State of the Union: Biden touts tax bill, defends abortion rights
President Joe Biden pushed a “blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America” and called on a bitterly divided Congress to work together during his address.
Scott L. Hall, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden at Tuesday’s State of the Union touted his administration’s achievements and offered an agenda for Congress this year.
But Biden left out important context from his nearly 72-minute-long speech.
Here’s what was missing:
Record job creation and low unemployment rate
Biden touted record job creation – more than 12 million new jobs – since he entered the White House and the lowest unemployment rate since 1969. He called it proof his economic plan “is working.” Those numbers are accurate, and it follows a robust 517,000 jobs added in January, bringing the unemployment rate down to 3.4% from 3.5% in December.
Yet the president did not mention a key driver behind the job growth:
- Millions of jobs that returned after lockdowns: The U.S. added 4.5 million jobs in 2022, second-most behind the 6.7 million gained in 2021 as the nation continued to recover from the pandemic.
- Labor participation still lags pre-pandemic levels. The share of adults working or looking for a job edged up to 62.4%, the highest since March but still below the pre-pandemic level of 63.4%.
While Biden has celebrated the jobs boom, there is some cause for concern. The Federal Reserve has been raising interest rates to slow job gains and wage growth in a push to tame inflation that remains high.
Biden touted six straight months of slowing inflation, arguing that his policies are helping tame what has been the top domestic challenge of his presidency.
The president is correct that inflation is trending downward. Yet there are nuances.
- Consumer prices were still up 6.5% in December from a year earlier: Prices are trending down but Americans are still facing historically high costs of living. One household staple, eggs, cost 60% more than a year ago.
- Cost of living is high: Families are still struggling to pay high energy bills along with other rising costs for essential goods, like food and rent, that are increasing at a faster rate than the overall rate of inflation. Grocery prices rose 10.4% annually in December and rent rose about 7.5%, while overall inflation increased by 6.5%.
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Social Security and Medicare
Biden accused Republicans of seeking to cut popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare – a charge that drew boos and protests from some GOP lawmakers in the chamber.
- Biden said he will propose a plan for shoring up Medicare, though he didn’t say the same for Social Security. Instead, he warned that the programs are threatened by Republican budget cutters.
- Republicans in the crowd did not agree that the party is threatening the social programs. But some conservative House Republicans have backed raising the eligibility age for Medicare and the retirement age for Social Security to preserver their future financial health without raising taxes.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has said those programs should be “off the table” as the party pushes to reduce the federal deficit. But that would make balancing the budget with spending cuts alone extremely difficult.
Obamacare enrollment is way up and uninsured rates are way down, Biden trumpeted.
The president can rightly take credit for the 50% increase in the number of people who signed up for Affordable Care Act insurance since he took office. A record 16.3 million Americans enrolled for 2023 coverage. After Republicans were unsuccessful in killing Obamacare, the Biden administration ramped up outreach to help people get coverage. Democrats also improved the insurance subsidies.
- But the enhancements are set to expire after 2025, and Biden called on them to be made permanent.
- And millions of people are expected to lose Medicaid coverage this spring as the federal government ends emergency pandemic programs.
Biden praised the progress made in fighting the pandemic and returning to normalcy, saying “we have broken COVID’s grip on us.”
- The administration hasn’t been able to persuade most adults to keep up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines.
- Congressional Republicans rejected the administration’s request for funding to prepare for future variants with tests, vaccines and treatments.
Republicans have accused Biden of continuing pandemic programs too long, although COVID-19 is still a leading cause of death.
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Prescription drug costs
While Biden highlighted steps taken to lower prescription drug costs, the help is being phased in and the administration didn’t get everything it wanted.
- The Inflation Reduction Act passed last year capped seniors’ insulin costs at $35 for a month’s supply starting this year. Biden had wanted the cap to go beyond Medicare to also apply to people with private insurance.
- While he called on Congress to take that next step, it’s unlikely to get much GOP support.
Beginning this year, drug companies that increase prices above inflation levels must pay rebates to Medicare. Beginning in 2025, no Medicare recipient will have to pay more than $2,000 a year for medicines. The government will also start negotiating Medicare drug prices, but price changes won’t start until 2026.
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War in Ukraine
Biden justifiably highlighted the international support for Ukraine he orchestrated after Russia’s invasion.
The U.S. has approved more than $113 billion in military and humanitarian assistance, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
But as the war drags on, it will be harder to maintain support at home and abroad. Many GOP House members are calling for greater scrutiny – or even a curtailment – of U.S. involvement.
