The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s State of the Union case for his quiet revolution

President Biden makes his way to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
5 min

Arguing over raising the debt limit is dumb. Arguing over how to make the economy grow for everyone is smart. President Biden hopes to use his State of the Union message on Tuesday to move the debate to the right question and make the case for the quiet revolution he has championed in our nation’s approach to future prosperity.

Yes, Biden, the middle-of-the-road lover of compromise, consensus-building and comity, is a revolutionary — Ronald Reagan in reverse, if you will. He’s turning the nation away from the economic assumptions that took hold in the 1980s.

The words we’ll hear on Tuesday about a move from “trickle-down” to “middle out” and “bottom up” economics are the sales pitch — but they are also a reasonably accurate description of policies that see robust government investments, worker rights and a green tech economy as the path to a new American century.

There’s a lot Republicans might argue with here, but they are largely ducking the core disputes. That’s not only because they are divided in numerous ways, but also because they don’t want to be straightforward even about the issue they claim to care so much about: the deficit.

The long-term deficit is not our most important problem. But if they wanted an argument about the deficit, Republicans would pass a debt ceiling increase (which everyone agrees has to happen) and get down to negotiations about the right mix of budget cuts and tax increases to fix it.

Biden, his lieutenants have made clear, will emphasize on Tuesday that you can do a lot of investment and still bring the deficit down if you’re willing to raise taxes on corporations and people earning over $400,000 a year.

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But the GOP prefers to talk about spending cuts in the abstract. Only its most candid supply-siders are willing to say outright that they think protecting rich people from higher taxes is a good thing.

With a whole new wing of the party claiming to be the champions of the working class, as Gerald F. Seib documented recently in the Wall Street Journal, being explicit about a growth-led-by-the-wealthy strategy poses, shall we say, messaging problems. So does that 30 percent national sales tax some Republicans are pushing.

Biden’s job Tuesday is to expose the contention that’s dominating the news right now as evasive shadow boxing — while bragging a bit about the record-breaking 12.1 million jobs created in the past two years. He can push Republicans (and the media) to talk not only about budget cuts and culture wars but also about whether the GOP’s agenda would do anything to solve immediate problems facing families or offer a plausible vision for long-term flourishing.

The Biden blueprint, the outgoing director of the White House National Economic Council, Brian Deese, told me, involves “investing in high return areas of the economy like innovation and clean energy, reducing families’ costs in areas such as child care and elder care, and reducing the deficit by raising taxes on large corporations and the wealthiest.”

“The key issue is how we rebuild the economy after the pandemic in a way that generates rising real incomes, higher productivity, good-paying jobs and greater investment,” Deese said.

The goal: to create “a clear contrast to the traditional trickle-down approach of deficit-expanding tax cuts for the wealthy and gutting regulations.”

By the way, if you doubt that Biden’s alternative to pure laissez-faire is a big deal, consider the cover headline of the new issue of the Economist “Big, Green and Mean,” highlighting “Joe Biden’s plan to remake the American economy.”

The essays inside are by no means puff pieces, and the “mean” part is about Biden’s focus on jobs for American workers — likely to go over better with U.S. voters than with the editors of the free-trade, free-market magazine. Overall, the treatment brings home the seriousness of the investments in green energy, tech and infrastructure passed last year. A sign that managing this spending right will be a high priority of Biden’s next two years: His new chief of staff is Jeff Zients, a former businessman and Obamacare’s Mr. Fix-It after the massive 2013 failure of the program’s website.

Biden’s speech would be more expansive if Democrats had held onto the House. Sharon Parrott, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, offered a sense of what might have been last week when she outlined initiatives that ought to be part of any long-term program to expand opportunity and reduce hardship. Biden and Senate Democrats should certainly try to make progress on some of them, including paid leave, universal pre-K and child care, health coverage expansions, a beefed-up child tax credit, and steps to make housing more affordable.

But she noted that even if divided government makes “large-scale legislative change … unlikely in most areas,” advancing the case for what could be is essential to making it happen someday.

Biden’s task on Tuesday is to lay the groundwork for winning that argument — in 2024, but also beyond.