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WASHINGTON — There were no economic pivots in President Biden’s first State of the Union address to a Republican House. He did not pare back his push to raise taxes on high earners or to spend big on new government programs. He offered no olive branches to conservatives who have accused him of running the country into crisis with government borrowing.
It was a shift from Mr. Biden’s two most recent Democratic predecessors in the White House, who tacked toward a more conciliatory and limited-government approach to economic policy after losing at least one chamber of Congress. But on Tuesday night, Mr. Biden barreled ahead.
The president renewed his calls for trillions of dollars of new federal programs, including for child care and community college, over the sometimes raucous objections of Republicans who have centered their fight with Mr. Biden on the issue of spending and debt. He did not name a single federal spending program he was willing to cut. He said he would work to reduce budget deficits, but by raising taxes on high earners and corporations, a position anathema to Republicans.
The speech was not a blueprint to pass any of those proposals, which have little chance of becoming law during his first term.
Instead, it was a defiant opening bid for a high-stakes clash over raising the nation’s borrowing limit. It was a no-quarter recommitment to a campaign theme aimed squarely at blue-collar voters in 2024 swing states, centered on expanding government in pursuit of what Mr. Biden calls “middle-out” economic policy.
Aides say the choice to defy Republicans’ calls for Mr. Biden to change course on economic policy was deliberate, reflecting both the president’s deeply held convictions on policy and his belief that he has found a winning political message.
It was also a bet that the economy, which has so far been a drag on Mr. Biden’s popularity, will ultimately prove to be a tailwind in his widely expected re-election campaign. Rapid price gains are beginning to ease, and jobs are plentiful, with the unemployment rate at its lowest point since 1969.
Biden’s State of the Union Address
To that end, Mr. Biden spent much of the speech proclaiming that the American economy is faring better on his watch than his critics — or even many of his voters — concede. He dived into details about laws he has signed to invest in water pipes, semiconductor factories, electric vehicles and more, while promising those plans would bring high-paying jobs to workers without college degrees. He promised consumer-friendly crackdowns on credit card fees, social media companies and more. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden was headed to Wisconsin to promote his economic legislation, while his cabinet secretaries fanned out across the country to do the same.
“We’re building an economy where no one’s left behind,” Mr. Biden said in his speech. “Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because choices we made in the last several years. You know, this is, in my view, a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives at home.”
“Here’s my message to all of you out there,” he added later. “I have your back.”
Mr. Biden’s approach underscored how he has not regarded the Republican House takeover as a rebuke of his policies.
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It defied the example set by Mr. Biden’s Democratic predecessors after they lost House control in their first midterms. President Bill Clinton promised a new era of smaller government in 1995. President Barack Obama vowed in 2011 “to take responsibility for our deficit” and proposed what he called “painful cuts” to domestic spending.
Mr. Biden offered no apology for his policies. He cast himself as more fiscally responsible than his immediate predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump, in claiming credit for a $1.7 trillion decline in the federal budget deficit last year. That improvement was largely the product of expiring pandemic aid programs, but Mr. Biden suggested he would take steps to keep winnowing the shortfall between what the government spent and what it earned through taxes and other revenue. He said his next budget, which will be released on March 9, would further reduce deficits by $2 trillion over a decade.
In a sharp contrast with Republicans, he called for raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy as a way to show a commitment to deficit reduction in spite of his spending plans. His proposals included an expanded tax on stock buybacks and what would effectively be a sort of wealth tax on billionaires.
He baited Republicans on a pair of politically cherished programs, Social Security and Medicare, drawing sustained jeers when he said some of his opponents wanted to sunset the programs. While hundreds of Republican lawmakers have signed on to plans to reduce spending on the safety net by raising retirement ages and other reductions in future benefits, Mr. Biden’s “sunset” accusation rests on the possible effects of a plan to reauthorize spending programs every five years, advanced by Senator Rick Scott of Florida, which has gained little traction among party leaders.
Republicans called the speech a departure from Mr. Biden’s previous calls for unity and a disconnect on major economic issues.
“While the president is busy taking a premature and undeserved victory lap, lauding legislation that Democrats passed on a party-line basis, families in West Virginia and America are struggling at every turn because many of the policies and priorities of this administration have made the American dream harder to attain,” Senator Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia, said in a release after the address.
Mr. Biden’s allies cheered. The president “delivered a bold blueprint for an economy that, at long last, puts working people first,” Liz Shuler, the president of the powerful A.F.L.-C.I.O. labor organization, said in a news release on Tuesday evening.
Mr. Biden fashions himself a congressional deal maker, and on Tuesday, he outlined a handful of smaller-scale initiatives on other issues, like curbing the flow of fentanyl and regulating big tech, that might plausibly win bipartisan support in the new Congress. But the speech was not a recipe for economic compromise.
The president re-upped calls for big new federal investments in child care and assistance for the elderly, community college, prekindergarten and health insurance. But he offered no plausible road to finishing the job, as he put it, on that long list of proposals, which he was unable to include in the wide array of economic legislation he signed in his first two years because of opposition from centrist Democrats in the Senate.
What he did outline was a defiant negotiating posture, as he and Republican lawmakers battle over raising the $31.4 trillion federal borrowing limit, which the United States hit last month. That cap, which limits the government’s ability to borrow funds to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized, must be suspended or lifted later this year in order for the United States to continue paying its bills and avoid a financial crisis.
Republicans are refusing to raise the limit unless Mr. Biden agrees to deep spending cuts. Mr. Biden has said he will refuse to bargain over the borrowing cap and on Tuesday night reminded Republicans that they had agreed to effectively increase the debt limit three times when Mr. Trump was president. Despite what both sides called a productive meeting at the White House last week between the president and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, Mr. Biden did not waver in that position on Tuesday.
“We’re not going to be moved into being threatened to default on the debt,” Mr. Biden said.
Mr. McCarthy, seated behind him, did not look pleased.