President Biden is delivering his second State of the Union speech, and hoping to convince skeptical Americans that they are better off than they were when he took office two years ago.
Biden plans to highlight his economic record, including a trio of bills he signed into law that will funnel trillions of dollars toward repairing the nation’s dilapidated infrastructure, tackling climate change, lowering prescription drug costs and boosting domestic manufacturing. He’ll also seek to contrast his leadership with the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where GOP members have promised to be a roadblock during the remainder of Biden’s term and vowed to investigate both the president’s administration and his family.
“My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten,” Biden will say, according to excerpts released by the White House ahead of the speech. “Jobs are coming back, [and] pride is coming back because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
The president has yet to announce whether he’s officially running for reelection, but aides say he’ll make a decision in the next few months. The prime-time speech gives him a chance to pitch what’s expected to be his biggest audience this year. An estimated 38.2 million viewers tuned in to his first State of the Union speech, according to Nielsen ratings.
Biden will navigate both old and new challenges before a Congress no longer controlled by his party. The president is facing a special counsel investigation into whether he mishandled classified documents, and House Republicans are ramping up their own oversight efforts. Biden is also trying to keep Western allies and the American public united behind continued support for Ukraine as Russia’s invasion lurches into a second year. And a pair of recent mass shootings in California along with the brutal police killing of a Black man in Memphis have served as a glaring reminder that Democrats have failed to pass an assault weapons ban or police reform measures in the face of GOP opposition.
A State of the Union address “is an impossible speech to give for any president,” said William Howell, an American politics professor at the University of Chicago. “It’s a speech that has to politically attend to a lot of competing claims and it comes at a time when there’s acute uncertainty about the state of the world and the state of the economy.”
Biden will balance the public’s economic anxiety against a more optimistic message of progress, according to Brian Deese, the president’s top economic advisor. The pandemic has receded, with the COVID-19 public health emergency set to expire in May. Employers added more than half a million jobs in January while the unemployment rate fell to 3.4%, the lowest on record in over half a century, according to Labor Department data released on Friday.
“Two years ago our economy was reeling. As I stand here tonight, we have created a record 12 million new jobs — more jobs created in two years than any president has ever created in four years,” Biden will say.
The president will step to the dais with one of his biggest challenges peering over his shoulder: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) is locked in a standoff with Biden over the federal deficit and has refused to raise the debt limit unless the president commits to unspecified cuts on future spending. If the two leaders are unable to reach a deal, the U.S. would default on its debt, rattling financial markets and wreaking economic havoc.
Biden plans to use the bully pulpit to address the impasse, making clear that “honoring the full faith and credit of the United States” is an obligation of “everybody who holds an office of trust,” Deese told reporters on Monday.
Despite recent job gains and indicators that inflation is abating, recent surveys show the public remains largely downbeat about Biden’s job performance. The president’s approval rating remains stubbornly at 42%, largely unchanged from when he last delivered his first State of the Union a year ago (41%).
Since he took office, Biden has urged his party to apply the lessons learned from the Obama years by clearly communicating their achievements to voters — a strategy he said his former boss was hesitant to use after the passage of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But the Biden White House has also struggled to convince voters that he’s delivered on his promise to make their lives easier. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found 62% of Americans say Biden has not accomplished “very much” or “little or nothing” during his first two years in office, compared with 36% who say he accomplished “a great deal” or “a good amount.”
Just 37% of Democrats said they want Biden to seek a second term, a notable drop from the 52% who said the same in the run-up to the midterm elections in November, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll released Monday found.
Though Biden may run the risk of looking out of touch with voters’ economic anxiety, any State of the Union address is an important moment “to be pretty aggressive about telling the positive story,” said Michael Waldman, a chief speechwriter for former President Clinton who worked on four State of the Union and two inaugural addresses.
“The public often doesn’t believe good news,” Waldman said, noting that “public perception often lags pretty far behind reality.”
The audience will include visible reminders of policy goals that have remained out of reach for Democrats. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have called on Congress to renew talks on police accountability reform in the wake of the fatal assault of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers. RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of Nichols, are expected to attend the speech.
Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the Monterey Park gunman as he entered a second dance studio, is also scheduled to be at the address as Biden calls on Congress to reinstate an assault weapons ban. Biden signed a bipartisan gun safety bill in June in the aftermath of a mass school shooting in Texas. The bill strengthened background checks for younger gun buyers and expanded an existing law preventing domestic abusers from purchasing guns.
A total of 26 guests who “personify issues or themes to be addressed” during the speech were invited to sit with First Lady Jill Biden, the White House said in a statement Tuesday. Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., U2 frontman and Irish rock star Bono, and Paul Pelosi, husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), are among those who will attend.
Some of those guests will also feature in the president’s appeal to Congress to work together on four bipartisan issues that he spoke about last year: fighting cancer, improving veterans healthcare, tackling the opioid crisis and providing more mental health services.
“If we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress. The people sent us a clear message,” Biden will tell Republican lawmakers. “Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere.”
Most presidents face a divided Congress after their first midterm election. But in Biden’s case, November’s elections were not much of a rebuke of his administration. Democrats kept losses in the House to well below the historic average and gained a seat in the Senate. The president’s party also won two governorships and control of four more state legislative chambers.
White House officials say one reason for that outcome was Biden’s ability to draw a clear distinction with former President Trump and right-wing Republicans who support him. He’ll likely highlight that contrast again as he prepares to battle House Republicans over the next two years and hints at a reelection campaign. GOP members who have raised eyebrows in recent months will provide the visual contrast the president will be looking for, Waldman said.
“Presidents are very aware of how every word and every comma will be used — who’s going to cheer, who’s going to scowl,” Waldman said. “Every time the camera pans to George Santos or Marjorie Taylor Greene is a win. He’s got some foils to play off against.”