Biden Weighs State of the Union Focus on His Unfinished Agenda

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WASHINGTON — President Biden’s top economic aides have battled for weeks over a key decision for his State of the Union address on Tuesday: how much to talk about child care, prekindergarten, paid leave and other new spending proposals that the president failed to secure in the flurry of economic legislation he signed in his first two years in office.

Some advisers have pushed for Mr. Biden to spend relatively little time on those efforts, even though he is set to again propose them in detail in the budget blueprint he will release in March. They want the president to continue championing the spending he did sign into law, like investments in infrastructure like roads and water pipes, and advanced manufacturing industries like semiconductors, while positioning him as a bipartisan bridge-builder on critical issues for the middle class.

Other aides want Mr. Biden to spend significant time in the speech on an issue set that could form the core of his likely re-election pitch to key swing voters, particularly women. Polls by liberal groups suggest such a focus, on helping working families afford care for their children and aging parents, could prove a winning campaign message.

The debate is one of many taking place inside the administration as Mr. Biden tries to determine which issues to focus on in a speech that carries extra importance this year. It will be Mr. Biden’s first address to the new Republican majority in the House, which has effectively slammed the brakes on his legislative agenda for the next two years. And it could be a preview for the themes Mr. Biden would stress on the 2024 campaign trail should he run for a second term.

Administration officials caution that Mr. Biden has not finalized his strategy. A White House official said Friday that the president was preparing to tout his economic record and his full vision for the economy.

Here’s where the president stands as the third year of his term begins.

Few of Mr. Biden’s advisers expect Congress to act in the next two years on paid leave, an enhanced tax credit for parents, expanded support for caregivers for disabled and older Americans or expanded access to affordable child care. All were centerpieces of the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan Mr. Biden announced in the first months of his administration. Mr. Biden proposes to offset those and other proposals with tax increases on high earners and corporations.

Earlier this week, Mr. Biden hinted that he may be preparing to pour more attention on those so-called “care economy” proposals, which he and his economic team say would help alleviate problems that crimp family budgets and block would-be workers from looking for jobs.

At a White House event celebrating the 30th anniversary of a law that mandated certain workers be allowed to take unpaid medical leave, Mr. Biden ticked through his administration’s efforts to invest in a variety of care programs in the last two years, while acknowledging failure to pass federally mandated paid leave and other larger programs.

Mr. Biden said he remained committed to “passing a national program of paid leave and medical leave.”

“And, by the way, American workers deserve paid sick days as well,” he said. “Paid sick days. Look, I’ve called on Congress to act, and I’ll continue fighting.”

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For Mr. Biden, continuing to call for new spending initiatives aimed at lower- and middle-income workers would draw a clear contrast with the still-nascent field of Republicans seeking the White House in 2024. It would cheer some outside advocacy groups that have pushed him to renew his focus on programs that would particularly aid women and children.

The State of the Union speech “presents the president with a rare opportunity to take a victory lap and, simultaneously, advance his agenda,” the advocacy group First Focus on Children said in a news release this week. “All to the benefit of children.”

The efforts could also address what Mr. Biden’s advisers have identified as a lingering source of weakness in the recovery from the pandemic recession: high costs of caregiving, which are blocking Americans from looking for work. The nonprofit group ReadyNation estimates in a new report that child care challenges cost American families $78 billion a year and employers another $23 billion.

“Among prime-age people not working in the United States, roughly half of them list care responsibilities as the main reason for not participating in the labor force,” Heather Boushey, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters this week. She noted that the jobs rebound has lagged in care industries like nursing homes and day care centers.

“These remain economic challenges and addressing them could go a long ways towards supporting our nation’s labor supply,” she said.

But focusing on that unfinished economic work could conflict with Mr. Biden’s repeated efforts this year to portray the economy as strong and position him as a president who reached across the aisle to secure big new investments that are lifting growth and job creation. On Friday, the president celebrated news that the economy created 517,000 jobs in January, in a brief speech that did not mention the challenges facing caregivers.

Calling for vast new spending programs also risks further antagonizing House conservatives, who have made government spending their first large fight with the president. Republicans have threatened to allow the United States to fall into an economically catastrophic default on government debt by not raising the federal borrowing limit, unless Mr. Biden agrees to sharp cuts in existing spending.

“Revenue into the government has never been higher,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, told reporters on Thursday, a day after he met with Mr. Biden at the White House to discuss fiscal issues and the debt limit. “It’s the highest revenue we’ve ever seen in. So it’s not a revenue problem. It’s a spending problem.”

Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.