Tonight, Vice President Joe Biden will give his third State of the Union address, and everything seems to be on schedule. It will be a steady and professional performance. There isn’t much tension. Biden has spent the last 36 years in the US Senate, including eight as vice president and more than two as president, so he is an expert at the State of the Union address. His speech will be a recitation of recent economic good news, an outline of policy goals, some subtle jabs at House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and a Republican majority that is functional only in its ability to stall the president’s agenda, and a moderate call to action that reinforces the expectation that he will be seeking reelection in 2024.
Predictably, the evening will centre on Biden’s speech unless the president is cut off by an uprising in the chamber, as happened to President Barack Obama in 2009. Good enough for my purposes. However, it will be in the responses to the president’s address where divergent views of America’s future will become most clear.
The Republican Party is struggling to define itself as more than a tribune for Trumpism, and on Tuesday night, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who once served as Trump’s spokesperson, will serve as the party’s spokesperson. Huckabee Sanders will steer a stormy course to put a positive spin on the party’s internal chaos while avoiding any comments that might offend her former boss, so she won’t be offering much in the way of new messaging. If history is any indicator, she’ll spend most of her time bashing Biden, who is the only person on whom all Republican candidates can agree.
Delia Catalina Ramirez, a Democrat from Illinois, was elected to the House of Representatives last year and has quickly become one of the chamber’s most thoughtful and active members. Her campaign will focus on the idea that Democrats can and should offer a bold progressive programme as a counterpoint to Republican obstruction and extremism, a message she has honed over the course of nearly two decades as a community activist in Chicago.
Ramirez, who will respond to the president’s speech on behalf of the Working Families Party, will say, “That gives Democrats an opportunity—if we can seize it.” The Working Families Party argues that the Democratic Party can increase its popularity and the number of seats it holds in Congress by advocating for a progressive agenda based on economic, social, and racial justice; climate action; and a just foreign policy. Ramirez and the WFP envision a future for a left-leaning Democratic Party that is engaged with the real-world issues that matter for working-class Americans, despite the fact that Biden and party leaders in the House and the Senate are under intense pressure to move towards the centre.
Ramirez tweeted on Friday that he would be outlining a plan for how Democrats could win the support of working-class voters of all races and nationalities by advocating for a government that has the backs of working people.
That “Social Security, Medicare, abortion rights, and comprehensive immigration reform are not political talking points,” as the representative put it in a statement, is an argument. “They’re crucial to the health of our country.” She continued, “We also need to demonstrate to working people the benefits the Democratic Party can bring them if we win back the majority.” Therein lies our strategy for winning back the House for the working class.
This has been the consistent message from the WFP, which has used recent State of the Union nights (in 2021, New York Representative Jamaal Bowman responded, and in 2022, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib did so) to call on the Biden administration to redouble its efforts to implement the progressive proposals outlined in the original “Build Back Better” plan. The WFP presentations are not attacks on the president, unlike the Republican responses. They are, rather, pragmatic arguments for a more progressive agenda that will excite a multiracial and multiethnic coalition to deliver victories for the Democrats.
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WFP National Director Maurice Mitchell says, “We want to make a contribution—productive, in coalition, with the president to ensure that Democrats focus on the issues of working people.” The WFP has opted for a newcomer in Ramirez, who has made headlines as the first Latina to be elected to Congress from the Midwest, to give the party’s response this year.
Ramirez, who is not yet 40 years old, has already served two terms in the Illinois state House as a fearless progressive who has made her state the first in the union to provide Medicaid benefits to families regardless of immigration status. Moreover, Ramirez has advocated for rent relief, eviction moratoriums, and a housing-for-all agenda, and she has fought for humane criminal justice reforms.
Ramirez is the product of Guatemalan immigrants, and she became a community activist at a young age, so she has a personal interest in addressing the concrete problems faced by her constituents. In her early twenties, she was president of a Chicago neighbourhood association; later, she led the pioneering Latin United Community Housing Association and the Center for Changing Lives, a nonprofit that helps the homeless find housing.
Ramirez’s experience as an organiser informs her work in every way, much like that of fellow progressive newcomer to the House, Texas Democrat Greg Casar. A strong and functional federal government is not only necessary but popular, and as a result of her years of grassroots work with people who are struggling to make ends meet, she takes progressive positions without apology. She has been actively involved in local, state, and federal campaigns that have helped put women and people of colour in influential roles in Chicago’s government, demonstrating that she understands the importance of electoral politics and the positive change it can bring about. In addition, she told me during the 2022 campaign that she plans to use her position in the House to increase the involvement of the Democratic Party and Congress in issues that are important to people of all walks of life in the American working class.