A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
A NEWSLETTER FROM DAVID CORN
Joe Biden’s Americans First Agenda
By David Corn February 11, 2023
The day after his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden speaks at a union training center in DeForest, Wisconsin. Patrick Semansky/AP
For his second State of the Union address, President Joe Biden on Tuesday night unleashed the Democrats’ best weapon: economic populism. He deployed it in a distinctly non-abstract manner. He didn’t rail against unseen elites and malevolent forces. He didn’t demonize foreign or domestic actors as enemies. He put things simply: Here’s how Democrats and I have helped—and want to help—middle- and lower-income Americans who are squeezed by an economy rigged against them. He basically asked, hey, do you want more of this or not?
There was much commentary regarding how a vigorous Biden robustly countered the rude heckling of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and other obnoxious Republicans and essentially got the GOP to commit to no Social Security cuts. That was a good moment for Ol’ Joe, demonstrating he still had some speed on his fastball. But what stood out was his ability to present a long shopping list of kitchen-table issues—what he has delivered and what he would like to—without it seeming dull or small. Naturally, he covered (and took credit for) the big stuff—mighty jobs number, declining Covid numbers, assisting Ukraine, bipartisan legislation (the infrastructure bill, the CHIPS Act), the mega Inflation Reduction Act, and the decline in inflation and gas prices—but it was the more modest details that made the speech sing.
Biden took what often comes across as abstruse—big government spending—and made it feel real. He described the thousands of jobs that federal investments in manufacturing will yield. (“Jobs paying $130,000 a year, and many don’t require a college degree.”) He hailed the renovation of the Brent Spence bridge that spans the Ohio River between Kentucky and Ohio, over which trucks carry $2 billion worth of freight every day.
Biden, the son of Scranton, does have a knack for talking about how pocketbook subjects connect with folks. He took a swing at Big Pharma, but he was plainspoken about it. He noted it costs $10 to produce a vial of insulin, but drug manufacturers have been “unfairly” charging hundreds of dollars. Yeah, that does seem unfair, right? The cost for seniors has been capped at $35 a month. Now, he said, let’s do the same for millions who are not on Medicare, including 200,000 young people. Ditto for capping total out-of-pocket drug costs. Pointing out that the Inflation Reduction Act allows the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare, he shared this commonsense observation: “Why wouldn’t we want that?”
Indeed, why not? He noted some Republicans were considering repealing the Inflation Reduction Act. “Make no mistake, if you try to do anything to raise the cost of prescription drugs, I will veto it,” he said in steely fashion.
He kept plowing through that list of how government can assist hard-pressed Americans: tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles and efficient appliances, building half a million EV charging stations (jobs!). And everything can be paid for, he said, by “making the wealthiest and the biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share.” He wagged a finger at companies that make billions and pay no federal taxes: “That’s simply not fair.” It was a Bernie Sanders-ish point but delivered in a less confrontational voice.
There’s more: He reminded viewers that his administration had enacted a slew of important consumer protections: curtailing insurance companies from sending “surprise medical bills,” cracking down on shoddy nursing homes; allowing people to buy hearing aids over the counter; pressing foreign shipping companies to lower prices; reducing exorbitant checking overdraft fees; cutting credit card fees; forcing airlines to issue refunds for canceled and delayed fights. He assailed “junk fees”—“those hidden surcharges too many businesses use to make you pay more…Junk fees may not matter to the very wealthy, but they matter to most folks in homes like the one I grew up in. They add up to hundreds of dollars a month. They make it harder for you to pay the bills or afford that family trip. I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it.”
Junk fees do not make for grand political rhetoric. But here was Biden essentially saying, I know you’re sick and tired of being screwed over by big corporations. And I’m on your side. For decades, I have wondered why Democrats don’t do more of this. Assail the rip-offs mounted by insurance companies, cable firms, and other corporations. Biden leaned in:
We’ll ban surprise "resort fees" that hotels tack on to your bill. These fees can cost you up to $90 a night at hotels that aren’t even resorts. We’ll make cable internet and cellphone companies stop charging you up to $200 or more when you decide to switch to another provider. We’ll cap service fees on tickets to concerts and sporting events and make companies disclose all fees upfront. And we’ll prohibit airlines from charging up to $50 roundtrip for families just to sit together. Baggage fees are bad enough—they can’t just treat your child like a piece of luggage.
