Biden’s State of the Union speech was in stark contrast to Britain’s dearth of economic ideas

Like every State of the Union address by every US president before him, Joe Biden’s speech to Congress on Tuesday was aimed squarely at the domestic audience. The United States may be a global superpower, but the rest of the world counts for little when the president makes his annual winter journey up to Capitol Hill. The Beltway rituals of the evening – the obligatory hallowed phrases, the namechecks of the guests in the gallery, the breaks for standing ovations (and this week some heckling) – all combine to label this as a 100% American occasion.

Watching from across the ocean, the temptation may be to discuss a State of the Union as if we are Americans, too. Some in the British political class slip readily into the garb of voyeur participants, weighing how the Democratic president’s agenda will play in the Republican-controlled Congress, talking about Donald Trump and culture wars, speculating on the next election, and offering views on whether the 80-year-old Biden ought to run again.

These are all real questions for Americans. Yet for this country they are, at best, vicarious issues. Nevertheless, for once, Biden’s message did not stop at the Atlantic’s edge. This time it vaulted across the ocean. It is hard to recall any State of the Union address this century – even in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – in which the resonances for Britain were louder.

Biden’s speech centred on a profound issue that also faces Britain. It was built around the absolutely fundamental question that confronts all modern political economies today. How, in the wake of Covid and at a time of European war, can a government in an advanced capitalist society make the economy generate growth, greater security, greater fairness and environmental sustainability?

Biden’s answers were a world away from the ones that are currently aired in British politics and media. In part, that’s simply because the US and Britain are different countries. The issues look different in the UK, with an economy on the edge of recession, suffering high inflation and rising interest rates, to the way they look in the US, where inflation is falling, employment expanding and in which consumer confidence is improving.

In some fundamentals, however, the two have started from the same places. Both have faced the economic shocks of Covid and high energy prices. Before the pandemic and the Ukraine war, both also faced a post-industrial working-class electorate that felt abandoned by government and the financier class, and voted for Brexit and Trump.

Under Biden, however, a real difference has emerged. Although both the US and the UK responded to Covid and the energy price spike with measures to protect families, only Biden has tried to bring the full power of government to bear on the wider economic decline and to reverse it with a strategy of investment-led growth.

It is not a story of unblemished success, and there have been political battles along the way, including with his fellow Democrats, but on Tuesday Biden was able to celebrate the impact of measures such as his Infrastructure Act, with its 20,000 job-creating projects in transport, utilities and cabling, and the Inflation Reduction Act, which bears down on health and energy costs and marks a major strategic response to the climate crisis.

Here’s what Biden said in Tuesday’s speech about that. “I ran for president to fundamentally change things, to make sure the economy works for everyone so we can all feel pride in what we do. To build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out, not from the top down. Because when the middle class does well, the poor have a ladder up and the wealthy still do very well. We all do well.”

And here’s what Biden said about raising taxes to pay for these programmes. No one earning less than $400,000 a year should pay more. But no billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a school teacher or a firefighter. Oil companies should not be able to make billions of dollars out of an energy crisis. “We pay for these investments in our future by finally making the wealthiest and the biggest corporations begin to pay their fair share. I’m a capitalist. But just pay your fair share.”

These are words in a speech, not yet nailed-down achievements in the life of the nation. The Republicans will use Congress to stop much of it in its tracks. As words, as a strategy and as a story so far, however, Biden’s message is a world away from anything that Britain’s leaders have attempted or embraced.

Liz Truss, of course, would oppose everything that Biden stands for. She stands for a top-down not a bottom-up or middle-out economic approach, and for tax cuts for the wealthiest people and the richest corporations. The contrast helps explain why Britain is still in economic distress and the US is starting to recover. But it isn’t just Truss. No British Conservative leader of the past decade and a half would have said the things Biden said this week.

More importantly, perhaps, would any Labour leader now say them either? Keir Starmer has hinted, in his energy policy commitments, that he is open to responding big in the Biden manner. Like Biden, he is a consensus-builder by nature. But Starmer is at a different place in the political cycle, operates in a very different political and economic environment, and most of his strategic thinking has not been revealed or tested.

The Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne suggested this week that Joe Biden is a quiet revolutionary, slowly turning the US away from the neoliberal economic assumptions that took hold in the 1980s. Biden’s State of the Union speech, with its commitment to growing the economy for everyone, seems to bear that out. It is not guaranteed to succeed. But it is hugely in the Labour party’s interests that it should, and that Labour is able to learn from it.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist