Prescription drug costs. The fentanyl crisis. Veterans services.
As he delivers his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, his first as the leader of a divided government, President Biden will tout a “unity agenda” focused on areas that he believes he can find common ground with House Republicans, even as they elevate a raft of divisive voices into leadership roles, some of whom refuse to admit he was legitimately elected.
It’s a dress rehearsal for a likely reelection campaign, when he will be trying to convince American voters once again that his experienced leadership and willingness to work across the aisle makes him the right leader in these polarizing times. Biden is hoping to build on his success over the last two years at getting some Republicans to sign on to major investments in infrastructure, boosting tech manufacturing in the U.S. and a modest gun safety bill.
Yet those accomplishments were achieved while Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. Hoping for similar successes going forward can seem naive and even laughable, especially given how beholden Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is to the right-wing members of his caucus, many of whom only assented to his leadership after dragging out the nomination fight for five contentious days and 15 rounds of voting. The concessions McCarthy made included making it easier for his own party to oust him and giving some right-wing members more control over which bills will get voted on. It all adds to the difficulties of getting McCarthy to compromise with Democrats and bring his own caucus along with him.
“Sounds great, doesn’t it? Yeah, good luck,” says Paul Stob, the chair of the American studies program at Vanderbilt University, about Biden’s effort to promote his goal of advancing bipartisan legislation. “A pipe dream might be too strong of a word, but it is certainly a very difficult task. Biden will propose a lot in terms of unity and collaboration with Republicans, hoping he can get a little,” Stob says.
There continue to be wide gulfs between Republicans and Democrats in Congress on access to abortion, how to handle immigrants fleeing violence and hardship in their home countries and wanting to live and work in the U.S., how much to tax corporations, and reducing the deficit.
The next few months are likely to be dominated by raising the debt ceiling before the government runs out of money in June. Some House Republicans want cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security in exchange for their support. Biden says he won’t negotiate over raising the limit, since raising the ceiling only allows the US to pay bills Congress has already agreed to and defaulting could call into question the good faith and credit of the United States, make borrowing more expensive, and send shockwaves through the global economy.
McCarthy and Biden met last week in the Oval Office, their first-face-to-face since McCarthy became Speaker. McCarthy, talking to reporters outside the doors to the West Wing after the meeting, said he and Biden “promised we would continue the conversation” and “at the end of the day, we can find common ground.”
Read more: Why Joe Biden, Who Loves Deals, Is Not Offering One to Kevin McCarthy
The two have continued to strike a more conciliatory tone. Two days later, speaking at a Democratic National Committee finance meeting at a ballroom at a Sheraton in downtown Philadelphia two days later, Biden made a point of saying that not all Republicans are “MAGA Republicans” who have denied the results of the 2020 elections and are beholden to former President Donald Trump. “There’s a lot of good Republicans still left,” Biden said.
And McCarthy said Monday he had no plans of repeating the President-Speaker relationship on display during former President Donald Trump’s last State of the Union, when Trump refused to shake then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s extended hand, and she publicly tore up a copy of his speech.
“I respect the other side,” McCarthy said in a video he posted to social media. “I can disagree on policy.”
In addition to finding a way through the looming debt ceiling crisis, White House officials believe that they may be able to find Republican votes for efforts to lower the costs of some prescription drugs, improve veteran care, extend investments into cancer research, and reduce deaths from opioids.
Biden wants Republicans to help him pass more resources to stop deadly fentanyl drug overdoses that have spiked in recent years. Biden’s Director of National Drug Control Policy Dr. Rahul Gupta told reporters on Tuesday that reducing fentanyl overdoses “is not a red state problem or a blue state problem. This is America’s problem.” Biden’s speech will lay out ways the U.S. can better curb smuggling by using advanced technology to screen more shipments crossing through border checkpoints and more packages shipped from overseas. He is also expected to announce the launch of a more robust national campaign with the non-profit Ad Council to warn about the dangers posed by fentanyl and drugs laced with fentanyl.
The President will also likely promote some ideas that will be dead-on-arrival among Republicans, including raising taxes on the wealthy, instituting a minimum corporate tax, and banning assault weapons.
The State of the Union comes on the heels of a blockbuster jobs report showing the US adding half a million jobs in January. Yet Biden’s speech comes as his approval ratings continue to hover in the low 40s. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that four in 10 Americans say they are financially worse off since Biden took office. That same poll found that 62% of Americans would be disappointed or angry if Biden won a second term.
Biden doesn’t look to these moments as a time to reinvent himself or launch in a new direction, according to his aides. In the State of the Union, Biden is laying out, “here’s where we can come together. Here’s what we’re gonna fight, here’s who we’re fighting for. And all that is based on what he said when he was going to run and who he’s been his whole life,” said a White House official who advised Biden on the speech.
While Biden has been clear that he won’t negotiate on cuts to Social Security or Medicare or defaulting on the U.S. debt, he does want to find ways to work with Republicans, partly to show Americans that their elected officials can still work together to address their problems. That is part of Biden’s larger project to restore American faith in the democratic process. “He’s shown that we can actually come together and do things, that we can find common ground, and get things done, which is what the American people want,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said on CNN Monday night. “That’s what they want to see their elected officials do.” Biden’s speech Tuesday night will be his opening argument for how he and House Republicans can make that happen.