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Biden faces daunting sales challenge in Tuesday’s State of the Union address

First Read is your briefing from “Meet the Press” and the NBC Political Unit on the day’s most important political stories and why they matter.
Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House
Joe Biden on the South Lawn of the White House on Feb. 6, 2023.Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON —  President Biden has an incredibly long to-do list in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Connect his agenda to the growing economy (as well as parry concerns about inflation and a possible recession). Sell more aid to Ukraine (when our NBC News poll finds the public is split on it). Convince Republicans to work with him on police reform. Shore up his political weaknesses, like on immigration and the border.

Oh, and start laying the groundwork for his expected re-election bid — when two-thirds of voters say they’re very uncomfortable or have reservations about him running.

The question we have: Can he move the needle, even on one of these items?

Especially when the speech no longer gets the buzz, attention and audience it used to?

“The speech has been an increasingly bankrupt exercise for generations now,” Bill Clinton speechwriter Jeff Shesol tells NBC’s Peter Nicholas. “It has felt increasingly rote, often exceedingly empty and removed from the reality of our national and political life.”

More from Nicholas: “Viewership has been tailing off. Biden’s first State of the Union speech drew an audience of 38 million. By contrast, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Donald Trump attracted 45 million to 52 million in their maiden addresses.”

Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta adds to Nicholas that the speech “basically reinforces the divisions within the country, as opposed to broadening support in the country for what a president wants to get done.”

So Biden has quite the challenge ahead of him tonight.

And that goes beyond his long legislative and policy to-do list.

Headline of the day

Data Download: The number of the day is … 26

That’s how many guests have been invited to sit in first lady Jill Biden’s viewing box for Tuesday’s State of the Union address. The guests range from high-profile celebrities like Bono to average Americans affected by Biden’s “Cancer Moonshot” initiative, recent legislation boosting microchip production, mental health struggles and the opioid epidemic. 

The guest list also includes Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, who also attended last year’s State of the Union, and Paul Pelosi, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband who was attacked late last year. Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the shooter at Lunar New Year celebrations in Monterey Park, Calif., has also been invited, along with RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, who died after being brutally beaten by police in Memphis, Tenn. The guest list also includes Ruth Cohen, a Holocaust survivor.

Some of Biden’s policy priorities are also reflected in the guest list, which includes a so-called DREAMer who was brought to the U.S. illegally as a child and received protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A woman who suffers from medical complications due to Texas’ stringent abortion restrictions was also invited to the address. 

Other numbers to know:

5,151: The latest death toll, which is expected to continue to rise, attributed to the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria

200 feet: The height of the Chinese spy balloon that the U.S. military shot down over the U.S. this weekend.

$54 million: The amount of money sitting in the campaign accounts of former members of Congress who left the body after the 117th Congress, Roll Call reports.

75%: The share of Americans in a new Pew Research Center survey who say that the economy should be a top policy priority for the president and Congress to address this year.  

3.8: The magnitude of an earthquake that struck near Buffalo, New York, on Monday morning. 

2: The number of people arrested last week, including a neo-Nazi leader, for planning to attack Baltimore’s power grid.

180,000: The approximate number of U.S. subscribers to Twitter Blue, the company’s new paid service, per The Information

Eyes on 2024: The Club for (post-Trump) Growth

The Club for Growth, the GOP outside group that’s run hot and cold with former President Donald Trump over the years, briefed reporters on its plans for 2024 and new polling showing Trump with just a narrow lead over Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in a crowded presidential primary field, NBC News’ Liz Brown-Kaiser reports. 

Trump gets 37% of the primary vote in the new poll that has DeSantis at 33% (they’re the only two candidates with double-digit support). But DeSantis leads on a head-to-head ballot, and among those who don’t consider themselves “very conservative.” 

Club for Growth President David McIntosh didn’t say whether the group would endorse a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination (and an aide told NBC News later they had no plans to). Asked whether he thought Trump could win a general election, McIntosh told reporters “You know, anything’s possible. And if he gets the nomination, we’ll help him try to win. But the last three elections have shown that he lost.”

In other campaign news: 

Trump rapid response: Trump is planning to respond to Biden’s State of the Union address with his own video, NBC News’ Garret Haake reports.

Schooled: The New York Times delves into the education debates already shaping the shadow GOP presidential primary. 

A little help from his friends: Puck reports that two veteran GOP strategists are preparing to launch a super PAC to support DeSantis. 

Out over his skis?: New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu is weighing a presidential run, and although he has not yet decided if he’ll jump into the race, he’s confident he can do the job, he said while skiing with a reporter from the Boston Globe. He criticized potential presidential contenders for not appealing to independents, and said he doesn’t think Trump can win the general election.

Castro re-run?: Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who made an unsuccessful run for president in 2020, raised some eyebrows on Monday when he shared a poll showing a close matchup between Biden and Trump, saying the poll “undermines Biden’s central argument for re-nomination” 

More hats expected in the ring: Former Republican Reps. Peter Meijer and Bill Huizenga are exploring bids for Senate in Michigan, The Dispatch reports, adding rumors about multiple sitting Democratic members of Congress exploring campaigns for retiring Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s seat.  

Marlin’s return: Punchbowl News reports that former Indiana GOP Rep. Marlin Stutzman, who left Congress and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2016, is weighing a run for his former House seat. 

Santos denies allegations: CNN reports that embattled New York GOP Rep. George Santos called the allegation he sexually harassed a former staffer “comical” and said “Of course I deny that claim.” 

Chamber of controversy: Top Republican leaders are freezing out the Chamber of Commerce as retribution for backing Democrats in recent cycles, CNBC reports

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

The FBI is planning to search former Vice President Mike Pence’s Indiana home for classified documents after his lawyer found a “small number” of classified documents there last month.

Centrist GOP Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska said the notion that some Republicans could team up with Democrats on a procedural move to raise the debt limit without any concessions is “DOA.” 

Two members of the House — Reps. Stephanie I. Bice, R-Okla. and Chrissy Houlahan D-Pa. — hope to tackle paid leave as a top priority for this congressional session, the Washington Post reports.