With inflation at a 40-year high and the COVID-19 pandemic lingering, President Joe Biden faces a tough balancing act in his first State of the Union address: How much does he tout progress, and how much does he express that he feels the American people’s pain?
Scheduled for Tuesday night, Biden’s high-stakes speech is expected to focus on his efforts to fight inflation as well as the pandemic, among other topics including Russia and Ukraine and his coming selection of a Supreme Court justice.
The speech is a chance, said Seth Hanlon of the left-leaning Center for American Progress, for the president to showcase his administration’s economic accomplishments as well as highlight plans for what’s next.
“The State of the Union is a unique opportunity to reflect on the enormous progress that has been made in just over a year,” said Hanlon, a senior fellow at CAP who also served in the National Economic Council in the Obama White House, in comments to MarketWatch. Biden can tout record job creation, the unemployment rate’s drop from 6.4% when he was inaugurated to 4% now, and about three-quarters of the population being vaccinated against COVID, said Hanlon.
What’s more, Hanlon said via email, Biden can lay out actions he’s taking to address inflation, like “unclogging and re-shoring supply chains.” The president “should be talking about his economic success — and his solutions to fight inflation — every single day.” (Read more of MarketWatch’s coverage of inflation.)
From the archives (October 2021): Biden vows to prod companies if they don’t act on supply chains
Also (December 2021): Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg awards $241 million to ease port bottlenecks
And yet Biden can’t be seen as taking a premature victory lap on the economy or COVID despite progress, according to Barbara Perry, an expert on the presidency at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“He has to acknowledge that people are in pain and they’re fearful,” said Perry. “They have fears over COVID, obviously and inflation, and not so much unemployment, but underemployment, and rising crime.”
Only after projecting such empathy, Perry said, should Biden tout progress on things like the vaccination rates and the bipartisan infrastructure
Biden’s speech comes as his approval rating is hovering just above 40%, and Republicans are savoring the prospect of retaking the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, and perhaps even the Senate. Inflation will continue to be a key line of attack against Biden and fellow Democrats in the midterms, the GOP has made clear.
“Joe Biden should use his speech to apologize to the American people for causing record inflation, skyrocketing crime, and an unmitigated crisis on the southern border,” Michael McAdams, communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told MarketWatch.
McAdams’s organization works to get Republicans elected to the House.
Biden, to be sure, has work to do to convince Americans his administration is fighting inflation. In January, the U.S. inflation rate climbed to 7.5%, remaining at a 40-year high. As MarketWatch reported, the data suggested upward pressure on consumer prices isn’t likely to soon relent. Though the S&P 500 index
is up 11% since Biden was inaugurated, it’s down 11.3% since the beginning of the year, through Wednesday’s closing bell, as inflation weighs on investors and the Federal Reserve is expected to start interest-rate hikes, while of late worries about a new Russian invasion of Ukraine are overarching.
In a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month, inflation topped the list of respondents’ most urgent issues, followed by immigration and COVID.
Reminded recently by Lester Holt that he’d promised inflation would be transitory, Biden reproached the NBC News anchorman and then cited Nobel laureates and corporate leaders as having told him inflation “ought to be able to start to taper off as we go through this year.”
Facing a tough midterm environment, Democrats are clearly hoping that Biden’s State of the Union address will help convince voters to send members of his party back to Washington after November.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told MarketWatch in a statement that the nationally televised speech gives the president an opportunity to highlight Democrats’ efforts to save the economy.
“Our agenda created a record-breaking amount of jobs and has America leading the world out of a global recession,” Maloney said. “I believe the president will make clear that Democrats are going to keep prioritizing our economy and delivering the results the American people care most about.”
Even if Biden drives home that message, however, he is fighting an uphill battle on behalf of his party, observed the University of Virginia’s Perry.
“The Republicans just by history have everything on their side,” she said. The speech “won’t stem the historical tide, which is, most presidents lose seats in the House and/or the Senate in the midterms.” Perry also noted that State of the Union speeches don’t typically give upward bumps to presidential approval ratings.
Biden’s speech will be his first official State of the Union. In April, the president gave what’s known as an address to a joint session of Congress, which is similar in form.
Members of Congress are invited but can’t bring guests, and all attendees will be required to wear a KN95 or N95 mask.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will give the Republican Party response to Biden, GOP leaders have announced.