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Biden to juggle competing political demands in State of the Union address

Perhaps the president's most urgent mission is simply to reassure a skeptical nation that he’s up to the rigors of his job.
President Joe Biden speaks
President Joe Biden at the National Prayer Breakfast at the Capitol on Friday.Andrew Harnik / AP file

WASHINGTON — In his State of the Union speech this week, President Joe Biden will pose a question that he hopes will answer itself: Whose side are you on?

Are Americans, as he’ll frame it, on the side of lower health care costs, democratic freedoms and Ukraine’s fight to keep itself from being swallowed up by Russia? Or on the side of drug company profits, tax breaks for the wealthy and Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin?

Baked into the argument that Biden will lay out Thursday night is that he’s on the right side of all these issues and that voters should unite behind him, as opposed to his likely Republican rival in the presidential election, former President Donald Trump.

The stark choices facing the U.S. will be the propulsive theme of Biden’s third State of the Union speech, advisers say. He’ll use the moment to remind voters about hard-won legislative victories of which they’re mostly unaware, polls show, while pledging to revamp the tax code in a second term so that middle-class Americans get some financial help.

He’ll also look to ease growing unhappiness inside his own party about his handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. Biden’s failure to forge an enduring cease-fire has splintered his party and spawned a grassroots movement to deprive him of delegates at the Democratic presidential nominating convention in Chicago.

“It would be important for him to show his concerns about the future of Gaza,” said a Democratic member of Congress, speaking on the condition of anonymity so as not to alienate the White House. The lawmaker added that Biden needs to express “how horrific is the number of people who’ve died and how he wants to protect civilian life going forward and get a cease-fire so no one else dies.”

Perhaps Biden’s most urgent mission is simply to reassure a skeptical nation that he’s up to the rigors of the job.

Every State of the Union address gets outsize attention, but the one Biden is poised to give looms as among the most consequential in decades. Traditions that once seemed chiseled into American society — rule of law, limits on presidential power, self-government — all appear to be up for grabs in the coming election.

Tens of millions of people will tune in, meaning Biden can expect the biggest television audience he’ll get at least until the convention in August.

“This speech has the potential to be the most important political speech so far in the 21st?century,” said Donald Baer, a former chief speechwriter and communications director in then-President Bill Clinton’s White House. “We are at a pivotal moment in the history of the country and the world and certainly in this campaign.”

“It has the potential to be, for Biden in his re-election, as powerful an opportunity as he will have,” Baer added.

By the time Biden gets that famed introduction, “Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States!” voters should have little doubt that the Biden vs. Trump rematch is actually happening.

The Super Tuesday primaries take place two days before Biden’s address, and Trump is expected to sweep the 15 contests and be a prohibitive front-runner for the GOP nomination once the votes are tallied.

“For regular folks who are not following the day-to-day news cycle, this will break through on [Super] Tuesday,” a Biden campaign adviser said in an interview. “There will be a number of Americans who on Tuesday will stop for the first time and really kind of digest that this is going to be Trump versus Biden in November.”

With Biden’s poll numbers sagging and his re-election in doubt, he has a chance to get a fresh look from an electorate that seems willing to dump him in favor of an ex-president who is defending himself against 91 felony charges.

A crisp performance will go a long way toward demonstrating Biden’s fitness and acuity at age 81. By the same token, should he trip while walking to the rostrum in the House chamber, or lose his place on the teleprompter and stare blankly at the screen, he risks a viral moment that would be tough to overcome.

Republicans will try to rattle Biden if they can. Expect the GOP side of the aisle to jeer Biden’s remarks — as they did during his 2023 address. The GOP has also arranged to highlight Biden’s advanced age by picking Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., to give the party’s official rebuttal.

“The speech is a high-wire act — and this for a president whose footing hasn’t been so certain,” said Jeff Shesol, deputy chief speechwriter in the Clinton White House. “For many observers, the point of the exercise is to see whether he stumbles. It’s not so much what he says, but the manner in which he says it.”

Biden could help himself in an unscripted clash with Republicans if he can parry the boos in real time, a feat he pulled off last year. When Republicans heckled him for saying they wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare, Biden treated that as an affirmative commitment to protect the two entitlement programs.

“We got unanimity!” Biden said.

A White House official said Biden may revisit that exchange when he delivers his speech.

“Joe Biden strayed from the script last year with incredible effect,” said Shesol, who took a major role in drafting two State of the Union speeches for Clinton. “It was the most effective and consequential ad-lib in the history of State of the Union addresses. But I don’t think that his staff will be encouraging him to do the same thing again this year. The risk-reward ratio is daunting.”

There is little question that Biden will come to the speech well rested and prepared. He spent the weekend reviewing the speech at Camp David. Thus far, the only public event on his schedule before Thursday is one devoted to cracking down on “junk fees” charged by credit card companies. Even that is tied to the State of the Union: He plans to mention his efforts to do away with the fees in his address, advisers said.

Biden will be working with speech coach Michael Sheehan during the final stage of preparation this week, a person familiar with the matter said. Sheehan also worked with Clinton and Barack Obama, the person said. During the 2020 race, the Biden campaign paid $149,000 to Sheehan’s firm, federal campaign records show.

Another seasoned hand, senior adviser Bruce Reed, has been running a review process meant to identify policy priorities that will figure into the speech, Biden advisers said. Reed also worked on State of the Union addresses during Clinton’s time in office.

A State of the Union speech is always a rich opportunity for presidents to rally public support for a policy agenda or political cause. Clinton memorably proclaimed that “the era of big government is over” in his 1996 address, signaling a pivot to the center that helped him defeat Republican Bob Dole in the election that year.

A vulnerability that Biden faces is uncertainty about his future agenda. Some Democrats have complained that he has been reticent when it comes to what he’d like to accomplish if he wins re-election.

“He has laid out what he’s done, and people haven’t always heard it,” the Democratic lawmaker said. “He also needs to lay out his vision for what the next four years would be. It’s one of the important things that we’ve got to do.”

On this front, Biden will use the speech to highlight his support for women’s reproductive rights, as well as changes to the tax code. Not for nothing, first lady Jill Biden will be sitting in the audience with Kate Cox, a Texas woman who was denied an abortion by the state Supreme Court.

Biden has presided over some changes in tax law, but he wants to enact a more robust overhaul of the code in favor of working-class families, aides said. No meaningful legislative changes are likely before the election, but revamping the tax code could be a centerpiece of a second-term agenda. Often, Biden will ask audiences to raise their hands if they believe the tax code is fair. Seldom do hands go up.

“If you re-elect me — I tell you what, man — hang on, taxes,” Biden said at a campaign rally in Nevada earlier this month.

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