Biden faces ‘tightrope’ in balancing realism and optimism in State of the Union
Joe Biden’s second annual State of the Union address on Tuesday comes at a critical juncture for the president, as he contemplates a second term.
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He faces a newly empowered House Republican majority eager to damage his political prospects with investigations into him, his administration and his family while a special counsel investigation into his handling of classified documents brings a degree of legal uncertainty.
In recent weeks, the country has also been convulsed yet again by mass shootings and police brutality while states continue to grapple with the consequences of the supreme court decision ending the constitutional right to abortion. And on Saturday the US military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon after it floated across the country, roiling diplomatic relations between the countries at a time of already heightened tensions.
Yet there are welcome bright spots for a president emboldened by his party’s history-defying performance in the November midterm elections. Since then, Democrats have largely rallied around Biden as their standard-bearer in 2024, amid the possibility of a rematch against Donald Trump.
The economic outlook has brightened. The coronavirus public health emergencies are set to expire in May, three years after they were declared, with the majority of US adults now vaccinated. At home, Biden has an arsenal of legacy-defining achievements to tout. And on the world stage, the global coalition he rallied in support of Ukraine remains strong.
Chris Whipple, author of The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House, said the president’s challenge on Tuesday will be to strike the right balance between optimism and realism – highlighting the progress he’s made since his last address to a joint session of Congress, particularly on Covid and the economy, while acknowledging that there is more work left to do.
“It’s a tightrope,” he said. “He has to take credit for what he’s achieved without sounding too celebratory.”
Halfway through his first term, the president’s own position is precarious. Nearly two-thirds of Americans, on average, believe the country is on the wrong track. His approval ratings remain mired in the low 40s with many Americans unconvinced by the prospect of the 80-year-old standing for re-election.
Striking a defiant tone ahead of Tuesday’s primetime address, Biden previewed his diagnosis of the state of the union. Like many of his recent predecessors, he declared it “strong”.
“I’m happy to report that the state of the union and the state of our economy is strong,” Biden said on Friday, celebrating an unexpectedly strong jobs report.
“Today’s data makes crystal clear what I’ve always known in my gut,” he added. “These critics and cynics are wrong. While we may face setbacks along the way, and there will be some, there is more work to do, it’s clear our plan is working.”
On the economy, Biden is likely to point to signs of improvement.
Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in nearly half a century. Inflation, after reaching a 40-year peak, is finally relenting, though still painful for many American households. On Wednesday, the US Federal Reserve announced the smallest hike in interest rates in almost a year, signaling a more cautious approach as it tries to rein in inflation without triggering a recession. But worrying indicators remain.
“Looking backward, the economy is in a very good place, with the good things still good and the bad things getting better,” said Jason Furman, who served as the chair of the White House council of economic advisers under Barack Obama. “Looking forward, there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty as to whether that can last.”
He has to take credit for what he’s achieved without sounding too celebratory
A major focus for the Biden administration over the next two years will be to implement the sweeping legislative policies he enacted during the first years of his presidency – a trillion-dollar infrastructure law; a sweeping health and climate package and major new investments in domestic, hi-tech manufacturing.
Of pressing concern is the looming deadline to raise the federal debt ceiling. Economists are warning of a financial crisis if Congress fails to lift the country’s borrowing cap as House Republicans are threatening to do unless the president accepts steep cuts to federal spending. Already the treasury department has said it is resorting to “extraordinary measures” to ensure that the US can continue paying its bills.
It is unclear if Biden will explicitly address the brinkmanship on Tuesday, with the new House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, seated behind him on the dais for the first time. But the stakes remains high for the president – and the country’s economy.
Nearly a year ago, Biden’s State of the Union address – and his presidency – were upended by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Assuming the mantle of world leader, the US president used his speech to rally the nation and its allies behind Ukraine. Since then the US has sent billions of dollars in humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine. Last month, Biden approved sending battle tanks to Ukraine, a significant escalation in the US effort to counter Russian aggression.
But with the war nearing its first anniversary, and public support for Ukraine softening slightly, analysts hope Biden uses Tuesday’s address to explain why the US is committed to Ukraine’s success – and what that support will look like.
“The future of the international system as we understand it runs through Ukraine,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. From China to Iran to North Korea, she said anti-democratic forces are studying how the global response to the brutal war in Ukraine.
“If Ukraine and therefore the United States and the west are not successful, that sends a powerful message to [those] leaders,” Conley said. “So I hope the president uses this moment to make a convincing case to the American people why we have to stick to this course of action.”
A president’s State of the Union address is often a highlight reel of accomplishments, mixed with a wishlist of policy proposals and direct appeals to the American people. The president will invite guests who represent policy successes or help to make the moral case for action.
Ahead of the speech, activists have urged the president to use his executive authority to expand abortion protections and declare a climate emergency. And the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was brutally beaten by Memphis police officers and died days later, has reignited calls for police reform.
Nichols’s mother and stepfather are expected to be in the chamber for Biden’s speech on Tuesday, probably ensuring the issue will not go unaddressed.
Vice-President Kamala Harris, who will also be seated behind Biden on Tuesday, delivered a call to action at Nichols’s funeral last week. Yet the prospect for passing federal policing reforms remains dim.
Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization, Color of Change, urged Biden to come with a plan – not a list of policies that will never pass a Republican-controlled House.
“Beyond rhetoric and tone or even specific policies, I’m interested in the president talking about strategy,” Robinson said, adding: “You don’t get a whole lot of moments like a State of the Union. We need to use this opportunity to give people marching orders.”
Other guests on Tuesday include Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old man hailed as a hero after he disarmed a gunman who opened fire at two dance halls in southern California during Lunar New Year celebrations earlier this month.
After a spate of mass shootings last year, Biden signed into law the first gun reform legislation in decades. But the legislation fell far short of what the president and activists had called for.
Moments after the president finishes his remarks, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly elected governor of Arkansas and Trump’s former press secretary, will deliver the Republican rebuttal.
“The American people deserve better than Democrats’ runaway inflation, surging crime, open borders, and failing schools,” the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said in a statement. He added that Sanders, who at 40 is currently the youngest governor in the country, would deliver a “sharp contrast with this exhausted and failing administration”.
Embracing the opportunity, Sanders said: “We are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of America – to be written by a new generation of leaders ready to defend our freedom against the radical left and expand access to quality education, jobs and opportunity for all.”
With Republicans intent on making Biden a one-term president, should he run again, the president has signaled that he will spend the next two years focusing the public on what he has already accomplished – and making the case for the policy priorities he has yet to achieve.
The president “looks forward to speaking with Republicans, Democrats, and the country about how we can work together to continue building an economy that works from the bottom up and the middle out, continue boosting our competitiveness in the world, keep the American people safe, and bring the country together”, the White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said in a statement.
Following the State of the Union she said Biden, Harris and other cabinet officials would “blitz” the country to promote his agenda.