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Florida takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union

by David Silverberg

While President Joseph Biden’s State of the Union address to the nation last night, March 7, touched on the full spectrum of local and international issues facing the country, some items were of particular relevance to Florida—and seemed directly addressed to the state.

Seniors and Social Security

“Tonight, let’s all agree once again to stand up for seniors!” said Biden.

Senior issues Social Security and Medicare are particularly relevant to Florida.

With 20 percent (5.5 million) of its 20.8 million residents aged 60 and older, Florida is second only to California in numbers of seniors. It outnumbers the state senior populations of 20 other states combined, according to the Florida State Plan on Aging 2022-2025, which was based on 2021 figures.

What is more, a high proportion of the 900 people moving to Florida daily are seniors, according to the Plan.

“Florida’s future is linked to the financial security and physical health of its older population,” it states.

Given these demographics, Social Security and Medicare are key federal safety-net programs for the population.

“Many of my Republican friends want to put Social Security on the chopping block” said Biden, drawing catcalls and denials from Republican lawmakers in the chamber.

However, the record supports Biden on this and the main Republican attack on Social Security has come from Florida’s own junior Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.).

On March 30, 2022 Scott unveiled an 11-point (later 12-point) “Rescue America” plan in collaboration with former President Donald Trump. Among its points: “All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” 

Biden called the plan “outrageous” at the time and pointed out that it would kill Social Security. Scott later denied that he had any intention of ending the program and even Trump denounced any intent to harm it. But there have been Republican rumblings of discontent with it ever since (indeed, there has been Republican opposition to it since 1935 when it was initiated).

In his State of the Union address Biden was firm in his defense of seniors and the key safety-net programs.

“If anyone here tries to cut Social Security or Medicare or raise the retirement age I will stop them!” he declared. “Working people who built this country pay more into Social Security than millionaires and billionaires do. It’s not fair.”

He continued: “We have two ways to go on Social Security. Republicans will cut Social Security and give more tax cuts to the wealthy. I will protect and strengthen Social Security and make the wealthy pay their fair share!”

Biden’s defense of senior programs was echoed by Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who is running against Scott for Florida’s Senate seat.

“It has never been clearer that Social Security and Medicare are at stake this November – and in order to protect these essential programs, we have to beat Rick Scott, the architect who single-handedly wrote the plan to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block,” she wrote in a statement to The Paradise Progressive. “Our Florida seniors – including my mom – have been paying into Social Security for their whole lives, expecting it would be there to support them in their well-earned retirement. Unlike Rick Scott, I will never allow our parents’ and grandparents’ Social Security and Medicare to be threatened in the Senate or anywhere else.”

Biden also touted his efforts to bring down drug costs by empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies.

“This year Medicare is negotiating lower prices for some of the costliest drugs on the market that treat everything from heart disease to arthritis,” he said. “Now it’s time to go further and give Medicare the power to negotiate lower prices for 500 drugs over the next decade.”

He also stated that he wanted cap to prescription drug costs at $2,000 a year “for everyone!”

Women’s health and choice

Biden called on Congress to guarantee the right to use in vitro fertilization and restore women’s right to choose.

Last year Florida enacted a law banning abortions after six weeks.

“Like most Americans, I believe Roe v. Wade got it right,” he said, crediting Vice President Kamala Harris for her work defending reproductive rights.

He blasted Trump, “my predecessor,” for being instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade and boasting about it.

“There are state laws banning the right to choose, criminalizing doctors, and forcing survivors of rape and incest to leave their states as well to get the care they need,” he noted.

“Many of you in this Chamber and my predecessor are promising to pass a national ban on reproductive freedom,” he said. “My God, what freedoms will you take away next?”

He announced: “If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose, I promise you, I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again!”

He also noted that medical research into women’s health issues has always been underfunded and he intended to change that, in part with an initiative on women’s health research led by First Lady Jill Biden.

However, he challenged Congress: “Pass my plan for $12 billion to transform women’s health research and benefit millions of lives across America!”

Book bans, history and education

Given the prevalence of book banning in Florida and legislative rules dictating the history taught in the state’s schools, Biden’s comments on the subject seemed aimed directly at Tallahassee.

After denouncing efforts to suppress voting and calling for passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, bills to protect the franchise, Biden addressed a wider issue.

“…Stop denying another core value of America—our diversity across American life,” he said. “Banning books. It’s wrong! Instead of erasing history, let’s make history!”

In the course of calling for increasing Pell Grants for working and middle class students to attend college and reducing the burden of student debt, he added “While we’re at it I want to give public school teachers a raise!”

Florida is currently ranked the 48th state in the nation for teacher pay at $47,500. A bill passed in the current state legislative session would raise teachers’ base pay to $65,000 and may go into effect if approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). However, the state is seeing an exodus of teachers due to legislated curriculum restrictions, ideological pressures, attacks on teachers’ unions, book bans and opposition to personnel diversity and inclusion.

Analysis: Florida, the world and the future

Although broadly addressed to the nation and the world, the program presented by Biden will have significant impacts in Florida if enacted.

But his proposals are unlikely—to put it mildly—to be advanced in the current Republican-dominated House of Representatives, which can barely keep the government functioning and whose leadership is subservient to the whims and prejudices of Biden’s predecessor.

Nonetheless, the vigorously delivered, directly confrontational speech seems to have energized Democrats and may have won over significant numbers of anti-Trump Republicans and independents.

That may just translate into votes on the ground in Florida. The challenge for Democrats will be to sustain the momentum and widen their coalition into November.

As Biden put it: “My fellow Americans the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are it’s how old our ideas are? Hate, anger, revenge, retribution are among the oldest of ideas. But you can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back.”

He laid out his vision: “I see a future where we defend democracy not diminish it. I see a future where we restore the right to choose and protect other freedoms not take them away. I see a future where the middle class finally has a fair shot and the wealthy finally have to pay their fair share in taxes. I see a future where we save the planet from the climate crisis and our country from gun violence.

“Above all, I see a future for all Americans!” he insisted. “Let’s remember who we are! We are the United States of America. There is nothing beyond our capacity when we act together!”

Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on March 8, 2024.

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