President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., watch, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

When President Joe Biden delivers his second State of the Union address on February 7, he has an opportunity to tell the American people something they haven’t heard before: the story of today’s economic transformation, and the dramatic shift in policy thinking behind it. Biden’s administration has broken with more than 40 years of anti-government orthodoxy to fashion a new economic strategy—investing in people, investing in places. The upcoming SOTU speech is the time for him to make this clear in a way he’s never quite been able to do.

Each year, the State of the Union is an unmatched opportunity for a president to speak directly to the nation. In 2022, more than 38 million people tuned in across broadcast and cable news networks, a massive viewership on par with Sunday night NFL games. But while the audience was there for Biden’s first State of the Union address, a clear narrative was not. As The New York Times’s coverage of the 2022 speech noted, the address “barely mentioned topics included some of the biggest on Democrats’ agenda.”

This year, President Biden should aim higher—and he can, because he now has the policy successes and the proof on the ground that he needs to deliver the visionary, inspirational speech that meets the moment. 

The 117th Congress was the most productive in decades, which is even more remarkable given the president’s razor-thin margins in the House and the Senate. (Since then, he’s, of course, lost the House and picked up a seat in the Senate.) The administration’s hard-won 2021 and 2022 legislative victories—spending to keep families and small businesses whole during a crisis, investing in the industries and infrastructure of the future—didn’t just rescue the economy. They set it on a new path by applying a new understanding of how today’s economy works—and how it can work better. Biden’s new economics jettisoned austerity and put government investment and the crafting of productive markets at the center of a more equitable economic growth strategy. This was a 180-degree pivot from the trickle-down approach that still guides too many politicians, most of them on autopilot, and it’s paid off with the fastest economic recovery in decades. We now know that relentless tax cuts and starving government of talent and ambition pave a road to nowhere. 

But while the substance is on Biden’s side, far too few Americans understand this. As House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries has said, “There’s a distinction between governing and messaging … You govern in fine print. You message, you persuade, you communicate in headlines.” The address is Biden’s chance to craft the headline he wants the American people to hear.

That’s what the most effective State of the Union addresses have always done. 

We remember Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address not as a laundry list but as the Four Freedoms Speech—an appeal to the universal values that undergirded his New Deal achievements.

Ronald Reagan’s more anti-government philosophy was summed up in his 1986 State of the Union: “Government growing beyond our consent” threatened “to crush the very roots of our freedom … We face deficits because the federal government overspends.” 

Reagan’s speechmaking shows how powerful the State of the Union can be. When we think of Bill Clinton’s 1996 State of the Union speech, his Reaganesque death knell for the New Deal era echoes in our collective consciousness: “The era of big government is over.” But that epitaph, made during an era of triangulation, has not aged well. 

For the last 25 years, the federal government has not invested enough in people, our core drivers of growth and prosperity. The mantra that big, powerful corporations, booming financial markets, and a hands-off government would benefit us all has not worked as promised. Instead, this approach has led to more expensive basics for the American people. Costs for big-ticket items that are central to well-being and economic opportunity—medical care, child care, and college tuition—have risen sharply as so many of these services have become more privatized. Manufacturing has moved overseas under a globalization that privileged capital mobility but little else. The resulting low-wage job growth has been bad for all of us, and especially for our democracy.

President Biden has led the country to the cusp of a fundamentally new era, shifting the relationship of government to the economy. But the public has no idea that this is happening. 

The number one issue for voters throughout 2022 was the economy, but post-midterm polling from Way to Win, a political funding group, shows that almost 80 percent of Americans in battleground states could not name a single thing that the Biden administration or the Democratic Congress had done to improve their lives.

When he addresses the nation from the House chamber, President Biden must spell it out: The legislative wins of the past two years will build an economy, and a country, that works for you. 

The president’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) is the perfect place to start that story.

Passed as the pandemic raged in March 2021, the law exemplifies Biden’s new economic approach. In an attempt to stave off the jobless recovery we saw after the Great Recession, the Biden administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress invested at a scale considered unthinkable in the neoliberal era. 

