WASHINGTON — At the start of his speech Tuesday night, President Joe Biden is apt to proclaim that the state of the union is strong.
And by the time he’s done, he’ll have laid out a case that he deserves an ample share of the credit.
The 2024 presidential race looms large over Biden's State of the Union address, even though he has yet to officially announce whether he’s running for re-election. With a captive audience that traditionally assembles once a year, he isn’t about to pass up the chance to explain why voters should give him a second term.
Biden will use the speech to reach a wider audience that may have only a passing interest in politics and policy, and assure its members that he’s enacted plans that will make their daily commutes shorter and their prescription drug bills lower, a person close to the White House said.
That will take some doing: An NBC News survey last month found that only 31% believe Biden to be a competent and effective president, while 71% say the country is on the wrong track.
Tuesday is a chance to sway the skeptics, his advisers hope. State of the Union audiences have shrunk over the years amid increasing political polarization and a fracturing of the news media. Yet the viewership remains vast: Last year, 38 million people tuned in to Biden’s speech, and 16 networks carried it live. That's more than three times the television audience for the final game of the Astros-Phillies World Series last fall.
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Once the speech is over, Biden and his Cabinet will crisscross the country to amplify the message. The following day, Biden will visit Madison, Wisconsin, to discuss his job creation plans, while Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Atlanta to talk about clean energy. All told, Biden, Harris and the Cabinet will visit 20 states in a post-speech blitz that seeks to capitalize on the megaphone a sitting president commands.
"This is the year and the message where the president needs to establish his governing and campaign narrative: What his presidency has meant to the public's well-being and why they should give him their support," said Martha Kumar, professor emeritus at Towson University and a specialist in White House communications. "If he doesn't do that, by next year Ron DeSantis," a potential Republican candidate, "and Donald Trump will have defined him by his failures as they see them."
A message Biden will deliver is that the economy is in better shape than when he took over from Trump, and that America’s overseas alliances are now stronger because of his diplomatic overtures, according to a White House official.
“I can’t imagine he’s announcing in the State of the Union that he’s running for re-election,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Biden ally. “You’ll hear the rationale for why in the State of the Union.”
Biden’s second State of the Union address promises to be a bit of a balancing act. Over the past two years, he’s toggled between castigating Republicans and courting them as he's worked to advance his policies. Just last week, he told an audience of Democratic activists that the GOP has gone “haywire.”
On Tuesday, he’s likely to show a more bipartisan face, making the point that the two parties can accomplish much when they work together, the White House official said. Biden has been road testing some themes he’s likely to employ, including that the U.S. is ascendant when it comes to economic and geopolitical influence — something that both parties can applaud.
“The speech is a good opportunity for the president to present his way forward,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat. “It should have an optimistic and upbeat tone.”
Still, the chances of grand bipartisan breakthroughs seem remote. Sitting behind Biden in the House chamber will be the new speaker, Republican Kevin McCarthy — not Democrat Nancy Pelosi who lost her leadership role when her party lost its majority in the midterm elections.
House Republicans have little incentive to work with Biden and burnish his record ahead of the 2024 election. Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who's the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told a conference of conservative activists last August that GOP-led investigations into the Biden administration would “help frame up the 2024 race, when I hope and I think President Trump is going to run again, and we need to make sure he wins.”
In the face of a divided Congress, a more realistic focus for the back half of Biden's term would be implementing the trillion-dollar spending packages that he has signed into law, some who’ve worked with him said.
“Some of the most important work that will be happening in the second half of the term is executing on those priorities,” said David Kamin, a former member of Biden’s National Economic Council. The chances of more ambitious bills passing through bipartisan votes “look bad right now.”
Not that Democratic interest groups are giving up. In the run-up to the speech, the president’s allies have been meeting privately with White House staff and urging that Biden use the forum to jump-start unfinished pieces of his agenda.
Their hope is that the speech will build momentum behind various initiatives languishing on Capitol Hill: proposals to curb police abuse, to protect voting rights and provide pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Biden will only need to glance up at the House gallery for an anguished reminder of police violence. Among the guests will be the parents of Tyre Nichols, who died days after police beat him in Memphis, Tennessee.
“The president has to recognize that shaping public opinion may be more important now than trying to be the most successful legislative mechanic,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans.
It’s not a time to “simply sit back and say, ‘I can’t get this done or that done because of the Congress,’” Morial added. “People don’t hire the president to become an adjunct member of Congress."
The Rev. Al Sharpton suggested that, for inspiration, Biden look to a national address given by former President Lyndon Johnson. It wasn’t a State of the Union speech, but in March 1965 Johnson delivered a civil rights address following the beating of protesters attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in the name of voting rights. “We shall overcome,” Johnson pledged in a speech that was the impetus for passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.
“He needs to have a Johnson moment and deal with the fact that we don’t choose the civil rights issues of our time, but these are the issues of our time and we need to stand up and deal with them,” said Sharpton, who spoke at Nichols’ funeral last week along with Harris.
What the general public wants from the speech is an entirely different question. For Biden, one of the troubling findings from the NBC poll is how many Americans doubt that he’s up to the job. Only 28% believe he’s mentally and physically healthy enough to be president — down from 33% the year before.
The oldest person ever to serve as president, Biden would be 86 by the end of a second term should he run again and win.
“More than any policy initiative that he advocates or any particular line of rhetoric, the speech will be judged by how clear and vigorous he seems,” said Jeff Shesol, a speechwriter in Bill Clinton's White House, who helped draft his State of the Union speeches in 1999 and 2000. “His health and fitness and vigorousness are the subject of the speech, whether he likes it or not and no matter what he says about anything else. If he stumbles, that’s all anyone will talk about.
“The good thing is that expectations are quite low in terms of the quality of a Biden speech and his fluency. If he gives a really good, clear, energetic address, it won’t dispel those questions about his being the oldest president in American history, but it will at least quiet, rather than feed those concerns for a little while.”