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On Tuesday, President Joe Biden will deliver the annual State of the Union address. This speech is always well covered for obvious reasons, but it tends to be a bag of points from all the interest groups and individuals that the political party in charge has to answer to. In this case: Planned Parenthood, tick; unions, check; environmental NGOs, etc., etc. That’s why no one ever remembers SOTUs. They are a political laundry list, not a narrative.
But this time, the president has the opportunity to do something different. The administration wants to spend the next two years explaining the big changes it has been trying to make in the US economy. What is “work, not wealth”? How will friend relocation work? Will the post-neoliberal world be better? And why should government have a greater place in our society in the next 50 years than in the past half-century?
Answering these questions requires telling people what this administration is trying to do at 35,000 feet, why it will work, and what evidence exists to support this claim. It requires constructing a narrative, as my friend Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute, recently pointed out to me during a conversation about what this year’s SOTU might portend. “Everyone has their bullet points, but Biden needs to tell a story that aims higher and helps people really focus on the transformative moment we’re in.” His suggested tagline for the speech is “invest in people and places.” (For more of his thoughts on what Biden should say, see this article in Washington Monthly.)
That’s certainly what the president has done, emphasizing the care economy, community colleges, student debt relief, union work, and the burgeoning field of territorial economics, which aims to show that traditional economic models that assume growth happens in the same way no matter where you live are wrong. (For a summary of how all these ideas fit together, take a look at the FT Economist Exchange I did a while ago with Council of Economic Advisers Heather Boushey or at a conversation I had with outgoing National Economic Council Director Brian Deese at the Atlantic Council).
The best evidence that government in general and fiscal stimulus in particular have a bigger role to play is the success of the US bailout, which has created a cash cushion for individuals throughout the coronavirus pandemic that has left the US economy in a better place than many other nations. This bailout of consumers, rather than businesses, highlights the policy approach taken during the 2008 crisis.
So how should the president frame his message? I would say it should look like this: “For half a century, American politicians on both sides of the aisle thought that what was good for General Motors – or Microsoft or Apple or Google or JPMorgan or Pfizer – was good for America. But that wasn’t always true. Corporate fortunes and our nation’s fortunes began to diverge in the 1980s, and that divergence has widened over the past 20 years.
“But a global pandemic and a war in Ukraine have shown us that we need a government. That’s not the problem – for several years it’s been the solution, helping people cope with everything from a virus to a recession. Now the government must bring business and workers together to craft a new social pact. We live in a world that will be more regional, even local. We will always need allies, and we will continue to engage with the world, support democracy, work together to fix the climate, and keep crucial trade routes safe. But we also need to make sure the markets don’t overtake Main Street. We need to make sure the wealth is spread across all communities, not just big cities. And we, as a nation, need to focus more on what we can do, and less on what we can buy. It’s time to invest in ourselves and those who share our values. We need to make sure markets work properly for everyone and jobs don’t require crippling debt. We need to support creators rather than takers. Or something like that.
Richard, what do you think? If you had one SOTU piece of advice for the president, what would it be? And is anyone on the West Coast listening to these speeches, or is it more for those of us in the hallway of Acela?
I love the whole movement to cancel meetings. Eighty percent of them are a total waste of time, and almost all of them are too long.
FT journalists Sam Fleming, Alice Hancock and Javier Espinoza have a smart, deep dive into how Europe is reacting to the US Inflation Reduction Act and what’s at stake for the continent.
In The New York Times, this front-page story about a black exodus out of New York (and often south) takes a close look at a trend that I believe will reshape both the city and the nation’s politics in his outfit.
Richard Waters responds
Rana, I’m impressed with the taste of the sci-fi movies you showed last week, it’s more sophisticated than mine. I’m a sucker for anything that starts with a crew on a long deep space mission and something goes wrong. Example scene: Noomi Rapace in Prometheus going into a surgical pod to have an alien abducted by C-section (yes, that’s as horrible as it sounds).
Let’s move on to happier thoughts. I’m not sure we here on the west coast have a higher or lower tolerance for political grandstanding of the kind practiced in the state of the union, but I would love for the president to try something different . What would you say:
“This year, rather than the usual endless assortment of legislative possibilities, I thought I’d grade myself on what I said 12 months ago. First, the positives. I was speaking six days after Russia invaded Ukraine, and I told you how I had built a coalition in the West against aggression. But the economic sanctions we have passed and the lawsuits against the oligarchs have not done as much as I hoped to bring Russia to its knees. I’ll take 8/10.
“I think I deserve the same for the CHIPS Act. The Commerce Department hasn’t had time to distribute the $53 billion yet, much of it to help build new chip factories. When this will be the case, people will realize that this amount, spread over five years, will not go far when you try to build a modern technological manufacturing base, but it is certainly something.
“Inflation was raging and I claimed that one solution would be to make more stuff in America. I now admit that was a specious argument, but inflation is coming down anyway, so I’m going to take the victory lap Some of our plans to promote domestic manufacturing didn’t work, but the Inflation Reduction Act (that’s right, has little to do with inflation ) has galvanized investment in low-carbon technologies I see in the Financial Times that Europeans are panicking about the amount of investment we are taking in. 9/10.
“Granted, many of the plans I’ve told you about have failed, from cutting childcare costs to ensuring everyone gets paid leave, to universal background checks. for gun purchases (although we passed the first major gun safety law in nearly 30 years) Overall, we’ve done a lot for infrastructure and manufacturing, but not so much for American families.
“I think this year I have to go a lot further on economic and social justice, especially with the police killing of Tire Nichols still fresh in mind. We’re finally putting the pandemic behind us and the economy is heading for a soft landing: let’s make sure we lift up all Americans, starting with families struggling to get a stronger footing on the economic ladder.
Edward Luce is on leave and will return in mid-February.
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