The wisdom of that policy choice is undeniable. The ARP helped reverse rising inequality and bring unemployment to historic lows. Now we know that the United States can drastically combat poverty and hunger by directly giving families money. Investing in people and families created a demand for labor, a “worker’s market,” empowering all workers, but especially Black and brown people who otherwise struggle the most and tend to be fired first in a downturn. This meant significant wage gains for lower-income Americans. Contrary to some punditry, ARP spending was not the primary driver of 2022’s record inflation. The president should point to the real causes for higher prices—the market power of monopolistic corporations, and the fragility of an economy too dependent on thin supply chains that don’t hold up in times of international distress. 

The American Rescue Plan’s revival of a COVID-battered job market was the foundation for Biden’s series of successes—from executive actions that strengthened antitrust enforcement and worker power to big-ticket legislation, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act.

Which brings us to today. Right now, most Americans haven’t heard much about these new laws, and at any rate, all of this legislation sounds like alphabet soup. So far, administration officials have used jargon like “industrial strategy” or “modern supply-side economics” to explain their policies. Those wonky terms are fine for economists and are hot topics at DC policy convenings, but they don’t inspire skeptical voters. That’s why President Biden must explain, simply, that spending for the future—wind farms and solar arrays, electric vehicle manufacturing, and semiconductor fabs—has and will create jobs. He can say that building clean energy at home and working with democratic allies abroad on decarbonization will change our country and our planet. Biden should add that government has a necessary role in the building of the new green economy. The market alone won’t move fast enough or comprehensively enough to meet the deadlines set by climate scientists. Biden must say it clearly: Government must ensure, in a way that the private sector cannot, that the opportunities in the green economy reach all Americans.

If told plainly, Americans will understand that the implementation of this legislation—the work of the next two years—could be transformative. Biden needs to assure Americans who remain dubious about the economy and their own futures that he has a plan to move new federal funding into communities nationwide, and that the purpose of that funding is to spur additional private investment in new businesses and better, unionized, middle-class jobs. 

The State of the Union audience knows that too many people and places have enormous potential but have been dealt out over the last thirty years because bad trade deals and lax labor law enforcement have allowed private actors to simply chase low labor costs. This economic policy has caused pain and tragic loss—here Biden can call on his empathy superpower—and a new federal approach can help turn this around.

As part of this story, Biden should point to all the places where investment has already made a difference, in new factories and rebuilt roads and bridges and expanded internet access that we are seeing as a result of government funding. He should be realistic and acknowledge that the path ahead won’t be easy—but say this in ways that rally the American people as participants in a common project. What’s before us now—new funds and new government authorities throughout the federal government; a constellation of investments, incentives, and regulations; the authority to ensure that the wealthiest Americans pay the taxes they owe—must be made more than the sum of their parts. 

But to make these pieces cohere, Biden will need to build a more responsive and effective government. That must be one of his highest priorities for the rest of his term —to be “the sheriff” who will make sure, as Franklin Roosevelt did, that well-intentioned legislation becomes a reality for the American people. And to do this, he needs the public.

The story Biden tells at this State of the Union should be simple: We know what doesn’t work, and we know what does. We’re putting the old economics aside and instead investing in ourselves. 

Telling that story of people and places would help the president connect to the diversity of the American electorate, who would support his policies if they knew about them. Younger, mostly Black and brown voters urgently care about the climate and about justice. Non-affiliated voters (“persuadables” is the term of art) who are self-described independents, disproportionately male, and live in regions of the country that the old version of globalization has left behind, want jobs to return. The people-and-places story appeals to all of those groups. 

The State of the Union is an opportunity to show all Americans a new vision for government. For the sake of our democracy and our common purpose, President Biden needs to lay out his vision in the clearest possible way. Success doesn’t speak for itself. A president must do that.

Felicia Wong

Felicia Wong is the President and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute and co-host of the podcast How To Save A Country. @FeliciaWongRI .