The state of the union is (⌐■_■)
By Leah Greenberg, Indivisible co-founder
It’s Leah, here to talk about what’s on our minds for our monthly newsletter! As a reminder, Ezra and I take turns on these monthly newsletters to give our thoughts (and take in yours) on the big political issues of the day, and we also share a cute pic of Zeke at the end. No fundraising here, just thinking and community building. Feel free to reach out to me directly on Twitter or on my TikTok account. I am also exploring less evil platforms like Post and Mastodon, and welcome recommendations!
Today, I’m thinking about the State of the Union (SOTU) and the Republican response. And I want to talk about it here, because I think together they offer a pretty good roadmap into some of the dynamics we’re going to collectively face over the next two years.
The President’s SOTU was actually really, really good
First, an important caveat: the SOTU is both an important and odd political tradition. It’s important because it’s where the President uses the bully pulpit to lay out his story of what’s happening in the country and his agenda for the coming year. And it’s odd because the SOTU itself is inevitably a long (and boring) laundry list, punctuated by the occasional effort at profundity. It’s not anyone’s fault — there’s just a lot to cover!
A ground-breaking achievement: an actually good SOTU. All that makes what happened on Wednesday genuinely impressive: President Biden delivered a really, really good speech. He was compelling. He was emotional. He was combative in all the right ways. And perhaps most stunningly, he appeared to be having fun.
President Biden’s SOTU laid out a powerful — and energizing — populist playbook. Green jobs. Taking on corporate power and monopolies, and the ways they screw over regular people. Labor rights. Child care, eldercare, and lower prescription drug prices. This was a forthright case for a popular and populist Democratic economic agenda — one that sides with working families over corporate power.
He defined the opposition — and the threat they pose to our rights, freedom, and way of life. Creating striking, memorable visual moments where the other party refuses to stand for something that’s broadly popular is extremely hard to do in the format of a SOTU, but as you can see from our thread, Biden nailed it:
But he also achieved something bigger. While President Biden may have celebrated the idea of bipartisanship more than we would, he did a masterful job of revealing the true state of the GOP. He defined the coming fights over the debt ceiling and the budget, making clear that his administration won’t negotiate with terrorists and forcing Republicans into a series of news cycles about the threat they pose to Social Security and Medicare. And he called out the extremist abortion bans moving forward in red states, and opened and closed by naming the threat posed by election deniers and the criminal conspiracists of January 6th.
His composure and good-natured responses in the face of unprecedented Republican heckling lured the GOP into a trap — tricking them into revealing their extremism and hostility. And if you were watching Kevin McCarthy’s face closely throughout the speech, you could see him cringe as he recognized it and tried to get his caucus to shut up.
OK, so I’ve made my point. The SOTU was really good. Why does it matter? It matters because President Biden just laid out a playbook for a unified, winning Democratic party: fight hard for our values, our agenda, and our democracy. Define our opponents. Don’t run from conflict — win it. It’s a frame that takes the right lesson from 2022. When we make the fight about MAGA extremism, and when we present a real, meaningful contrast rooted in solutions for regular people, we win.
Our job is to back up this playbook. Biden is outlining a plan on the fights to come that may face opposition from within the Democratic party. We should never underestimate the instincts of certain Democrats to fold in the face of Republican intransigence, to try to negotiate on stuff like the debt ceiling. That’s gotta be a hard no from us, their constituents. The path to win is clear — we just need to make sure our whole party follows it.
For more on how we do that, I have a question for you. I am going to ask for one little favor. I want to make sure we’re in sync with the Indivisible movement on this, so I could use your help providing some feedback. Ezra is still going through one by one the 1,500 responses he got to his last newsletter. And so this time, I want to gauge your thoughts on Biden’s speech. You are welcome to send in more feedback if you’d like, but even just giving me a quick click will give us a thermometer gauge of how Indivisibles are feeling about the SOTU (and of course additional feedback is welcomed/encouraged!)
On a scale of 1 to 5, how did you rate Biden’s State of the Union?
