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Biden tries again on his economy message in his State of the Union

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last night's State of the Union had a big focus on something that voters say is really bothering them - high costs. President Biden made his case for another term, saying he'll fight to make the wealthy pay more taxes, cap credit-card late fees and lower prices for prescription drugs. Biden's speech also broke some new ground on a big issue in tech. He became the first president to mention artificial intelligence at the State of the Union. We'll talk more about that in a few minutes. But first, joining us now to talk about the economy is NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there. It's always good to talk to you.

CHANG: Always good to talk to you. OK, so the president's message last night - I guess it sounded kind of populist. Like, why do you think Biden chose to highlight those particular economic issues?

KHALID: Well, Ailsa, I think it comes down to the fact that the high cost of living really is one of Biden's biggest vulnerabilities. Inflation is down to 3% from that 9% high in the summer of 2022, but a lot of Americans still feel like life is just far too expensive. They are frustrated with high prices on everything from housing to food. Credit card debt is up. The cost of financing is up. So there is a lot of economic anxiety, and Biden needs to address these concerns directly. I think that is why, last night, you heard him talk about concrete steps to curb costs. His top economic adviser, Lael Brainard, also told me this week that this is a message you are going to continue to hear in the months ahead. The president is going to keep emphasizing that he's fighting to lower costs.

CHANG: Well, how vulnerable is Biden on the economy - I mean, as he's heading into reelection, probably with a rematch against former President Trump, right?

KHALID: Yeah. And I think that's part of the dynamic - is who his opponent is. You know, it's not just that voters are frustrated with the economy under Biden. Pollsters tell me voters also have a really rosy memory of the economy under Trump. This is an unusual election cycle, in that both Biden and Trump have records. And so the nostalgia that voters have for the Trump economy in 2018 or 2019 could actually really matter this November. You know, I do want to point out that economic data shows inflation is slowing and the economy is growing, but Republican pollster Glen Bolger told me it may not be sinking in fast enough to help Biden.

GLEN BOLGER: There is some uptick in optimism, and it may, down the road, translate to Biden. It's not right now. And, you know, we are getting closer to November, and it just makes it harder and harder for public attitudes to change the closer we get.

KHALID: You know, Republicans often have an advantage on the economy in polls. But right now, that gap is really wide. And Democratic pollster Celinda Lake told me Biden needs to narrow that gap because, if you look at history, Democrats win the presidency when they can break even with Republicans on the economy. So Biden has some work to do.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, how do you think Biden is going to change perceptions of how he is doing on the economy?

KHALID: Well, I think we will see a shift from what he has been doing. You know, he had been trying to tout his accomplishments - those major pieces of legislation on things like infrastructure and the semiconductor chips plan. Frankly, those things were not really registering with voters. Here's how Celinda Lake put it to me.

CELINDA LAKE: People aren't interested in a victory tour. They're interested in - what are you going to do for me in the future? What is four more years of Joe Biden going to look like for you and your family?

KHALID: And Ailsa, Lake told me one particular nugget that I thought was really intriguing. She said, you know, no doubt, Republicans have an advantage on the economy when you look at polling right now. But when she has asked voters who would be better for you and your family - when you personalize it - Democrats then have a three-point advantage.

CHANG: Huh.

KHALID: You know, it is a quirky detail, but it suggests to her that, if Biden can convince people he has concrete ways to make their life more affordable, that could potentially resonate.

CHANG: Well after this big speech last night, how is Biden personalizing his message?

KHALID: Yeah, well, you know, he's in Philadelphia. He's trying to take this message on the road and kitchen tables. I think the challenge for this White House is not just the status of the economy - though that is a challenge - it's also getting the message across. So I will be keeping an eye on that in the coming months.

CHANG: That is NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you so much, Asma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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