Biden applauded Congress for approving bipartisan legislation last year to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, but called on Congress to go further by banning assault weapons.
The measure, which Biden signed into law last June, passed just weeks after a deadly mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and was the largest gun control package to clear Congress in 30 years.
It enhances background checks on gun buyers ages 18 to 21, encourages states to develop better “red flag” laws to deny guns to people who are deemed to be dangerous, and adds dating partners to the list of domestic abusers who are prohibited from buying firearms.
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Biden cited recent allegations of police brutality – paying tribute to Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died after being beaten by Memphis police officers – and called for passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
- But getting the legislation through a divided Congress will prove difficult. The legislation, which includes several measures such as a ban on chokeholds and federal no-knock warrants, cleared the Democratic-controlled House in 2020 but died in the Senate, which was controlled by Republicans at the time.
The House passed the measure again in 2021 after Democrats regained control of the Senate. But the measure stalled again because of disagreements between Senate Democrats and Republicans over ending qualified immunity for police officers. With the GOP now controlling the House, the bill’s prospects for passage again appear dim.
After the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision that people no longer have a constitutional right to an abortion, Biden said rights must be protected.
- But Biden has limited power to do so. Republicans can block legislation to codify abortion rights. And a ban on federal funding for most abortions limits how the administration can help people in states that don’t allow the procedure.
While Biden directed federal agencies to push back on abortion restrictions in states, advocacy groups have called for stronger action, such as declaration of a public health emergency. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the battle over abortion has shifted from Washington to state capitals.
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Biden claimed his administration delivered a record $1.7 trillion deficit reduction during his first two years, reciting a line the White House is making frequently as Republican push for spending cuts as part of raising the debt ceiling.
- The number is accurate, but the reduction wasn’t the result of Biden’s policies. Instead, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit decreased because of the expiration of trillions in spending in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
- Those two years, at the height of the pandemic, saw the largest deficits relative to the economy since World War II.
“Federal debt measured relative to the size of the economy is projected to dip over the next two years and then to rise each year through 2032,” the CBO wrote in May.
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Student debt relief
Biden noted that his administration is making progress in reducing student loan debt and increasing Pell Grants.
The Pell Grant is increasing by $500, rising to nearly $7,400 for the 2023 fiscal year from the former max award of $6,895. The Education Department has also canceled billions in debt through its existing relief programs, but there are limits to who qualifies for those programs.
- Biden’s sweeping student debt relief program is in limbo. The question at hand is whether the administration overstepped its authority by attempting to wipe out about $400 billion in student loan debt unilaterally – without going through Congress. Biden tried to do so through an existing law enacted after 9/11 that doesn’t explicitly say anything about forgiving debt.
Many federal courts have been wary about extending any administration such power in cases where the law is unclear. The Supreme Court is considering a case this month that may settle the matter.
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Biden vowed to secure the United States’ southern border and fix the immigration system, saying there are a record number of personnel working at the U.S.-Mexico border.
There are 19,300 border patrol employees at the United States’ southern border, said John Modlin, the Border Patrol’s chief agent in the Tucson sector, in a House hearing on border security Tuesday. The Biden administration has said its fiscal 2023 omnibus funding package – which faced pushback from Republicans – could pay for 23,000 officers at the border.
- Biden also said a new parole program brought down unlawful migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela by 97% in the past month. It’s unclear whether the president’s statistic is correct, because U.S. Customs and Border Protection has yet to release a breakdown of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border for January and February.
Biden announced new policies in early January that would create a pathway to admit up to 30,000 people from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba each month who have a sponsor and pass background checks. The new policy would also expel more migrants as Mexico has agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants a month from each of the countries.
But vast swaths of Biden’s immigration agenda remain tied up in federal court, including his proposal to prioritize certain immigrants for deportation over others and his stated desire to unwind Title 42. Both of those questions are pending at the Supreme Court.
Biden urged Congress to pass a pathway for citizenship for “Dreamers” and farmworkers, a more narrow ask than comprehensive immigration reform.
On the first day of his administration, Biden outlined that he wanted to see an immigration reform package, including creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Some members of congress have focused on rallying support to create a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers,” or young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by their parents, farmworkers and essential workers.
Biden is pushing for Congress to do more to stop the flow and production of fentanyl, which has killed as many as 70,000 Americans last year.
Biden met with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last month, and the two leaders discussed trying to stop production in the country and to stop drug smugglers before they reach the border.
During his remarks, some Republicans said the president must do more to protect the border to stop the flow of fentanyl.
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Contributing: Chris Quintana