Meanwhile, the Republican response was a nasty weirdo trash fire
If you bothered to stay up, you saw something very different in the GOP SOTU response. The response was delivered by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, previously best known for being the biggest lying liar Press Secretary of all time and now governor of Arkansas. And it was bad.
Now, there’s a long history of people delivering SOTU responses and absolutely wiping out. From Marco Rubio’s infamous swig of water to Bobby Jindal’s confusing attempt to make jokes about volcanoes, lots of people have failed at this task. It’s hard! The President gets to look all authoritative addressing Congress. If you’re delivering the response, you’re not going to be able to match those optics.
But the problem here wasn’t the vibes. The problem was the content. The whole speech was pretty much a rant about the “woke left mob.” I honestly can’t successfully capture this without using her own words:
“Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags, and worship their false idols … all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech. That’s not normal. It’s crazy, and it’s wrong.”
Live footage of the average voter reacting to this:
In addition to being bad, this speech was extremely weird — and that’s because we’re not the target audience. When you’re given precious national airtime to address the American public, it’s customary to talk about the things they care about. And a lot of Sanders’ speech was simply incoherent to anyone who hasn’t undergone right-wing brain poisoning. It was a classic conservative effort to substitute grievance politics for an actually appealing agenda. The reason it was so weird compared to Biden’s is simple: Biden was speaking to Americans. Sanders was speaking to the right-wing, MAGA wackadoodles who live in the Fox News Universe. For those of us — which is to say the vast majority of Americans — who don’t live in that universe, the speech just didn’t make much sense.
There’s a vicious reality behind these words. Sanders’ speech reflects an ongoing crusade against our rights and freedoms that’s showing up in terrifying ways in red states. The attack on “wokeness” has been the cover for Republican efforts to ban books about civil rights and the Holocaust, and to take aim at AP African American Studies. The hysterical rhetoric about gender has fueled a series of bans that basically take aim at the right of trans kids — and increasingly, adults — to exist. I’m writing to you from Texas, where families are literally fleeing the state to avoid being investigated by child protection — just for supporting their trans kids. This kind of rhetoric comes with chilling real-world consequences.
It’s also a preview of what’s coming. There’s a reason Sanders did this — she’s trying to court the base and position herself as a national figure. And she’s in good company. Donald Trump has made really clear that he’s going to run on a remix of his classic grievance politics. Meanwhile Ron DeSantis is waging an all-out war to remake Florida’s public education system in the image of his extremist ideology. You can see the jaw-dropping result here:
This tweet shows an actual middle school library in Jacksonville, illustrating the predictable results of Desantis’ attack on schools. Florida teachers are being threatened with felony charges for displaying books that don’t pass the MAGA test. The Fox News Universe is infecting the real world.
We shouldn’t shy away from these fights. We can win them. We’ve have the winning argument: MAGA extremism is out of control. And the results of 2022 shows that when we win that overall narrative fight, the GOP culture war attacks fail or even backfire. From Third Way to NEA, there’s broad agreement that the attacks on trans kids and public education flopped in the midterms. People like teachers. They don’t like it when teachers are harassed or stalked. People like public schools. They don’t like it when books are banned. And they really, really don’t like it when they realize that all these culture war attacks are not only a sop to the right but a cover for the GOP’s regressive agenda of tax cuts for the rich and cuts to public services for everyone else. We can win — but only if we lean in and define what’s happening.
We know what’s coming, so let’s get ready.
OK, I’ve gone for a long time, so I’m gonna wrap it up. Let’s recap:
Democrats have a winning play: a popular, populist economic agenda, a fierce defense of our rights and our democracy, and a commitment to defining the MAGA opposition.
Meanwhile, Republicans are going down a rabbit hole on culture war extremism. And we shouldn’t hide from that — we should weaponize it against them, as we did in 2022.
Important PS! Next month, Ezra, Zeke and I will be welcoming our newest IndivisiBaby, a baby girl! We’re all very excited (well Zeke is mostly confused. But Ezra and I are excited). I’ll be out for a bit to focus on baby snuggles (we’re planning to stagger our time off, so I’ll be back in the summer and Ezra will take some leave then).
Stay tuned for more baby pics, but until then, here’s Zeke and Ezra enjoying some time in the park: