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Biden to challenge GOP on lowering costs in State of the Union address

‘The economy is good — but to a certain point,’ GOP senator says

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden will use part of his State of the Union address to challenge Republican lawmakers’ criticism about the still-high prices of everything from groceries to gasoline to airline tickets to commercial shipping, according to a senior White House official.

Senators from both parties on Wednesday said they want to hear Biden devote a big chunk of the annual speech inside the House chamber to spell out a new plan to ease Americans’ burden at the cash register.

Daniel Hornung, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, said in an interview that Biden intends to use part of the speech to make a case for his economic record and how his administration guided recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Really thanks to decisive action he took to get relief to American families to invest in the country, we’ve seen really a historically strong recovery with almost 15 million jobs created and the unemployment rate below 4 percent for two years now,” Hornung said, adding that the president plans to acknowledge there is more work to be done.

The address also likely will include a response to Republicans who have tried to block efforts to use executive powers to help cut costs, even as they blame him for high prices.

“I think … you will hear the president, very aggressively, make the case that he believes part of his responsibility is to do everything in his power to lower costs for families, and everything that he is legally permitted to do,” Hornung said. “And, unfortunately, there are Republicans in Congress, in particular, who have taken the view that instead of fighting to lower costs for the middle class, what they should be doing is protecting, you know, tax cuts for giant corporations.”

Even GOP lawmakers acknowledged the overall inflation rate has cooled, but they joined Democrats in urging the president to use the address to lay out a plan to ease pain at the cash register.

“The economy is good — but to a certain point,” said Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., adding that he wants Biden to explain a plan to “get prices lower for truckers, shipping, all those things, because everything’s passed down to the consumer.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he wants a big focus during the economic portion of Thursday night’s address to be “about cutting junk fees, and reducing the costs of food, pharmaceutical drugs, clothing for everyday Americans.”

“I think inflation is one of the primary reasons that he isn’t getting credit for a basically full-employment economy that is chugging along really well,” Blumenthal said, adding he wants Biden to focus on “lower interest rates on home-buying, lower car insurance [rates] and, again, fewer junk fees … attacking the major sources of inflation.”

Interest rates are not up to Biden — nor any Oval Office occupant. That is the domain of the Federal Reserve. But Biden and his reelection campaign team shouldn’t expect the Fed to announce that the economy has achieved a “soft landing” by paring high inflation while avoiding a recession.

“I think we’re just going to keep our heads down and do our jobs and try to deliver what the public is expecting from us,” Fed Chair Jerome Powell said when asked Wednesday by Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, whether the public should expect such a pronouncement.

“We wouldn’t be, you know, declaring victory like that,” Powell said, testifying before the House Financial Services Committee at a hearing on the Semi-Annual Monetary Policy Report. Powell is slated to face senators Thursday morning as well at a Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing.

It’s no stretch to imagine Powell’s words and actions over the next several months having a sizable effect on the 2024 presidential election, as well as on prospects for Democrats and Republicans in Congress seeking reelection — more so even than anything that comes out of the mouth of Biden in the House chamber at 9 p.m. Thursday as he delivers his assessment of the country.

House Financial Services Chairman Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., on Wednesday asked Powell about prospects for rate cuts, noting that it is a “political year, and the lens of a political year falls heavily on … all parts of government.”

Powell said the rate-cutting trajectory would depend on the economy.

“The committee would like to see more data that confirm and make us more confident that inflation is moving sustainably down to 2 percent,” Powell said. “We have some confidence of that.”

Biden is expected to focus his speech on his record and things he could impact via executive action, with an opposition party in no mood to hand him election-year legislative wins.

Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Banking Committee, said he thinks Biden “needs to talk about what he’s done and what he intends to do to keep the economy moving and to reduce costs.”

“I would love to have him say that he’s going to support my bills to put more competition in the meat processing industry, which would help both the consumer and people in production agriculture,” the Montana Democrat, who is one of the most vulnerable senators facing reelection, added.

Tuberville also offered a speech topic suggestion that he contended would help consumers and big business.

“The biggest starter for the economy is oil and gas. I mean, we can’t continue to buy oil and gas from the Middle East. We can’t do it,” he said. “It all starts with energy, so more production, more production here. … The bottom line is energy.”

Should GOP lawmakers object to Biden’s economic message and decide to heckle him, as some did during last year’s address, the president “will be ready,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday.

“You saw the president last year when some Republican members behaved in a way that was, I would say, disrespectful, and he handled that,” Jean-Pierre said. “The president’s ready for anything, he’s ready for anything.”

Asked whether preparation for hecklers was part of the speech prep, she said, “The president knows how to handle this stuff.”

‘Missing a step’

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is running for GOP leader and would, if elected, have to work closely at times with a potentially reelected Biden, on Wednesday made clear he isn’t so sure Biden is able to handle it. He questioned whether the 81-year-old president will be able to stand for more than an hour and deliver an energetic address.

“I think we’ve seen he’s not as young as he once was, and he’s missing a step or two,” said the 72-year-old Cornyn. “And so it’ll be, I think, pretty revealing. There’s nowhere to hide when you’re giving the State of the Union.”

It will be Speaker Mike Johnson’s first time sitting alongside Vice President Kamala Harris above the president for such an address.

“During his address, President Biden is going to try to suggest that the State of the Union is strong, and we expect … that he’s going to say this is a time for reset. But, of course, the State of the Union is not strong, and everybody around the country knows it and everybody in this room knows it,” Johnson, R-La., told reporters Wednesday.

Lawmakers and Jean-Pierre spoke about the coming speech a few days after new polls were released bringing bad news for Biden.

Just 18 percent of registered voters surveyed Feb. 25-28 by The New York Times and Siena College said Biden’s policies had helped them personally, compared with 40 percent who said Trump’s had. Forty-three percent said Biden’s policies had hurt them personally, while 25 percent said the same about Trump’s.

And 65 percent of registered voters told CBS News and YouGov for a poll conducted Feb. 28-March 1 they think the economy was good under Donald Trump’s presidency. Asked the same about Biden’s term so far, 38 percent called the economy good. Just 28 percent of registered voters said the Trump-era economy was bad — compared with 59 percent who said the same of Biden’s economy.

Although they do not often talk about such poll numbers, White House officials have acknowledged voters’ perception of the economy gives many of them heartburn. That’s why, Jean-Pierre said, Biden will use part of the address to acknowledge “what the American people have been going through the last three years.”

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