WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is ready to offer a reassuring assessment of the nation's condition rather than roll out flashy policy proposals as he delivers his second State of the Union address on Tuesday night, seeking to overcome pessimism in the country and concerns about his own leadership.
His speech before a politically divided Congress comes as the nation struggles to make sense of confounding cross-currents at home and abroad — economic uncertainty, a wearying war in Ukraine, growing tensions with China among them — and warily sizes up Biden's fitness for a likely reelection bid.
The president will stand at the House rostrum at a time when just a quarter of U.S. adults say things in the country are headed in the right direction, according to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. About three-quarters say things are on the wrong track. And a majority of Democrats don’t want Biden to seek another term.
He will confront those sentiments head on, aides say, while at the same time trying to avoid sounding insensitive to Americans’ concerns.
Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, said Biden would “acknowledge and meet American people where they are,” realizing 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 really realistic,” Nichter said. “I think Americans’ expectations are pretty low of what Congress is actually 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 look markedly different from a year ago, when it was Democratic stalwart Nancy Pelosi seated behind him as House speaker. She's been replaced by Republican Kevin McCarthy, and it's unclear what kind of reception restive Republicans in the chamber will give the Democratic president.
McCarthy on Monday vowed to be “respectful” during the address and in turn asked Biden to refrain from using the phrase “extreme MAGA Republicans,” which the president deployed on the campaign trail in 2022.
“I won’t tear up the speech, I won’t play games,” McCarthy told reporters, a reference to Pelosi’s dramatic action after 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 to deliver the Republican response to Biden’s speech.
With COVID-19 restrictions now lifted, the White House and legislators from both parties invited 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/humanitarian 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, legislation to promote high-tech manufacturing and climate measures. With Republicans now in control of the House, Biden is turning his focus to implementing those massive laws and making sure voters credit him for the improvements.
The switch from touting fresh initiatives is 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 keep the government funded by raising the federal debt limit by this summer. 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.
While hopes for large-scale bipartisanship are slim, Biden was 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. He was to announce new executive initiatives and call for lawmakers to act to support new measures to support cancer research, address housing needs and suicide among veterans, boost access to mental health care, and move to further crack down on deadly trafficking in fentanyl.
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 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 as 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 really 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.
AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.