctions in response may well harm the Russian economy – as Biden argues – but it will also harm the economies who now have to pay double, triple, quadruple the price for oil of limited supply. No matter how much environmentalists wish it wasn’t true, the modern economy runs on oil, so this cost is unavoidable. The result? Increased cost-push inflation. Combined with demand-incited inflation from ballooning government spending, the US inflation crisis is only set to worsen. That’s contrary to what Biden claims to be achieving.
This is why, as I have posited before, sanctions are rather ineffective. They send out a clear political statement, but they are tentative, neither here nor there, compared to the threat which lay ahead. Sanctions certainly will squeeze the Russian economy, as intended, but they will also squeeze Western economies, which is not what the doctor ordered straight after a pandemic. The question then becomes one of who will crack first – Russia or the West? Given Putin’s apparent blindness to everything except for power and territorial gain, I’d wager it will be the working people of the West.
With a poor State of the Union Address, President Biden has blown the chance to reassert Uncle Sam’s hegemonic power against a tyrannical dictator.
Image - Flickr (U.S. Department of the Interior)