There was not much soaring oratory in President Biden’s State of the Union address, but the speech was an unapologetic call for a full set of progressive policy initiatives. It was also a bold critique of big business practices affecting workers, consumers and communities. Biden offered what amounted to a catalogue of corporate misconduct.
Although Biden implicitly praised the private sector for strong job creation during the past few years and explicitly hailed companies planning to make big investments in U.S. semiconductor production (with generous federal subsidies), he also spoke of the prior decades during which corporations moved large numbers of well-paid manufacturing jobs overseas and devastated many communities.
Biden chastised Big Pharma for charging exorbitant prices and generating high profits, warning that he would veto any attempts by Congress to repeal new legislation that will require the industry to negotiate Medicare drug prices for the first time.
Calling the tax system unfair, Biden lambasted large companies that have managed to avoid paying anything to the federal government and praised the adoption of a 15 percent minimum. Addressing those corporations, he stated: “just pay your fair share.”
Citing Big Oil’s record profits over the past year, Biden criticized the industry for not investing more in domestic production and instead using the windfall for stock buybacks that boost share prices. He called for quadrupling the tax on those transactions.
Biden went after insurance companies for surprise medical bills and called out nursing homes “that commit fraud, endanger patient safety, or prescribe drugs they don’t need.” He took credit for cracking down on shipping companies that charged excessive rates during the supply-chain crunch.
Touting a bill called the Junk Fee Prevention Act, Biden lashed out at hidden surcharges and fees imposed by hotels, airlines, banks, credit card companies, cable TV and cellphone providers, ticket services, and other sectors. “Americans are tired of being played for suckers,” he declared.
Biden took aim at large employers that require workers, even in low-skilled positions, to sign non-competition agreements, blocking them from taking a job with a competing company. Saying he is “sick and tired of companies breaking the law by preventing workers from organizing” unions, he called for passage of the PRO Act.
Speaking of the efforts to keep small business afloat during the pandemic, he vowed to double-down on efforts to prosecute corruption in those programs.
Biden also joined the chorus of voices denouncing the tech giants, stating “we must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.” He called for legislation to “stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us.”
There was a lot more to the speech, but this was a remarkable recitation of the sins of unbridled big business. It is significant that Biden delivered this critique without ever using the word “regulation,” which the Right has endlessly demonized. Yet he spoke repeatedly of both administrative and legislative initiatives to address the abuses.
The latter category is dead in the water in the new divided Congress. It will be up to the Biden Administration to show what it can do through executive action to turn his critique into significant change.