Image via White House live feed
The GOP is waging culture wars with harmful and violent consequences, yet those social issues were missing from the presidential address.
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On Tuesday, President Joe Biden made his most energetic effort yet to shake off sagging poll numbers and share his optimistic vision of a nation in recovery.
Biden’s State of the Union address painted a picture of an America still healing from the twin contagions of COVID and rising anti-democratic sentiment on the far Right. In a Congress sharply divided between fundamentalist Republicans in the House of Representatives and lukewarm Democrats in the Senate, Biden emphasized a first term marked by over 300 pieces of bipartisan legislation, including the first major gun safety reforms in a generation.
In remarks that ran just over 7,000 words, Biden had plenty of space to talk about everything from surging employment to striking a conciliatory tone about America’s frayed relationship with China. Republicans heckled Biden throughout his remarks, including an especially tasteless jeering during Biden’s tribute to a young fentanyl victim that prompted Speaker Kevin McCarthy to visibly chastise his colleagues. But Biden also purposefully steered clear of divisive social issues—a conspicuous absence that speaks volumes about how Democrats hope to shape the 2024 presidential narrative.
State of the Union addresses are tough things. First, a team of writers spends four or five months drafting what they hope will be equal parts glowing report card on the administration’s victories and bold vision for the future. Then hundreds of untrained editors from every corner of the federal bureaucracy mangle the thing in an effort to ensure the president mentions their pet projects and key priorities. By the end, the whole speech looks more like a highway pileup than the eloquent paean to American exceptionalism it once was. Things get lost. For members of marginalized communities, that often means their mobilizing issues end up on the cutting room floor.
To listen to Biden’s remarks, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that 2022 was the most violent year for transgender Americans in recorded history. Thirty-eight transgender people were murdered in 2022, and Republicans have spent much of the new year amplifying the violent rhetoric of anti-trans panic in red states across the country. Two weeks ago, North Carolina resident KC Johnson became the second transgender murder victim of 2023.
Unfortunately, the right-wing war against transgender Americans didn’t merit more than a generic plea from Biden for Congress to pass the Equality Act. That’s in part because pro-Republican media outlets have made clear that anti-trans culture war issues will be a central foundation of their 2024 campaign. At a moment when Biden should have stood in solidarity with the transgender communities targeted by far-right hate, he chose instead to leave trans activists feeling that Democratic support for their safety is conditional on strong public polling.
Few issues brought voters to the polls in 2022 quite like abortion rights. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and roll the clock back on abortion access drove a tidal wave of voter dissatisfaction. The impact was massive and immediate: In the weeks after the Court overturned abortion, women made up 70% of all newly registered voters in Kansas. Without voters energized and infuriated by Republican attacks on reproductive freedom, Democrats would have handily lost both the House and the Senate. That must merit presidential comment, right?
No such luck. Despite growing national outrage around the terrible human cost of Republicans’ state-level abortion bans, the issue only earned two lines in Biden’s sprawling speech. While Biden criticized the extreme nature of state abortion bans, he shied away from giving the American people examples of just how dangerous and inhumane those bans truly are. Biden also called for Congress to codify Roe v. Wade into law, something he knows stands no chance of actually happening in Kevin McCarthy’s Republican House.
On both trans issues and abortion, Biden provided the barest outline of the problem but provided Americans no sense that these issues represent two of America’s most pressing human rights crises. The State of the Union offers presidents a unique platform to mobilize public opinion by telling Americans why issues like abortion and transgender rights matter even to those who will never need an abortion or don’t have a trans person in their daily life. Both are difficult issues that force us to take an uncomfortable look at how our nation is falling short of its values. Those issues, and the real people they affect, deserve better than the fleeting recognition they received on Tuesday night.
The White House quickly followed up Biden’s mention of transgender issues with a tweet urging passage of the Equality Act, but for too many Americans the fight over dignity and equality for trans people remains a debate over abstract issues and values. What the American people are missing is a real and substantive acknowledgement that the cost of inaction can be measured in preventable deaths and shattered families. Until the true toll of the Republican war on transgender and reproductive equality is common knowledge, there will never be enough collective outrage and revulsion to spur real, positive change.
CNN’s Jake Tapper hailed Biden’s speech as a victory for a president eager to set forward the vision that will soon become his 2024 campaign. It was. But it was also a vision of progress that leaves many of our most acutely vulnerable groups largely out of view.
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