Analysis: Read Between the Lines to See Rural America’s Place in Biden’s Address
President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address mentioned rural America explicitly only in passing last night. But his references to “made in America,” fair trade, improving wages, educational opportunity, and the rhetoric of his party’s left wing addressed many of the concerns of rural communities.
Rural communities got a shout-out in the annual speech only in reference to increased broadband access. The president mentioned farmers and ranchers as well when he talked about the administration’s plans to address lack of competition in the meatpacking industry.
“I’m a capitalist, but capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation—and it drives up prices,” the president said. “When corporations don’t have to compete, their profits go up, your prices go up, and small businesses and family farmers and ranchers go under.”
The domestic portion of the speech – limited by Biden’s need to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – focused on investing in jobs, worker pay, and manufacturing. Even family issues like childcare costs were tied to economic issues – giving parents a more affordable way to be part of the workforce.
The State of the Union Address by design is an occasion for patriotic and roll-up-our-sleeves rhetoric about the American people. It is an exercise in highlighting the parts of American identity that complement the president’s political and policy agenda. And there was plenty in Biden’s description of Americans designed to resonate with rural people.
“Made in America,” a rhetorical evergreen in any political context, was prominent. Donald Trump made international trade issues a major issue in his successful 2016 campaign, in which rural voters supported Trump by a national margin of about 2 to 1. His margins in everything but the nation’s largest metropolitan areas and urbanized portions of medium-sized metros were also notable.
He referred to “the rebirth of pride that comes from stamping products as ‘made in America’ ” and “the revitalization of American manufacturing.”
A greater percentage of rural Americans than urban Americans work in manufacturing. That manufacturing base took a pounding from trade agreements, which critics say sent jobs oversees and resulted in trade imbalances. The Great Recession was also especially devastating for manufacturing-heavy states such as South Carolina and Michigan.
When enacted in the 1990s, trade agreements like NAFTA were promoted in part as a way to lower the price of consumer goods. Biden put a twist on this analysis by saying bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. would lower costs and fight inflation.
“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I think I have a better idea to fight inflation,” he said. “Lower your cost, not your wages. That means make more cars and semiconductors in America.”
He tied increasing manufacturing to higher wages and infrastructure investment, such as measures that were part of the moribund Build Back Better legislation.
He called for federal support of child-care expenses as a way to get parents back into the workforce:
Middle-class and working folks shouldn’t have to pay more than 7% of their income to care for their young children.
My plan would cut the cost in half for most families and help parents, including millions of women, who left the work force during the pandemic because they couldn’t afford child care, to be able to get back to work. Generating economic growth.
But my plan doesn’t stop there. It also includes home and long-term care. More affordable housing. Pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.
All of these will lower costs for families.
He touted his administration’s announcements that it would address lack of competition in meatpacking.
Small businesses and family farmers and ranchers — I need not tell some of my Republican friends from those states — guess what, you got four basic meatpacking facilities. That’s it. You play with them or you don’t get to play at all. And you [consumers] pay a hell of a lot more. A hell of a lot more because there’s only four.
He called for extending the Child Tax Credit increases that were part of the March 2021 stimulus package. The increases, plus more investment in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which assists low-income families, expired at the end of 2021.
For higher education, he asked for new spending on Pell grants and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and mentioned a mainstay of higher education in rural areas — and what he said the first lady calls “America’s best-kept secret” — community colleges.
As part of what he called a new “Unity Agenda for the Nation,” the president also asked Congress to address the opioid crisis with increased investment in prevention and recovery programs and to expand mental health programs.
For veterans, Biden called for better job training, housing programs, and healthcare.
With a deadlocked Senate and midterm elections eight months away, much of the president’s legislative agenda is speculative. The failure of Democrats to pass the Build Back Better infrastructure investment plan means that any large-scale infrastructure legislation faces an uphill battle.
Finally, Biden distanced himself from the term “defund the police,” the rallying cry of part of the anti-racist police reform movement that coalesced around the killing of African Americans such as George Floyd by law enforcement officers.
“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “It’s to fund the police [with] … resources and training they need to protect their communities.”
The GOP has used the term as a cudgel against Democrats, painting them as soft on crime. Moderate Democratic critics of the term say the words unnecessarily alienate culturally conservative voters who are concerned about police behavior but object to the implication that paying for law enforcement isn’t a public good.