Mar 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: Biden plans feisty economic reset

Biden at State of the Union

Biden at the 2023 State of the Union. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden will use tonight's State of the Union address to admit that prices are still too high in some areas — but argue things were worse under former President Trump, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients tells Axios.

Why it matters: Biden, in what could well be the most important speech of his presidency, aims to project fighting optimism to an audience with plenty of doubts about the nation's vigor — and that of the 81-year-old president.

  • Biden needs a cure for what some advisers call "Trump amnesia" — the notion that the chaos and unpopularity of Trump's presidency has receded from some voters' memories nearly four years on.

The big picture: Biden's high-stakes speech comes just a day after 2024's rematch election kicked off in earnest, with Wednesday's withdrawal by former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley.

  • Voters largely understand the contrasts between Trump and Biden on democracy and abortion. Views on the economy are less defined — which is animating Biden's approach to tonight's audience of millions.

At least as scrutinized as the content will be Biden's delivery: An overwhelming majority of Americans consistently express concern in polls about his age and mental capacity to serve.

  • Biden's advisers hope that if he can just find the right words, skeptical voters eventually will embrace him and his policies.

Behind the scenes: Biden spent the weekend hunkered down with Zients and other aides at Camp David, in the Maryland woods. They pored over drafts, absorbed the president's feedback and consulted historian Jon Meacham for epochal context.

  • Zients said Biden's speech will convey "energy, optimism and belief in the future of this country" — and predicted "some passion" when Biden demands Congress act on border security and aid for Ukraine.

What to watch: Zients said Biden will remind people "where the economy was three years ago when the president walked into office, where we are now and where we're headed — what his vision is for the economy."

  • Biden will say the administration needs to keep working to create what he calls "breathing room" in family budgets — "just a little bit of leftover money" at the end of the month, as Zients put it in our interview.

Zients told Axios that besides celebrating today's record-low unemployment and strong wage growth, Biden will reveal a variety of second-term proposals on pocketbook issues.

Reality check: Even some well-known Democrats find White House thinking naive.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tells The Washington Post: "The bubble is extraordinary: Democrats seem to think — many of them — that, only if we can explain all that we have accomplished, people will come on board. But that ignores the pain ordinary people are now experiencing."

Between the lines: The central question for any presidential re-election campaign — the one Ronald Reagan famously posed to then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980 — is: "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

  • Republicans argue the answer is a resounding "no." Public polling suggests the vast majority of Americans favor Trump's economy over Biden's.
  • But Biden's campaign says that memory doesn't reflect 2020, when Trump was president and COVID triggered a historic economic crisis — including record job losses and a spike in poverty.

Axios' Hans Nichols and Alex Thompson contributed reporting.

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