State of the Union? As I like to ask in my talk show, “What would an Asian American think?” Let me also give a SOTU response through a generic, homogenized American lens. And more relevantly, let me respond as if I were wearing the earbuds of a Putin or a Zelensky.
“Folks,” (as Joe Biden would say), I really wanted to like Joe Biden’s State of the Union, even love it. The world was waiting for something special from the leader of the free world, especially when Ukraine is on the brink of humanitarian disaster.
I mean, even I knew we needed to hear some soaring rhetoric that would condemn the actions of Putin and the Autocracy Club (AC), and, at the same time, let people know that Biden and the U.S. were the lead dogs of the Democracy Club (DC).
With a clear and understandable “geo-political reset,” Biden could have “built back better” his administration hindered by chronic poll droop.
It wasn’t to be.
He went safe, so we got safe.
“In the battle between autocracy and democracy,” said Biden, “democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”
But if I were Putin, it’s not exactly rhetoric that would have me shaking in my boots. This morning, Russia’s incremental invasion continues as the incremental war. More airstrikes. More people killed.
And if I were Zelensky, I didn’t hear anything that would make me feel any more secure in my underground bunker.
Let’s hope, as one talk-show wag suggested, that there’s some clandestine help of some sort going on. Because whatever Biden is doing beyond sanctions will take time, which is something Ukraine doesn’t have.
For all the blue and yellow Ukrainian colors in the House chambers, “We stand with you” 5,000 miles away just sounds more like hot air than a commitment to stave off an angry, artillery-nasty Russia.
It’s one thing to condemn Putin saying he’ll ultimately realize it was a mistake to begin an unprovoked war. But how do we get to that point?
Meanwhile, Zelensky and Ukraine are wondering if they can last to next weekend.
So right off the bat, I was disappointed with the speech.
At a time when everyone realized we needed a State of the Union that was more than a laundry list, we got a laundry list.
Not bad, but when you end with a “Unity Agenda” where the big four action items are fighting opioids, ending social media bullying, fixing a dysfunctional VA, and beating cancer, you’ve got a list that’s not exactly the big picture social justice issues Asian Americans are clamoring for.
Compared to LBJ’s “Great Society,” Biden isn’t exactly reaching for the stars.
It’s an agenda of a divided nation.
I mean, who isn’t for ending cancer?
Of course, Republicans may be anti-cancer, but many are still pro-Putin. When you have the GOP leader (Trump) praising Putin, and no one in the GOP brave enough to cross Trump, America has a political cancer that may be incurable.
At least, Biden did sound like a Democrat in his speech, talking about expanding the middle class, growing from “the middle and not the top.” He talked about a $15 per hour minimum wage and pushed for the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes. He mentioned going after corporations that outsource jobs and manufacturing outside the U.S. All good common sense things. . .unless Intel gets a huge tax break from legislation that allows it to build its new microchip facility in Ohio.
Still, Biden seemed more like he was checking box after box, dropping a cameo reference. It wasn’t like he was promising us anything real.
Asian Americans got mentioned briefly when Biden talked about violence toward Asian Americans. Great, but couldn’t Biden have featured the family of Gui Ying Ma in the gallery? Ma, the 62-year-old grandmother from Queens who was attacked by a homeless man last November, had been in a coma until she died last week. That would have packed some emotion, as we approach the one-year mark of the Atlanta spa shootings, another milestone in #StopAAPIHate.
Another AAPI moment came when Biden called for a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Action (DACA) recipients.
It doesn’t mean immigration reform is going to happen. Indeed, who has even talked about it in detail seriously over the last year?At least we got a shout out. Not a direct one, but the impact on AAPIs is inferred. Does that count?
In the end, what are we left with? No closer to anything on the laundry list, from a renewed voting rights act, to LGBTQ protections, controls on insulin prices, or anything else he mentioned in the speech.
Still, none of that would have mattered if the top of the speech on Ukraine had hit the rhetorical and philosophical sweet spot–on freedom and democracy and why it matters to freedom- and democracy-loving Americans. Those who loved their masks. And those who disdained them. That was the unity building moment. It wasn’t the new images of people hugging and handshaking and no longer fist-bumping. Or doffing their masks to reveal their smiles and fake smiles.
The missed opportunity was bringing us all together in a real show of solidarity for Ukraine. One that was so strong it could shut off the Russia onslaught immediately.
Despite that, Biden is still right in his assessment.
Our country is far from perfect, but the state of the union is strong. It’s stronger than you think. We’ve survived an insurrection. And we take action to overcome the racial divide to make history. (See my column on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.) A weak nation does not do that. So yes, the state of the union is strong.
But the speech? SOTU could have been a whole lot stronger.
NOTE: I’ll talk about the speech on the next “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my web talk show, M-F, @2p Pacific livestreamed on YouTube, on Facebook, and on Twitter See recordings on www.amok.com