In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden will touch on the issues of the moment as he discusses Ukraine, inflation, and the nomination of the first Black woman to sit on the US Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson. But Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who will deliver the Working Families Party response to Biden’s Tuesday address, does not want the president to lose sight of the Build Back Better agenda that he outlined in 2021 as a framework for rebuilding the American middle class. That, she says, must be renewed in 2022.
Launched last summer as a bold plan to invest more than $3.5 trillion in education, health care, home care, child care, anti-poverty initiatives, and strategies for addressing the climate crisis, the Build Back Better package was the centerpiece of Biden’s legislative priorities for his first year as president. But it was blocked by Republican obstructionists and “centrist” Democrats such as Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
Build Back Better may not have garnered sufficient enthusiasm in Washington, but it was a hit in Detroit. “Everybody has something that they can lean on, or look to, in Build Back Better,” Tlaib said when I spoke with her on Saturday, in an exclusive interview ahead of her remarks this week. “I’ve never seen this kind of engagement on the ground. I’ve been an organizer in Wayne County, Michigan, for so long, and I’ve never seen this much engagement—so many new faces. And it wasn’t an election year—it wasn’t about a candidate. It was about a vision.”
That’s the message the progressive Democrat will emphasize in her response tonight. While Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’s Republican response is expected to rip into Biden on domestic and foreign policy issues, Tlaib will urge the president to lean into his most ambitious proposals. In particular, she will argue that Democrats need to refocus attention on the Build Back Better agenda as the 2022 midterm elections approach.
Critics claim that Biden went too far in promoting Build Back Better after winning congressional approval for the $2.3 trillion American Rescue Plan to address the prolonged economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But Tlaib doesn’t buy it. She thinks the challenge Biden faces, at a point when his approval rating has fall to the low 40s, is that people want and need more from Democrats. They want to see the president and the party deliver on 2020 campaign promises.
“People are frustrated because the agenda is not finished,” said Tlaib. “I’ll literally say, ‘Mr. President, it’s unfinished. We’re here to help. Let’s get it done.’”
Some critics, like real-time host Bill Maher, have suggested that having Tlaib deliver a State of the Union response makes no sense for Democrats. “Now, I’ve always seen the opposition party give a rebuttal,” Maher gripped on Friday night. “This is from the same party. This is like sacking your own quarterback.”
Maher misread what the response is about, and where Tlaib is coming from.
Though she was a supporter of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and though she has differed with the president on some vital issues, such as on Palestinian rights, Tlaib is not interested in tearing Biden down. She’s interested in getting a president back up on his feet, and back into the fight for programs that polls show are exceptionally popular.
Tlaib recalled telling Biden before the 2020 election, “’We want the same things. We have, I think, shared goals at the end around a number of issues.’” But she added, “I’m on a different timeline. I have to move faster because my folks don’t have clean air and clean water. My folks don’t have the child care they need. My folks don’t have another day, another week, another year to wait.”
“So,” she said, “‘just know that I probably won’t be out there patiently waiting. But that’s good for you because, at the end, I want to get what you desperately want to get accomplished for our country. And I’m going to push for it with all of my energy.’”
Tlaib’s done that over the past year, as a member of the Squad and as one of the most outspoken advocates in the House for economic, social, and racial justice. The representative has not been shy about expressing frustration with obstructionists who have stalled Biden’s agenda. “It should not be this hard to deliver on health care, climate, housing, child care, safety, voting rights, clean water and so much more,” she has said. “Democrats are in the majority and must set a new course that moves with a sense of urgency. Our communities deserve for us to act now.”
That clarity is what led the Working Family Party to ask Tlaib to deliver tonight’s response. Her remarks will maintain a tradition that has included State of the Union night livestreams from other prominent progressives, including former US Representative Donna Edwards (D-Mass.) in 2018, Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes (now a US Senate candidate) in 2019, US Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) in 2020, and US Representative Jamaal Bowman (DN.Y.) in 2021.
“Rep. Tlaib is a fearless progressive who wakes up every day to fight for working people, and we’re thrilled for her to deliver the WFP State of the Union Response,” Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell said in a statement. “Obstructionist Republicans and a handful of corporate Democrats have ground Washington to a standstill while child poverty spikes and costs continue to rise for housing, healthcare, and childcare. It doesn’t have to be this way. Rashida will articulate a progressive vision for how we can meet the basic needs of the American people, and ensure all of us can thrive.”
That vision will reject calls from centrists for Biden to abandon ambitious initiatives. It will argue, instead, that the president should follow the instincts that led to early successes. “We need to remember the amazing way that President Biden hit the ground running with the American Rescue Plan,” said Tlaib. The Michigan representative recalled how after Biden took office, “All of the sudden, we saw aggressive investment and emphasis on getting shots in the arms, on so many things that were necessary. For me, that’s what’s possible is getting on track to getting more done, getting Build Back Better done.”
That approach gave people a sense of what could be accomplished. Now, said Tlaib, those people are counting on Biden.
Of course, Biden will have to talk a lot about Ukraine and Europe tonight. Tlaib understands that’s important to the American people and to our allies overseas. But she also believes it’s vital to talk about the people of Detroit and Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. That is why her response to Biden is needed.
“I’m bringing the people that are not in the room for the State of the Union, the people that are at home, people that are working their second shift, people who are trying to figure out how to insure their children can thrive when they don’t know where their next check is coming from, the person that’s trying to figure out how to ration their prescription drugs,” said Tlaib. “I’m trying, in my speech, to bring the people that support President Biden and his agenda into the room, into the speech, so that members of Congress understand that there’s real-life, human impact in not doing anything around those issues .”
“No one supported and pushed for President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda more than progressives like myself,” the Michigan Democrat added. “I don’t want India, the mother in my community, or Carly, a young woman in my community who advocates for those, including herself, who have Type 1 Diabetes, to be left out. Both of them come to me, every chance they get, to tell me: ‘Please, do something, help us.’ I want to bring those folks into the room.”