Washington: President Joe Biden delivered his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night to address pessimism and concerns about his leadership, offering a confident assessment of the country’s situation rather than rolling out flashy policy proposals.
His speech in front of a politically divided Congress comes at a time when the nation is struggling to make sense of the complex crosscurrents at home and abroad – economic uncertainty, an exhausting war in Ukraine, growing tensions with China among them — and warily sizes up Biden’s fitness for a likely reelection bid.
The president will take the floor of the House at a time when just a quarter of American adults say things are headed in the right direction in the country, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Nearly three-quarters say things are on the wrong track. And most Democrats do not want Biden to seek another term.
Aides said Biden would aim to confront those sentiments while at the same time trying to avoid seeming insensitive to Americans’ concerns.
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said Biden would “acknowledge and meet American people where they are,” adding that their “economic anxiety is real.”
“I think the core message is: We have to make more progress, but people should feel optimism,” he added.
Chapman University presidential historian Luke Nichter said the closest parallel to Biden’s present circumstance may be the 1960s when global uncertainty met domestic disquiet. Biden, he said, has an opportunity to be a “calming presence” for the country.
“Usually we’re looking for an agenda: ‘Here’s what he plans to do.’ I don’t know that that’s realistic,” Nichter said. “I think Americans’ expectations are pretty low of what Congress is going to achieve. And so I think right now, sentiment and tone, and helping Americans feel better about their circumstances, I think are going to go a long way.”
The setting for Biden’s speech will be markedly different than a year ago when it was Democratic stalwart Nancy Pelosi seated behind him as speaker. She’s been replaced by GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and it’s unclear what kind of reception restive Republicans will give the Democratic president.
McCarthy on Monday vowed to be “respectful” during the address and said he asked Biden to refrain from using the phrase “extreme MAGA Republicans,” which he deployed on the campaign trail in 2022.
“I won’t tear up the speech, I won’t play games,” he told reporters, a reference to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dramatic action after former President Donald Trump’s final State of the Union address.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gained a national profile as Trump’s press secretary, was set to deliver the Republican response to Biden’s speech.
With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and legislators from both parties are inviting guests designed to drive home political messages with their presence in the House chamber. The parents of Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, are among those expected to be seated with first lady Jill Biden. Other Biden guests include the rock star Bono and the 26-year-old who disarmed a gunman in last month’s Monterey Park, California, shooting.
Biden is shifting his sights after spending his first two years pushing through major bills such as the bipartisan infrastructure package, a bill to promote high-tech manufacturing and climate legislation. With Republicans now in control of the House, Biden is turning his focus to implementing the massive laws and making sure voters credit him for the improvements rather than crafting major new initiatives.
It’s largely by necessity. Biden faces a newly empowered GOP that is itching to undo many of his achievements and vowing to pursue a multitude of investigations — including looking into the recent discoveries of classified documents from his time as vice president at his home and former office.
At the same time, Biden will need to find a way to work across the aisle to raise the federal debt limit by this summer and keep the government funded. Biden has insisted that he won’t negotiate on meeting the country’s debt obligations; Republicans have been equally adamant that Biden must make spending concessions.
On the eve of the president’s address, McCarthy challenged Biden to come to the negotiating table with House Republicans to slash spending as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.
“Mr. President, it’s time to get to work,” McCarthy said in remarks from the speaker’s balcony at the Capitol.
While hopes for large-scale bipartisanship are slim, Biden was set to reissue his 2022 appeal for Congress to get behind his “unity agenda” of actions to address the opioid epidemic, mental health, veterans’ health, and fighting cancer.
The White House said the president would call for extending the new $35 per month price cap on insulin for people on Medicare to everyone in the country. He would also push Congress to quadruple the one percent tax on corporate share buybacks that was enacted in the Democrats’ climate and health care bill passed last year known as the Inflation Reduction Act.
The speech comes days after Biden ordered the military to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon that flew brazenly across the country, captivating the nation and serving as a reminder of tense relations between the two global powers.
Last year’s address occurred just days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and many in the West doubted Kyiv’s ability to withstand the onslaught. Over the past year, the U.S. and other allies have sent tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. Now, Biden must make the case — both at home and abroad — for sustaining that coalition as the war drags on.
“The president will want to reinforce just what a significant accomplishment has already been achieved and then to reinforce how much more has to be done, how we are committed to doing it, and how we will ask for a bipartisan basis the U.S. Congress to join us in doing that work,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday.
While COVID-19 has eased at home, Biden will turn his sights to other national ills, including the deadly opioid epidemic, gun violence, and police abuses.
The president spent much of the weekend into Monday reviewing speech drafts with aides at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland.
Senior White House adviser Anita Dunn will preview broad themes of Biden’s address to Democratic lawmakers throughout the day on Tuesday, starting with a breakfast with House Democrats on Capitol Hill.
McCarthy called on Biden to embrace the Republican effort to put the nation’s finances on a path toward a balanced budget, which would require deep and politically unpopular reductions in federal spending that Biden and Democrats have vehemently resisted.
“We must move towards a balanced budget and insist on genuine accountability for every dollar we spend,” McCarthy said.
He insisted cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the popular health and retirement programs primarily for older Americans, were “off the table” in any budget negotiation. The GOP leader also said, “defaulting on our debt is not an option.”
The White House has insisted Republicans cannot be trusted to protect the programs and blasted Republicans for “threatening to actively throw our economy into a tailspin with a default” by putting conditions on the debt limit.