President Biden’s State of the Union address on February 7 will frame the last two years of his administration—and perhaps his legacy. With House Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy handing the keys to the asylum to his party’s lunatic fringe, it will take heavy lifting just to keep the government open and the country’s debts honored. But the cascading mega-crises the country faces—contagion, climate, conflict, corruption, corrosive inequality, and impending recession—demand aggressive action. Biden should call on Congress to act; he should also lay down the gauntlet, promising that if Congress fails to act, he will use his executive powers to address the challenges we face.
Such an approach defies conventional wisdom, Biden’s long history as a centrist dealmaker, and the recent appointment of austerity maven Jeffrey Zients as his chief of staff. Most pundits expect Biden to simply declare the state of the union strong (as have all presidents virtually without exception) and tout progress on his watch: record employment, inflation down, new plants and jobs that will come from the significant investments to modernize our nation’s infrastructure, accelerate the shift to renewable energy, and boost domestic manufacturing. He’s expected to call for bipartisan support for the sensible—a continuing focus on industrial and trade policy to gear up for the growing competition with China—as well as the ominous: the escalating proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, and the military buildup in the South China Sea. Such a limited agenda would condemn Biden to spend the balance of his term confirming judges, keeping the government open, fending off the far right, and becoming ever more consumed by the Ukrainian war, which is unlikely to end well. This serves neither the country’s needs nor Democratic prospects in 2024.
Instead, Biden should go big—inviting Congress to join in addressing the pressing challenges facing the country, while pledging to act on his own. The range of possibilities is broad, as illustrated by the list of priority initiatives compiled by the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, ranging from advancing a progressive trade policy, lowering prices for essential drugs, to extending student debt forgiveness, and more.
The most pressing priority is to make this economy work for working families. After touting the good news on jobs and inflation, Biden should insist that this is but a start. The United States is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the world. He can pledge that his administration will require that the companies that contract with the government are model employers. He can tout measures already taken to raise the minimum wage among US contractors to $15 per hour (and $10.50 for tipped workers), and challenge Congress to raise the minimum wage across the economy to that level. He can promise action to raise the income level for mandatory overtime protections, giving millions of workers a raise. To ensure that contractors prioritize retention and staffing quality, he can strengthen federal contract regulations to require generous sick leave, overtime, paid vacation, and other benefits. Calling on Congress to protect the right of workers to organize by passing the PRO Act, he can announce that he will require federal contractors and suppliers to stay neutral in union organizing campaigns. The Commerce Department’s rule that contractors for the CHIPS Act will be prohibited from using money for stock buybacks that largely reward CEOs and not workers could be extended to all government contractors. Biden can accompany that with a pledge that that the government will give preference to companies that don’t have extreme gaps between CEO and worker pay, and don’t have a history of violations of labor rights or workplace safety and environmental regulations.
Biden should detail the progress made in his Justice40 Initiative, that promises to deliver at least 40 percent of the benefits from federal investments in climate and clean energy to disadvantaged communities—describing how this will aid the disadvantaged in both rural and urban areas. With the new projects flowing out of his infrastructure and climate investments, he can put the federal government squarely on the side of workers, promising that taxpayer dollars will support good jobs while reducing our country’s extreme economic, racial, and general inequalities.
Turning to national security, Biden should formally declare climate change a national emergency, unlocking the presidential powers needed to address it. He can commit the country to lead the international push toward renewable energy. He might detail the growing destruction and displacement wrought by extreme weather in this country—18 calamities that cost $1 billion or more—and across the world, particularly in our hemisphere. Current estimates are that as many as 30 million climate refugees will be displaced by climate catastrophe over the next three decades in Central America alone. This reality requires that even as we invest in resilience and adaption at home, we redouble efforts to help partners abroad—particularly in this hemisphere—cope with the challenge that they did not create. As a first step, Biden should announce a new commitment to arm countries with early warning systems about extreme weather, and to augment the multilateral initiatives devoted to bolstering climate resilience, and adaptation capacity.
Finally, the president needs to address directly the peril posed by the zealots in the House Republican caucus holding the economy hostage by threatening default on America’s debts. He will probably inevitably call on Congress to eliminate or lift the spurious debt ceiling, while committing to negotiations on taxes and spending going forward. But then, speaking directly to all those who hold bonds in this country and across the world, he can pledge that the debts of the United States will be honored, that this country will pay its bills. As president, he will fulfill the constitutional mandate of Section 4 of the 14th Amendment that unequivocally states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned.” Congress should stop the nonsense and lift the debt ceiling—or better, get rid of it entirely. But if it fails to do so, there should be no doubt: Biden will instruct the secretary of the Treasury to continue to honor the obligations of the United States as the Constitution requires.
In his first two years, Biden exceeded expectations by putting forth a bold domestic agenda, declaring that we had reached a “Roosevelt moment,” where the country’s challenges had to be addressed. He succeeded in passing major initiatives despite not enjoying a Roosevelt majority in Congress. Now, he must find a way to continue that progress even in the face of a hostile Republican majority in the House. As he calls out Republican folly, his State of the Union address must make clear his commitment to move forward.