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State of the Union for the Middle Class

Biden campaigns in NV
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You haven’t sought my counsel about your coming State of the Union address, but as you know, receiving unsolicited advice is part of the president’s job.

I begin with a plea: Please don’t tell your fellow citizens that the state of the union is strong, because they won’t believe you. You can focus on what has gone right on your watch, and you can argue that many things—especially the economy—are getting better. You can rightly say that the pandemic affected every aspect of American society and that we’re still working to recover from it.

But you should acknowledge what most Americans believe: Partisan polarization is weakening us at home and abroad. You can point out that most of your major legislative accomplishments have enjoyed support across party lines, and you can criticize your opposition for blocking bipartisan agreement on key issues such as immigration.

In a similar vein, I would caution you not to base your speech, or your re-election campaign, on questionable political premises. Although I agree with you that a second term for Donald Trump would threaten our constitutional order, a mostly negative campaign won’t be enough to defeat him. Unlike almost every previous challenger to an incumbent president, the former president is a known quantity, and most voters have already made up their minds about him.

Your advisers are saying that the polls will shift as the electorate focuses on Mr. Trump’s nomination and remembers the reasons that it turned against him in 2020. They may be right, but you shouldn’t count on it. Polls suggest that voters who care about threats to democracy now divide their support evenly between the parties.

It is also unsafe to assume that Mr. Trump’s political fate will be determined in court. The latest national survey found that a felony conviction would erase the lead that he currently enjoys over you, but it would still leave the contest within the margin of error.

This brings me to what for you must be the most bitter pill: Running on your record probably won’t be enough to win. While your list of legislative accomplishments is long, many of the effects won’t be apparent until well after the election, and what voters see now hasn’t persuaded them that you merit a second term.

This stubborn fact leads to my core advice: Your State of the Union address should focus mostly on the future. Here are two examples of what you can offer.

First, you should underscore your determination to attack high prices head-on. You’ve made a good start by capping the cost of insulin, enabling Medicare to negotiate drug prices, and going after junk fees. But as I’ve argued in previous columns, you should expand the battle to include persistently high food prices, which reflect (among other factors) oligopolies in key food sectors such as meat and poultry and decisions by major food companies to maintain their expanded profit margins long after pandemic disruptions disappeared. Challenge Congress to hold hearings on this issue and make clear that the executive branch has the tools to attack collusion and excessive concentration in the food sector.

Your administration has had little to say about high housing costs, which prevent many couples with young children from buying their first homes. Governors around the country are beginning to address this problem, and you should too. Go big: Offer first-time home buyers the option of obtaining long-term mortgages at a subsidized rate of 3%, with the cost of the subsidy to be repaid to the government when the participants sell their homes and upgrade.

The gains from such a program would be considerable. Homeownership contributes to stable communities, and monthly mortgage payments are the most effective way for average families to build wealth.

Second: Roughly 6 in 10 voters haven’t completed a four-year college degree and won’t ever do so. You need to offer them a credible plan to enhance their incomes and social mobility. A college degree represents one path to the middle class, but, as you have rightly insisted, it shouldn’t be the only one.

A recent survey of working-class voters found that 74% favor more public investment in apprenticeships and career pathways to help workers without college degrees acquire better skills. They also favor programs that combine work and learning. High schools that offer skills training linked to jobs after graduation would be a significant part of this plan.

You should also shine a light on state-level efforts that improve opportunities for working-class families. Several governors have eliminated college degrees as a requirement for most public-sector jobs, and others have worked to trim cumbersome and unnecessary occupational licensing requirements. You should urge all states to move in this direction.

Themes and policy details can be debated, but the bottom line is clear: Your State of the Union address should offer working- and middle-class Americans a credible path to a better future.

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Source: A State of the Union for the Middle Class – WSJ