He summed up: “Americans are tired of being played for suckers.”
This was, dare I say it, Trumpian. Only Trump didn’t give a damn about Americans being exploited. It was just posturing. And he tried to whip up racial grievances and cultural divisions, as he vowed to be a champion for alienated white voters. Biden, once the champion of Delaware’s banking and credit card industries, wasn’t seeking to encourage or take advantage of resentment. He just seemed to care.
In expected fashion, Biden called for action on many fronts: reducing student debt, expanding preschool education, redressing police violence, strengthening unions, banning assault weapons, forging immigration reform, protecting reproductive rights, curbing the fentanyl epidemic, enhancing data privacy, curing cancer, safeguarding democracy, and more. But above all, Biden conveyed that he was genuinely concerned about the economic pressures experienced by many Americans and had ideas on how to help. This was the set-up for 2024, whether he runs for reelection or another Democrat becomes his party’s nominee. The Republicans will wage their culture wars—and screech against CRT, trans people, drag shows, the “woke mob,” M&Ms, and whatnot—but the Democrats will focus on how to assist Americans like you.
This is not unlike the strategy that Obama adopted following the shellacking he received in the 2010 midterms that led to a GOP takeover of the House. After subsequently sludging through the debt ceiling and budget battles he had with the Tea Party Republicans in 2011, he took a populist turn, proposing a jobs program (that had no chance of passage) and assailing Republicans for insisting that a markets-know-best economic policy of spending cuts and government downsizing is what was best for the American middle class. The GOP then aided Obama by nominating for president a plutocrat named Mitt Romney (who even Newt Gingrich had scorned as a representative of “vulture capitalism”). It worked out well for the Democrats. (I wrote a book on this: Showdown: The Inside Story of How Obama Battled the GOP to Set Up the 2012 Election.)
Biden is now going further than his one-time boss did in tying his (or another Democrat’s) 2024 electoral prospects to progressive populism. And he may be a better salesman for this approach than Obama. He convincingly conveys empathy for Americans who could use some help—or who just don’t want to feel like suckers. Certainly, the 30 percent or so of aggrieved conservative Americans who believe Biden is part of a cabal involving the Deep State, antifa, George Soros, the radical left, a woke mafia, and overseas terrorist will not be persuaded. But his I-get-it-and-I’m-with-you stance has the potential to resonate and establish an overarching tone for his party.
One speech does not a successful electoral strategy make. An effective political message must be repeated until those of us who write about politics are sick of hearing it. The themes Biden presented on Tuesday night have to be reinforced by him and the rest of the party over and over...and over—and backed up by actions (symbolic and/or substantive). But this State of the Union address was a fine opening shot for 2024. (I still fear Biden is too old for another go at it.) As Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders illustrated with her creepy response to Biden’s address—which depicted Democrats as a demonic force bent on destroying America and forcing its inhabitants to live in a hellish dystopia—the Republicans are mired in divisive culture warfighting. Biden sent a much different message: He wants to get stuff done for you. For him, Americans, not the politics of grievance and resentment, come first. Americans First—that might just work on a bumper sticker.
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An Arrested FBI Agent, a Mysterious, Russia-Linked Shell Company, a GOP Operative, and More
Five years ago, my colleagues Dan Friedman and Hannah Levintova and I published a long article that revealed one of the most bizarre Washington, DC, influence operations in years. After Donald Trump moved into the White House, a conservative party in Albania hired a former Trump campaign aide named Nick Muzin to win support for it within GOP and conservative circles in the United States. This lobbyist proceeded to set up meetings for the leader of this party with Republican members of Congress and right-wing media outlets. Muzin talked him up to Steve Bannon and other White House officials. He escorted the Albanian to GOP fundraisers, and at one, the Albanian managed to get his picture taken with Trump. That was a big coup. Back home, his campaign slogan was “Make Albania great again.”
