U.S. President Joe Biden offered no apologies for his spendthrift, pro-American economic strategy on Tuesday, Feb. 7 making clear in his second state of the union speech that he intends to persist with a protectionist approach that’s making for anxious allies, including Canada.
Biden, with newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over his shoulder, preached the virtues of working across the aisle as he found himself addressing a newly divided Congress, Republicans having wrested control of the House of Representatives away from Democrats in November.
With some Republicans spoiling for a fight as presidential election season draws near, Biden is under pressure to justify what political opponents say is a profligate approach to the federal purse, making it all the more important to ensure that money stays on U.S. soil.
And he didn’t just defend Buy American. He doubled down on it, promising new rules for federal infrastructure projects that would require all construction materials — not just iron and steel, but copper, aluminum, lumber, glass, drywall and fibre-optic cable — be made in the U.S.
“On my watch, American roads, American bridges and American highways will be made with American products,” Biden said.
“My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away.”
Protectionism notwithstanding, most Canadians still see the U.S. as their country’s closest ally, a new poll suggests — but they seem less certain that their powerful neighbour is a force for good in the world.
Nearly 70 per cent of respondents to the online survey, conducted by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies, said they still see the U.S. as Canada’s best friend, while 16 per cent said they disagreed and 15 per cent said they didn’t know.
Those surveyed were much more divided, however, on the question of whether the U.S. is a positive influence on international affairs: 41 per cent disagreed with that statement, compared with 38 per cent who said they believe it’s true. Twenty-one per cent abstained.
Part of that is likely due to the hyper-partisanship that has come to define U.S. politics and was on clear display as Biden turned to domestic issues like drug costs, oil and gas production, corporate tax increases and the ever-present debt ceiling controversy.
McCarthy has insisted Republicans won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling, a necessary step to avoid the U.S. going into default, without an agreement to reduce spending to 2022 levels, a cut of roughly eight per cent.
Biden said Republicans were proposing deep cuts to cherished programs like Social Security and Medicare, an allegation that prompted eye rolls from McCarthy and catcalls and boos from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, among others.
“Let’s commit here tonight that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned,” he said, before accusing certain Republicans of trying to “take the economy hostage.”
“I’m not saying it’s a majority of you … but it’s being proposed by some of you,” Biden told his detractors as expressed their disdain, which he took as evidence they were backing his position.
“So we all apparently agree: Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? All right, we got unanimity.”
He spelled out an ambitious effort to curb the flow of deadly drugs like fentanyl into the country, to redouble the search for a cancer cure and to mitigate its causes, to better support veterans at risk of suicide and taking on the mental health crisis.
Biden reiterated his call for a ban on assault weapons, cheering Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old California man who disarmed the gunman who killed 11 people at a dance studio in Monterey Park last month.
And he celebrated Ukraine’s defiance in the face of Russian aggression, as well as the American display of unity, solidarity and leadership that helped to make it happen.
With all eyes again shifting toward the coming race for the White House, Biden’s protectionist rhetoric is likely aimed mostly at winning over a domestic political audience, and most observers agree that it’s not Canada but Beijing that the U.S. has in its sights.
And with the country up in arms over what Chinese officials insist was a weather balloon that drifted through Canadian and U.S. airspace last week, downed over the weekend by U.S. jet fighters, the president has ample reason to argue for economic decoupling from China.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the U.S. will automatically turn to Canada for its energy, raw materials and manufactured goods, said Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Auto Parts Manufacturers Association.
“Canada will do well to not assume that we are inside the tent. We will have to prove and reprove ourselves on many points we take for granted,” Volpe said.
“Look for transactional language to begin dominating our relationship rather than ideology. Shared values matter, but sharing value matters more.”
Despite what the president may say publicly, however, the U.S. understands how important Canada is to its own economic fortunes, said Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who will be in Washington later this week with Defence Minister Anita Anand.
“I think it is well understood … that in order for the United States to be resilient, Canada has to be part of the equation,” Champagne said in an interview.
“There’s a lot of opportunities ahead of us. And for me, the big question is how can we innovate more together, how can we do more together, and how can we sell more together to the rest of the world.”
Before Tuesday, Biden had been moving off the “inward focus” that marked the first two years of his presidency, said Louise Blais, a retired Canadian envoy who now serves as a senior adviser to the Business Council of Canada and as diplomat-in-residence at Laval University in Quebec.
“Starting this year, actually, there’s been a real shift in the narrative that he has been using when he casts the issues related to economic security and supply chains,” Blais said in an interview before the speech.
“After two tough years … we’re now starting to see a different approach — at least rhetorically. He is talking about the importance of working with America’s continental allies.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.