U.S. President Joe Biden is delivering his second State of the Union address Tuesday night at a critical juncture midway through his four-year presidency, prepared to defend his record as one of accomplishment, even though many Americans believe he has accomplished little so far.
Biden often cites the millions of new jobs added on his watch, passage of legislation to combat climate change and to fund repairs of the country’s deteriorating roads and bridges, along with his leadership of the Western coalition fighting Russia’s war on Ukraine. Yet, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 62% of Americans think he's accomplished "not very much" or "little to nothing" in two years on the job.
The 80-year-old Biden appears to be inching toward a 2024 reelection campaign and the annual State of the Union address gives him a platform to speak to a politically divided Congress — with vocal Republican opponents now controlling the House of Representatives, even as Democrats hold a Senate edge — and American voters, a majority of whom tell pollsters they disapprove of Biden’s job performance.
As of Monday afternoon, the president was still writing and revising his speech with close advisers, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
Biden "will have an opportunity to speak directly to the American people, not just Congress, to talk about what he has done over the last two years, and how he sees the future of this country," she said.
Political scientist Andrew Seligsohn, who leads the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda, said Biden needs to cover the so-called "bread and butter" issues that matter to most Americans, like the economy. But he also is likely to nibble from the entire smorgasbord of issues, including foreign policy, public health, police reform, gun control and immigration.
"Biden's challenge in the State of the Union is to make the global case while also presenting himself as a leader who understands and is prepared to meet the day-to-day economic challenges facing Americans here at home," Seligsohn said in a note to VOA.
Aaron Kall, the debate coach at the University of Michigan and a longtime expert on major presidential addresses, told VOA, “He should use this opportunity to make the rationale for a second term in office without formally declaring his reelection intentions. Momentum from the speech and a short-term boost in public opinion polling could be beneficial ahead of a contentious 2024 presidential election cycle.”
It's the economy, always
Even with last-minute changes, the White House said Biden will definitely devote time to what Americans consistently say is their main concern: their wallets. In that recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 41% of Americans reported that they are worse off financially than when he became president; 42% said they were in the same shape financially as when he took office.
"Two years in, it's clear — clearer than ever that my economic plan is actually working," Biden said in January, citing job growth, falling prices and a boost in investments and manufacturing.
On the eve of the speech, his top economic adviser was more measured in his optimism.
"I think the core message is we have to make more progress, but people should feel optimism because of what we have seen and because of the progress that we've made, that we know how to keep making progress going forward," said Brian Deese, National Economic Council director.
Biden is also expected to present his argument to raise the debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount the U.S. Treasury can borrow to pay its bills. The U.S. hit its debt limit of $31.4 trillion in January. Congress now has until midyear to decide to raise the limit before the U.S. defaults.
Kevin McCarthy, the newly elected speaker of the House of Representatives, who will be seated behind the president for the duration of the speech, said the Republican Party will continue to oppose what they see as excessive spending.
"I was very clear," McCarthy said last week, after spending an hour discussing the issue privately with Biden at the White House. "We're not spending more next year than we spent this year."
Tuesday night, Biden will be able to make his case, said David Wessel, who heads the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"The president will undoubtedly say that he believes that the full faith and credit of the United States should be unquestioned, and he'll call for a clean increase in the debt ceiling," Wessel said. "And he probably will say that once we do that, I want to talk about what our spending priorities are. Of course, that won't go over well with the Republicans."
Biden also is expected to discuss a range of foreign policy issues, centering on the country that he sees as the United States’ biggest competitor.
“I would fully expect that you'll hear the president talk about the importance of our leadership on the world stage," said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications. "The influence that America has wielded, particularly when it comes to helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia's invasion and the strategic competition with China."
On Ukraine, Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said Biden has a chance to set the tone for how the U.S. and NATO allies tailor their support for Ukraine.
"I think the choice that the allies are staring at — and where I believe neither the administration nor the Europeans really have made up their minds — is whether they ought to pursue a path of prudence, of slow incrementalist turning up the heat, colloquially known as ‘boiling the frog,’ for the sake of avoiding escalation by Putin," she said.
"Or whether they should enable Ukraine to do a big push to prevent a spring offensive by the Russians that might reverse their territorial gains and conversely, allow Ukraine to retain full control over its territory."
Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, told Lin Feng of VOA’s Mandarin Service that Biden needs to show he “is forging ahead with policies that strengthen the security of America and its allies. His words about China should highlight Beijing’s deeds, not words, but without adjectives. Let facts speak for themselves."
It is not known whether Biden will discuss last weekend’s U.S. shootdown of a Chinese spy balloon after it traversed the country for a week, including over key military installations.
Gun policy, immigration, health care, police reform and more are also likely to feature in the address.
As is custom, the event will host guests who symbolize some of the issues. The Congressional Black Caucus has invited the parents of slain Memphis resident Tyre Nichols to the address.
Nichols, 29, was killed by five Black police officers in January. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have used the tragedy to urge Congress to revisit the stalled police reform act that Democrats proposed after the 2020 killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd.
Asked by VOA whether COVID-19 — which Biden mentioned 23 times in last year's speech — would come up this year, Jean-Pierre said, “because of the work that this president has done, we are in a different place."
"COVID is not taking over our lives,” she said. “We're still fighting COVID. But, again, we're in a different place."
2024 presidential run?
William Galston, a governance analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Biden's speech is about more than policy. As he stands before a joint session of Congress, Biden needs to perform as if he wants another shot at the White House, Galston said.
Biden has repeatedly said he plans to run in 2024, but the 80-year-old has not formally announced his candidacy.
"If you look at the public opinion polls, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents think he is too old to do the job," Galston said. "And one of the really important things that he must convey in this speech is the kind of strength and coherence of delivery that does what can be done to dispel that impression.
“Otherwise, it could be a major impediment to his reelection,” he said. “So, the mode of delivery, I think, is more than ordinarily important in this speech.”
Tuesday's address is at 9 p.m. EST (0200 GMT) in Washington.