President Joe Biden on Tuesday night sought to assuage Americans about the trajectory of the U.S. economy, pledging in his first-ever State of the Union address that his “top priority is getting prices under control.”
Speaking from the dais of the House, Biden began by emphasizing that jobs have returned, wages have risen and the country has resumed many of its daily rhythms under his watch, roughly two years after the coronavirus pandemic touched off the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
But the president also acknowledged that millions of Americans still face financial hardships, particularly as the cost of groceries, gasoline, cars and rents have skyrocketed in what has become the fastest period of inflation in four decades. On a day when geopolitical tumult threatened additional shocks, Biden promised fresh vigilance in Washington to protect families at risk of falling further behind.
“With all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with their bills,” Biden said. “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel.”
“I get it,” Biden continued. “That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”
Specifically, Biden called on Congress to support a series of economic initiatives, including efforts to provide monthly tax payments for families with children, reforms to lower prescription drug prices for seniors, and legislation to raise the minimum wage for millions of workers. The president vocalized anew his plans to address logjams in “global supply” chains that have driven up demand for some goods, like automobiles, leading to higher prices. And he promised to combat corporate conglomerates, which he said may be squeezing consumers through price gouging.
Many of Biden’s ideas originated in a slew of blueprints he has unveiled since assuming the presidency, including a signature initiative known as the Build Back Better Act, which ultimately faltered last year because of divisions among Democrats.
Other ideas were newer, including a fresh effort to ensure that trillions of dollars in existing federal spending—approved to combat the coronavirus pandemic—did not fall in the hands of criminals. The promise arrived amid a slew of reports about the vast and expanding scope of pandemic-related fraud, including a recent investigation by the Washington Post that found rampant misuse in some of the country’s programs to aid businesses.
But Biden’s move to recast many of his embattled initiatives reflected a tactical reset at a time when Americans have grown worried about the economy and his handling of it. And it reflected a looming political imperative for Democrats, broadly, who secured control of the nation’s corridors of power by promising major change—a standard to which they may be held entering the 2022 midterms.
“It’s not too late to meet this moment,” a group of top House Democrats urged Biden in an open letter Tuesday. Its backers included the leaders of some of the chamber’s top voting blocs, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., of the left-leaning Congressional Progressive Caucus and Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., from the more centrist-minded New Democratic Coalition.
“There is broad consensus on the most critical solutions Americans need to lower costs for families, tackle the climate crisis, and create opportunities and good-paying jobs,” they added. “It is time to act.”
Only a few short weeks ago, Democrats had expected Biden to deliver his address focused predominantly on the economy. But a simmering pandemic, a sustained increase in prices and a new international crisis in Ukraine soon forced the White House to recalibrate some of its approach. To open his State of the Union, Biden instead spoke at length about the conflict, promising to aid Kyiv as lawmakers readied potentially $10 billion in humanitarian and military assistance in response to the president’s recent request for aid. The president also pointed to Washington’s work alongside Europe in imposing unprecedented, sweeping sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine, meting out punishments that White House officials have acknowledged in recent days could have spillover efforts globally.
Illustrating the point, the Dow Jones industrial average tumbled nearly 600 points hours before Biden spoke late Tuesday. The conflict has also intensified a recent spike in gas prices, further cutting into Americans’ budgets and leaving them discouraged about where the economy is headed. Prices overall have risen 7.5% in the past year, with essentials like gas and groceries notching some of the largest gains, according to the consumer price index.
Biden still stressed the country’s recent gains in combating the wide-ranging toll of the coronavirus. He touted the adoption of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan last March, which he said had “created over 6.5 million new jobs just last year, more jobs created in one year than ever before in the history of America.”
And Biden seized on the national stage to remind voters about his toils alongside Democrats and Republicans to secure $1 trillion in long-sought investments to improve the nation’s infrastructure. “We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks,” Biden said. “We’re going to have an infrastructure decade.”
But Biden took care to stress that Washington still faced considerable work to ease the fuller array of financial burdens facing American families, particularly as a result of inflation. He urged Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $15 an hour from $7.25, where it has remained since July 2009. He renewed calls for a paid family and medical leave program for millions of Americans who do not have it. He endorsed an increase in Pell Grants for low-income students attending college. And Biden petitioned lawmakers to revive a program that provided monthly payments to families with young children. The previous, expanded child tax credit program expired at the end of last year.
“When we invest in our workers, when we build the economy from the bottom up and the middle out together, we can do something we haven’t done in a long time: build a better America,” Biden said.
Many of the ideas date back to the earliest days of Biden’s presidency, and some have faced intense opposition from members of his own party. In the Senate, where Democrats need every member to advance their spending agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., blocked lawmakers in the final hours of 2021 from advancing a roughly $2 trillion economic package that included prescription drug reforms, paid leave benefits, child tax credit payments and other aid.
Biden on Tuesday also highlighted a new, separate administrative initiative to keep closer watch over roughly $6 trillion in coronavirus aid approved since the start of the pandemic. Much of the money had been approved on a bipartisan basis beginning under now-former President Donald Trump before Democrats adopted a $1.9 trillion rescue package that counted as Biden’s first major legislative achievement.
Under the effort, Biden said he would bolster the Justice Department and its enforcement against fraud and identity theft, including through the appointment of a chief prosecutor to oversee related investigations. And the president called on Congress to toughen penalties against “egregious” misuse of these emergency funds.
Much of Biden’s economic agenda is likely to draw opposition from Republicans, who previously have rejected many of Biden’s economic plans—and affirmed their stance in the hours before the president spoke.
“When it comes to the economy, we have a state of the union in crisis,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the top lawmaker on the tax-focused House Ways and Means Committee, blaming the president for seeking spending increases that have worsened inflation.
But Democrats on Tuesday cast the speech as an important inflection point, a time for Biden to champion recent, significant successes while rekindling the debate around his stalled policy agenda.
“The road has not been easy and certainly the work is not yet done. The pain of inflation is being felt around the world, thanks, largely, to the disruptions of the pandemic,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a speech earlier in the day. “These problems must be handled, and Democrats and the Biden administration continue to work on them like a laser.”