As expected, President Joe Biden made the economy a central element of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, when he celebrated how far the U.S. has come since inflation peaked last summer.
The first half of his speech focused primarily on what he called the nation’s economic progress, including a record 12 million jobs created in the first two years of his presidency and six months in a row of the U.S. inflation rate going down. Biden also boasted that the overall unemployment rate is at its lowest point since 1969, which he credited in large part to bipartisan bills he signed into law last year.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last several years,” Biden said, in what closely resembled a re-election campaign speech. “This is my view of a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives at home.”
Biden also pointed out that the unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic workers are at near-record lows, and he said that his Administration has created 800,000 new manufacturing jobs—the fastest growth in 40 years. A record 10 million Americans applied to start new businesses over the last two years, he added.
But some of Biden’s allies and the nation’s top economists thought the President should have used more of his speech to try to reach Americans still anxious over their personal financial situations and the country’s future, rather than trumpet a list of accomplishments and take credit for steering the economy back on track.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that four in 10 Americans say they are financially worse off since Biden took office. That same poll found that 62% of Americans would be disappointed or angry if Biden won a second term.
During his speech, Biden did acknowledge Americans “watching at home” who lost their jobs and might feel forgotten by elected officials. “I get that,” Biden said. “That’s why we are building an economy where no one is left behind.”
As part of his Administration’s efforts to achieve a strong economic recovery, Biden said he would continue to bring manufacturing operations back to the U.S., ban junk fees, and expand the insulin price cap.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration, told TIME ahead of the President’s address that Biden should avoid appearing out of touch with the many Americans who are facing intense stress from rising prices. “He needs to acknowledge that the economy is still not working for most people,” Reich said. Wages in terms of purchasing power are continuing to fall, and nearly two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
Many middle-class voters that TIME spoke to last month for a story on rising grocery prices expressed frustration with the nation’s economy, particularly over how some common household items are nearly double what they used to be.
“I am not happy with the state of the U.S. economy right now,” said Bridgette Moore, a 40-year-old mom of five from Lake Park, Ga. “As a stay-at-home mom, I am worried about how I will provide for my family and it is difficult to see a way out. I hope that it will get better but with the current economic state, it is hard to say. We shouldn’t be struggling at this stage in life and we were not before.”
The main reason Americans are struggling financially is rising prices. Annualized inflation is starting to cool, but remains high at 6.5% in December, well above the Federal Reserve’s 2% inflation target. Grocery prices were also up 11.8% in December compared with a year earlier. But during the State of the Union address, Biden did not directly highlight his plans to help slow these rapid price gains. Instead, he touted that prices are starting to drop and called on Republicans to work with his administration to raise taxes on the wealthy—a policy proposal that is expected to be dead-on-arrival among Republicans.
In the GOP response to Biden’s speech, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “In the radical left’s America, Washington taxes you and lights your hard-earned money on fire, but you get crushed with high gas prices, empty grocery shelves.”
For Democrats, that underscores a key challenge party leaders are facing with the economy. As much as progress has been made, inflation is still painfully high, voters are unhappy, and the Federal Reserve’s long-standing approach to cooling price increases involves slowing down the economy and the labor market.
But for Reich, it’s not enough that Biden look backward and highlight his economic accomplishments, especially if he seeks to win re-election in 2024. “He needs to communicate a message of hope,” Reich says. “That he’s laying the foundation for the future, and an acknowledgment that much more needs to be done.”
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