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State of the Union: Biden's speech to address the successes Americans missed

President Joe Biden is set to devote significant portions of Tuesday night's speech not to any new initiatives, but to reminding Americans of his accomplishments in the last two years and dusting off his ‘implementer-in-chief’ bona fides for programs that are rolling out.

The president has good reason for this approach. Biden has signed more significant new laws compared with other presidents going back decades, but those achievements haven’t broken through to the public consciousness.

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that 62% of respondents (and 66% of independents) feel he has accomplished “not very much” or “little or nothing” during his time in office.

“Biden is really enjoying, by historical standards, a really successful couple of years," noted Camille Busette, the interim director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. "The issue he faces is that people are just not aware of what has been passed."

U.S. President Joe Biden gestures to reporters before boarding Air Force One en route to Camp David at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, U.S., February 4, 2023. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
President Joe Biden before boarding Air Force One in Syracuse, New York on Feb. 4. (REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz)

From the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to the Inflation Reduction Act to legislation around semiconductors, veterans, guns and more, Biden has signed legislation that is primed to reshape the U.S. economy for years to come. Busette predicts Biden will make a concerted effort tonight to help Americans “visualize” how his policies are being enacted.

“I think he’s going to spend a lot of time and political currency on that,” she said Monday during a Brookings event to preview the annual address.

The president's speech won't be completely devoid of new ideas, aides say. He is also set to discuss a "unity agenda" around efforts like supporting veterans, fighting cancer, and tackling opioid abuse, which might have a chance at cobbling together bipartisan support.

Biden will also call for new policies like universal insulin caps, a billionaires tax, and expanding government support for childcare. But the presence of new Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who will be sitting over the president's left shoulder, will be a visual reminder that those ideas have little chance of being enacted anytime soon.

"Fundamentally, this president is focused on delivering results for the American people," White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told reporters Tuesday morning, discussing both the unity agenda and Biden's broader economic agenda. "That is going to continue to be our focus for the next two years."

The U.S. Capitol building is seen at night before U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress during the State of the Union address, in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Capitol building seen Monday night before President Biden addresses a joint session of Congress during the State of the Union address on Tuesday night. (REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein)

‘This is a year of action and investment and implementation’

Still, large sections of the speech are set to spotlight the implementation of previously passed laws.

National Economic Council Director Brian Deese laid out more detail of what that will look like on Monday. The aide noted that three major pieces of Biden's economic legislation really begin to take hold this year.

For example, three main parts of the massive Inflation Reduction Act went into effect on Jan. 1, including new limits on the price of prescription drugs and a new corporate minimum tax. The CHIPS and Science Act will begin distributing $50 billion it has set aside for semiconductor companies later this month. And the $1 trillion infrastructure law signed in 2021 will continue to roll out money in phases over the coming years for improvements on roads and bridges.

“This is a year of action and investment and implementation,” Deese said, allowing that it might not be the most exciting topic. "Even the word 'implementation,' it sort of sounds technocratic."

Still, he added, “we need to demonstrate to the American people and the world that we can build faster, more efficiently, and more equitably than we've done in the past.”

The Biden administration’s shift to an implementation focus has been in the works ever since Republicans took over the House of Representatives.

“Something that people should know about Joe Biden is, more than almost any other holder of high office I've ever worked for, he cares a ton about implementation,” Jared Bernstein, a member of the president’s Council of Economic Advisors, told Yahoo Finance in January

Speaker McCarthy and many other Republicans adamantly oppose the rollout of these bills — even as legislation like infrastructure and semiconductor laws passed with some GOP support — but their power to stop the effort is limited with Democrats in control of the Senate and White House.

For his part, McCarthy on Monday vowed to be “respectful” during the address, saying “I won’t tear up the speech, I won’t play games.” Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR) is then set to deliver the Republican response immediately after Biden speaks.

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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