This sort of thing is not unusual in Washington. Foreign politicos often retain American lobbyists to win friends and influence people on their behalf. What made this different was, as we revealed, that Muzin had been paid a lot of money to do this by a Scottish shell company called Biniatta Trade, which was created by two Belize companies that were partly controlled by two British companies that were each controlled by a different Russian national. (I know; that’s a lot to take in.) Biniatta Trade seemed to engage in no business activity. Its website appeared phony. It shared a British phone number with an “international online dating service” that offered “beautiful Ukrainian women for dating and marriage.” The only information on Biniatta Trade we could find was a paper trail of other shell companies that traced back to those two Russians, who could not be reached.
What was going on? Well, the party then in control in Albania was pro-Western and anti-Putin, and its leader had warned against Russian influence in Albania. It looked as if a Russian entity was using a string of shell companies to finance a GOP operative to influence US politics to benefit an Albanian party that was not anti-Putin. Why bring this up now? When Charles McGonigal, a former top counterintelligence chief at the FBI, was recently arrested on assorted charges, Friedman, Levintova, and I were surprised to see that the indictment stated he had allegedly received $225,000 from an American Albanian businessman connected to the governing party and had pushed the bureau to investigate a lobbying operation in the United States that matched the description of Muzin’s. It’s a bit of a wild story, and you can read our new report on this. I had thought our investigative work about Albania, secret Russia-linked money, and US influence peddling was long behind us. The lesson is, you never know when such mysteries might reappear. We can only wonder if other Russian-tied money has influenced Washington influence-peddling.
Dumbass Comment of the Week
The judges are exhausted. It was a week of nonstop dumbassery. The floodgates were open wide. A tsunami struck. There were too many potential nominations to track. The Chinese balloon episode prompted a tidal wave of stupidity perhaps best represented by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) of “You lie!” fame. He tweeted: “The catastrophic Chinese Spy Balloon spectacle clearly threatened American families from Alaska to my home community in South Carolina and confirms President Biden and Vice President Harris should resign.”
Two days later, the Biden administration shot down the damn balloon, which was a surveillance device, not a weapon. No American had been at risk. Not at any point.
Biden’s State of the Union address prompted idiocy, as Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted “liar” and other Republicans jeered when Biden accurately noted that some Republicans have called for cutting Social Security. Here’s a video featuring a spot-on example of phony GOP indignation; it drew millions of views on Twitter:
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ response to Biden’s speech was exceedingly stupid, wrong, and dangerous. After Biden delivered an address emphasizing kitchen-table issues, she went on a culture-war rant and claimed Biden was being held hostage by “the woke mob…the radical left…madness…crazy.” But Sanders did the public a service. Her American Carnage-ish moment was a solid representation of the extremism, paranoia, and grievance-driven politics that holds her party hostage. Immediately afterward, she sent out a fundraising email asserting the political choice for the nation was “between normal or crazy.” She might be correct, just not in the way she meant it.
Then there was the hearing held by the House Oversight Committee, during which Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and others claimed the FBI and the Biden campaign had conspired with Twitter to suppress a New York Post story on Hunter Biden and his laptop before the 2020 election. Though no evidence of such a conspiracy was produced at the hearing and all three witnesses from Twitter testified that the FBI and the Biden campaign had not been involved in Twitter’s decision to limit sharing of that story (for only 24 hours!), Jordan and his comrades insisted over and over that the FBI and the Biden campaign had plotted with Twitter to spike the story. One far-right extremist, Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.), even shouted at the witnesses—former Twitter officials—that they could expect to be arrested. It was nuts. (The next day, similar conspiracy theory–infused nuttery ensued during the first hearing of Jordan’s subcommittee on the supposed “weaponization of the government.”)
