McCarthy will sit beside Vice President Kamala Harris on the dais at the State of the Union, often appearing in television shots with the two Democratic leaders.
After barely convincing the right flank of his party to give him the speaker’s gavel, McCarthy’s interactions and responses will be interesting to watch.
His predecessor Nancy Pelosi drew considerable attention from that perch during the Trump administration, visibly shaking her head at his comments, sarcastically applauding and once ripping up a copy of President Trump’s speech after he concluded.
“I’m going to make a prediction right now,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said in an interview. “Unlike Nancy Pelosi, I am confident Kevin McCarthy will not petulantly rip Joe Biden’s speech into pieces from the dais.”
But in an era when bipartisanship has become a dirty word, McCarthy may need to avoid seeming too cozy with Biden and Harris, or risk a backlash from his right flank.
When McCarthy formally invited Biden to deliver the address, he described it as his “solemn obligation.”
“He cannot be seen as fearful of the president,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), chair of the Republican Study Committee. “It’s a fine balance.”
Cruz acknowledged that State of the Union speeches “are always large part theater” and said he finds amusement in watching how lawmakers decide whether to stand or applaud over the most anodyne statements, “statements that any rational person who was conscious would agree with and yet half the Congress won’t applaud because of the inevitable partisanship.”
He said, “for a lot of Republicans, especially Republican House members, McCarthy will set an example of when to applaud and stand.”
McCarthy may also need to deal with outbursts or heckling from lawmakers, which have become increasingly common during State of the Union addresses.
Last year conservative Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado heckling Biden during his address; Democratic women wore suffragette white and chanted “USA” during one of Trump’s speeches; GOP Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted “You lie!” when President Obama said his healthcare reforms would not cover immigrants in the U.S. illegally.