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Biden Looks to Project Strength Before a Cynical Audience in State of the Union Address

Biden is expected to tout his accomplishments and lay out an agenda for the next year to Americans not feeling the impact of improvements and lawmakers with little incentive to act on his proposals.

It is one of the most important – and arguably one of the most futile – rituals a president performs: the State of the Union address, delivered to a country and Congress that has already made up its mind about how the country is doing and skeptical that anything new President Joe Biden proposes in his prime time address Tuesday night will pass a divided Congress.

At the mid-point of his term as president, Biden is expected to tout his accomplishments thus far and lay out an agenda for the next year – including items (such as making the $35-a-month cap on insulin costs for Medicare patients applicable to all) that did not become law even when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

And he’s expected to remind Americans – as he has been doing almost daily for months – of the strong economic numbers under his stewardship, including 12 million new jobs created during his first two years in office and the lowest unemployment rate in more than a half century.

Polls show, however, that Americans are not feeling the impact of those improvements – meaning Biden needs to characterize them carefully so as not to aggravate 2024 voters, experts say.

Presidents like to begin State of the Union addresses by saying, “The state of the union is strong,” Bill Galston, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in a preview analysis of the speech. But “two thirds of the country won’t believe him when he says that,” so “he should say the state of the union is getting stronger,” added Galston, who served as Bill Clinton’s deputy assistant for domestic policy.

In a preview Tuesday morning, White House officials laid out the “unity agenda” Biden will propose to address such bipartisan concerns as ending cancer, support for veterans, tackling the mental health crisis, and beating the opioid and overdose epidemic.

They are “issues that affect all Americans, in red states and blue states,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters in a conference call.

She noted that Congress has already worked with Biden on a bipartisan basis to address those problems and can expand on their work. To that end, Biden will call for increased cancer research and support for cancer patients, support to reduce veteran suicides and ensure veterans are housed, banning targeted advertising at children and young people online to protect kids’ mental health, and taking domestic and diplomatic actions to cut off the supply of the deadly drug fentanyl.

Those items are likely to be just a part of Biden’s proposals Tuesday night. But the choice of those issues to preview the speech signals that the White House wants to appear to be the bipartisan voice of reason in a bitterly partisan Capitol environment.

“This is not a red state or a blue state problem, this is America’s problem,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told reporters, referring to the fentanyl and opioid crises. “It’s going to take all of us working together.”

But even on matters seemingly unifying by definition – kids, cancer and drug abuse prevention and support for veterans – politics has interfered. Last year, for example, Republicans held up the PACT Act, a measure to help veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. Democrats said it was because some GOP lawmakers were miffed about a surprise deal Democrats crafted to go ahead with a sweeping climate change and domestic spending package. Republicans said it was a budget dispute.

The measure eventually passed, but the battle was a stark reminder that party disputes can hold up even measures that by themselves have widespread support.

Now that Republicans control the House, Biden will have an even harder time getting agenda items passed – especially true for goals such as ensuring abortion access, but including as well such essential items as increasing the debt ceiling.

With Biden poised to announce a run for reelection soon, Republicans are eager to put him on the defensive – and not terribly inclined to help him out by passing pieces of his agenda.

More than 24 hours before Biden is scheduled to stand in the speaker’s spot in the House chamber, the usual occupant of that chair – Speaker Kevin McCarthy – delivered a terse “pre-act” to the speech, reminding Biden and the country that the new GOP majority in the House was ready to fight with him about paying the country’s already-incurred bills.

“Debt limit debates have been used for nearly every successful attempt to reform federal spending in living history. Why? Because the problem only gets solved when both parties come to the table,” McCarthy, California Republican, said in a 10-minute address Monday evening. McCarthy was referring to the building drama over the debt ceiling, which must be raised by Congress in the coming months or the United States will default on its debt, creating an economic catastrophe.

The speech will be heard also by outside guests who will also serve as messengers for various officials’ agendas. Members of Congress have announced they will bring guests, including a woman who had to cross state lines to get an abortion, the parents of Tyre Nichols, who died after a videotaped beating by Memphis police, women faced with child care shortages, and an Air Force colonel who left the military over Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.


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