By the way, during the Twitter hearing, I had an exchange on Twitter with Rep. William Timmons, a South Carolina Republican on the oversight committee, who had falsely declared that the FBI’s Trump-Russia scandal was baseless because it had been triggered by the unconfirmed Steele dossier. When I pointed out that a Justice Department inspector general report had concluded that the investigation’s initiation had been legitimate and not connected to the Steele memos, Timmons stopped responding.
But even with all the crazy of this week, ultimately, there was not much competition for the prize. The winner was obvious: right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro. He opined:
I would say that Covid is the most overrated media story in US history—it did kill, however, an extraordinary number of people. So, you know, we should keep that in mind.
Covid-19 has taken the lives of over 1.1 million people in the United States. The pandemic caused a loss of 23 million jobs in the first three months. Yet for Shapiro it’s the “most overrated media story in US history.” The judges were dumbfounded and speechless—which made the decision an easy one.
I did not realize there were so many Warren Zevon fans in Our Land-land. Judging from the mail that poured in, the recent issue that featured my article on the long-gone singer-songwriter and his much-belated placement on the nomination ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was one of the most popular editions of this newsletter. Three cheers for you, dear readers.
Bette Piacente put it simply:
Ah, David, today’s newsletter went straight to my heart. Zevon has been a big favorite of mine, always. His songs stop me in my tracks, no matter what I am doing. Your elegy to him is lovely and heartfelt. Another remarkable person gone too young. But we still have his songs and that is whether or not he is inducted into the HoF this year or not. Here’s hoping they do the right thing. I have done as much as I could to keep his music alive and my family will attest to that! (Not everyone gets Zevon, as you so aptly described.) I am keeping this one.
Randall Speer recalled the first time he heard Zevon:
I'd just arrived in Moscow to serve at our Embassy there, and a friend put on "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." I stopped my moving-in activities and said, "Wow. Hey, play that again!" Then I heard his fantastic "Mohammed's Radio," also from the first album. That was it. I was hooked. [He was singing,] "You know, the sheriff's got his problems, too / He will surely take 'em out on you.” And I recall thinking, "Yes, yes he will, son.”
A reader who did not sign his or her name wrote:
Thank you for this article. Mr. Zevon was one of my husband's favorites. He introduced me to Mr. Zevon's music. He even added a tag line to his emails: "enjoy every sandwich.” My husband passed away five years, 11 months, 16 days ago. He was 57. He had made a mix CD for a road trip we were going to try to take. I played it. It included "Keep Me in Your Heart." In between sobs, I smiled. This article is...well, it means a lot to me. Thank you.
Elizabeth Barber noted I erred in my Zevon appreciation by noting the narrator in “Carmelita” was in Mexico:
I have long been a Zevon fan, and I will definitely vote. I just want to call out one small error. “Carmelita” is definitely set in Echo Park in Los Angeles. He says so in the song, and he names places that are in Echo Park. I know this because I lived in Echo Park in the early 80s so I might very well have run into him at the Pioneer Chicken stand he mentions in the song. Not a big deal but I’ve always liked that about this song, that we could have easily crossed paths back in the day. Thanks for furthering his cause, I definitely agree he belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Dumb mistake. I’d blame it on the booze, but I wasn’t drinking.
Bentley Shofner shared this:
I knew there was another reason why I liked you besides your writing and political outlook. I discovered Zevon in college in the late 70s. I was mesmerized from the very start. “Accidentally Like a Martyr” especially hits my heart every time I hear it. Thanks for the reminiscences about one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the world, although he’d probably resent the title.
Bob Ross had a much different take than other readers:
I think it is amusing someone with your powers of critical thought seems to believe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a legitimate statement on the career of any musician. You imply the RHF should have integrity, as if as a commercial enterprise, it somehow sets a standard for whether or not a musician is fully appreciated. Have you looked at the history of inductees? Can you possibly hold such a position if you do? It’s a joke, David. A tourist trap. It means nothing. Or, as Warren so famously said when a New Yorker writer contacted him for an interview mere weeks before he died, “Too late.” I’m quite sure Zevon would take no great satisfaction in his induction, let alone his nomination.
