When President Joe Biden delivers his second State of the Union address on February 7, he has a chance to tell the American people something they haven’t heard before: the story of today’s economic transformation, and the dramatic shift in policy thinking behind it. Biden’s administration has broken with more than 40 years of anti-government orthodoxy to create a new economic strategy — investing in people, investing in places. The upcoming SOTU speech is time for him to make it clear in a way he has never been able to do.
Every year, the State of the Union is an unparalleled opportunity for a president to speak directly to the nation. In 2022, more than 38 million people tuned in across broadcast and cable news networks, the same viewership as Sunday night NFL games. But when the audience attended Biden’s first State of the Union address, there wasn’t a clear narrative. as The New York TimesAs coverage of the 2022 speech noted, the address “included some of the biggest items on the Democrats’ agenda just mentioned.”
This year, President Biden should aim higher — and he can, because he now has the policy successes and evidence he needs to deliver visionary, inspirational speeches that fill the moment.
The 117th Congress was the most productive in decades, made all the more remarkable by the president’s razor-thin margins in the House and Senate. (Since then, of course, he’s lost the House and picked up a seat in the Senate.) The administration’s hard-earned 2021 and 2022 legislative victories—spending to keep families and small businesses whole during a crisis, investing in industry and future infrastructure—didn’t just save the economy. They set it on a new course by applying a new understanding of how today’s economy works—and how it could work better. Biden’s new economy has eased austerity and put public investment and productive market manipulation at the center of a more equitable economic growth strategy. It was a 180-degree pivot from the trickle-down approach that still guides many politicians, most of them on autopilot, and it has paid off with the fastest economic recovery in decades. We now know that relentless tax cuts and governments starved of talent and ambition lead nowhere.
But while the substance is in Biden’s favor, few Americans understand it. As House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries has said, “There’s a difference between governing and messaging … You govern in the fine print. You message, you persuade, you communicate in headlines.” The address is Biden’s chance to make headlines that he wants the American people to hear.
This is one of the most effective State of the Union addresses ever done
We remember Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address not as a laundry list but as the Four Freedoms Speech—an appeal to the universal values that underpinned his New Deal achievements.
Ronald Reagan’s more anti-government philosophy was summed up in his 1986 State of the Union: “Government growing beyond our consent” threatened “to crush the roots of our liberties … We face deficits because the federal government overspends.”
Reagan’s speech shows how powerful the State of the Union can be. When we think back to Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union speech, his Reaganesque death knell for the New Deal era echoes in our collective consciousness: “The era of big government is over.” But that epitaph, made in the Triad era, has not aged well.
For the past 25 years, the federal government has not invested enough in people, the key drivers of our growth and prosperity. The mantra that big, powerful corporations, booming financial markets and a hands-off government would benefit us all has not worked as promised. Instead, this approach has led to more expensive basics for the American people. Costs for big-ticket items central to good health and economic opportunity—medical care, child care, and college tuition—have risen sharply as many of these services have become more privatized. Manufacturing has shifted overseas under globalization that privileges capital mobility but little else. The resulting increase in low-wage jobs has been bad for all of us and especially for our democracy.
President Biden has led the country to the cusp of a fundamentally new era, shifting the relationship of government to the economy. But the public has no idea that this is happening.
The number one issue for voters throughout 2022 was the economy, but post-midterm polling from the political funding firm Way to Win showed that nearly 80 percent of Americans in battleground states couldn’t name one thing that the Biden administration is or is Democratic. Congress has done to improve their lives.
When he addresses the nation from the House chamber, President Biden must spell it out: The legislative victories of the past two years will create an economy, and a country, that works for you.
The President’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) is the perfect place to begin that story.
As the pandemic unfolds in March 2021, the legislation exemplifies Biden’s new economic approach. In an effort to stave off the jobless recovery we saw after the Great Recession, the Biden administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress have invested amounts considered unimaginable in the neoliberal era.
The wisdom of that policy choice is undeniable. ARP helped reverse rising inequality and bring unemployment to historic lows. Now we know that the United States can combat poverty and hunger by paying directly to families. Investing in people and families creates demand for labor, a “labor market,” empowering all workers, but especially black and brown people who otherwise struggle the most and tend to be the first to be laid off in a recession. This means significant wage gains for low-income Americans. Contrary to some punditry, ARP spending was not the primary driver of record inflation in 2022. The president should point to the real causes of high prices – the market power of monopolistic corporations, and the fragility of an economy dependent on very thin supply chains that do not hold up in times of international crisis.
The American Rescue Plan’s revival of the Covid-ravaged job market has been the foundation of Biden’s string of successes—executive actions that have strengthened antitrust enforcement and worker power, to big-ticket legislation including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act. , and the deflationary law.
Which brings us to today. At this point, most Americans haven’t heard much about these new laws, and at any rate, all of these laws sound like alphabet soup. Until now, administration officials have used terms like “industrial strategy” or “modern supply-side economics” to explain their policies. These uncomfortable positions are good for economists and the talk of DC policy conferences, but they don’t inspire skeptical voters. That’s why President Biden must explain, simply, that there are and will be jobs for the future—wind farms and solar arrays, electric vehicle manufacturing, and semiconductor fabs. He can say that building clean energy at home and working with democratic allies abroad on decarbonization will transform our country and our planet. Biden should add that government has a necessary role to play in building the new green economy. Markets alone will not advance quickly or widely enough to meet the deadlines set by climate scientists. Biden must be clear: Government must ensure, in a way that the private sector cannot, that the opportunities of the green economy reach all Americans.
If stated clearly, Americans will understand that the implementation of this law—the work of the next two years—could be transformative. Biden needs to reassure Americans who remain skeptical about the economy and their own future that he has a plan to transfer new federal funds to communities nationwide, and that the funds are intended to spur additional private investment in new businesses and better, unionized, middle-class jobs.
State of the Union audiences know that many people and places have great potential but have been challenged over the past thirty years because bad trade deals and lax labor law enforcement have only allowed people to chase low labor costs. This economic policy has caused pain and tragic loss—here Biden can invoke his compassionate superpower—and a new federal approach could help turn it around.
As part of that story, Biden should point to places where investment has already made a difference, in new factories and rebuilt roads and bridges and expanded Internet access that we’re seeing as a result of government funding. He should be realistic and recognize that the road ahead will not be easy — but frame it in a way that rallies the American people as participants in a common project. What we now have before us—new funding and new government authority throughout the federal government; a constellation of investments, incentives, and regulations; The authority to ensure that the taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans – should be greater than the sum of their parts.
But to integrate these pieces, Biden needs to build a more responsive and effective government. This must be one of his highest priorities for the rest of his term – to be the “sheriff” who will ensure, like Franklin Roosevelt, that well-intentioned legislation becomes a reality for the American people. And to do this, he needs the public.
The story Biden tells in this State of the Union should be simple: We know what doesn’t work and we know what does. We are putting aside the old economy and investing in ourselves instead.
Telling the stories of people and places will help the president connect with a diversity of American voters, who will support his policies if they learn about them. Young, mostly black and brown voters care urgently about climate and justice. Unaffiliated voters (“persuadable” is the industry term) who are self-described independents, disproportionately male and live in parts of the country that have left the old version of globalization behind, want jobs back. People-and-place stories appeal to all those groups.
The State of the Union is an opportunity for all Americans to show a new vision for government For the sake of our democracy and our common cause, President Biden needs to express his vision in the clearest way possible. Success does not speak for itself. A president must do that.