Zevon might have dismissed it but still welcomed the attention for his work. We’ll never know. But now the nomination—and an induction, if that happens—will certainly introduce his music to those unfamiliar with it, and that’s a good thing.
My old friend Lino Lipinsky, a Colorado Court of Appeals judge, had a smart observation and a worthwhile proposal:
I appreciated your thoughtful piece about Warren Zevon. I discovered him when WNEW played “Mohammed’s Radio” upon the release of his first album. Zevon supplied the grit and self-deprecation missing from the sanctimonious Eagles’ songs. “Carmelita” is the missing link to [the Velvet Underground’s] “I’m Waiting for the Man” that no other 1970s LA musician forged.
But there is an even greater musical miscarriage of justice: Gram Parsons’s omission from the HOF. As I’m sure you know, there would be no country rock, no Americana genre, and no Nashville renaissance (I’m thinking of “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”) without his contributions to the canon. After listening to [the Byrds’] Sweetheart of the Rodeo, I bought the first two Flying Burrito Brothers albums, Parsons’s first two solo albums, [his posthumous compilation] Sleepless Nights, and, later, his Live 1973 album. Gram and Emmylou Harris’ harmonizing on “Return of the Grievous Angel,” “Love Hurts,” and “Sleepless Nights” is sheer ecstasy. In New York, I discovered a DJ pressing of the International Submarine Band's album in a used record store and found a copy of Ben Fong-Torres’s biography of Gram. During his brief career, Parsons forever changed American popular music. One day, Parsons will be admitted to the HOF. That day can’t come too soon.
I concur. Here’s one of my favorite Parsons and Harris duets:
Ken Kagan had a question:
I have searched and searched, but I have seen nothing about the status of a court regarding obtaining a sample of Trump’s DNA for comparison with the DNA obtained from Ms. Carroll’s dress. Perhaps I have missed it, but it has been frustrating. Are you able to shed any light on where things stand on that issue?
The Daily Beast just published a good update on the lawsuits filed by E. Jean Carroll against Trump, in which she accuses him of defamation and sexual assault. It turns out the DNA issue is more complicated than we might think. The case is set to go to trial in April.
“Are you going for a Winston Link or an Edward Hopper feel?”
“Moxie, can you just sit?”
“Okay, but don’t make me look melancholy. Dogs are never melancholy.”
“Why is that?”
“What does a dog have to regret?”
Read Recent Issues of Our Land
February 7, 2023: Justice for Warren Zevon; remembering the Myanmar coup; the great love story in HBO’s The Last of Us; and more.
February 4, 2023: How we got the Santos story and what comes next; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Rob Portman); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 31, 2023: The bull of John Durham; George Santos: it never stops; nominating Navalny; Judith Owen’s brassy Come On & Get It; and more.
January 28, 2023: Remembering Victor Navasky, the unflappable ringmaster of the Nation; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Julie Kelly); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 24, 2023: Tucker Carlson, Glenn Greenwald, the JFK assassination, Watergate, and the MAGA perversion of history; the right-wing disinformation machine and Hunter Biden; David Crosby, RIP; and more.
January 21, 2023: Is it getting harder to enjoy action thrillers?; Santos and a big-money con; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Donald Trump Jr.); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 18, 2023: Trump Derangement Syndrome on the right; nominating Navalny; the weirdness and ghostliness of Tar; and more.
January 14, 2023: Why Ron DeSantis shouldn’t—or won’t—run for president; the many faces of the George Santos scandal; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Ryan Zinke); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
January 10, 2023: Our split-screen America; Wakanda Forever and Babylon (thumbs down) and The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time (thumbs up); and more.
January 7, 2023: The other GOP civil war; Dumbass Comment of the Week (Glenn Greenwald); the Mailbag; MoxieCam™; and more.
Got suggestions, comments, complaints, tips related to any of the above, or anything else? Email me at email@example.com.