U.S. President Joe Biden will face Republicans who question his legitimacy and a public concerned about the country’s direction in Tuesday’s State of the Union speech that is expected to serve as a blueprint for a 2024 re-election bid.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives, Biden is expected to explain how he is trying to reshape the post-pandemic economy, highlight massive infrastructure and inflation bills passed in 2022, and stress that a bitterly-divided Congress can still make laws in the year ahead.
“I want to talk to the American people and let them know the state of affairs … what I’m looking forward to working on from this point on, what we’ve done,” Biden told reporters on Monday after returning from presidential retreat Camp David, where he spent the weekend working on the prime-time speech.
Biden’s public approval rating edged one percentage point higher to 41% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll that closed on Sunday. That is close to the lowest level of his presidency, with 65% of Americans saying they believe the country is on the wrong track, compared to 58% a year earlier.
In the speech, Biden will hail the resilience and strength of the U.S. economy, which saw unemployment drop to a nearly 54-year low in January, while pledging continued efforts to lower inflation and protect Social Security and other benefits.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said on Tuesday that 2023 should be a year of “significant declines in inflation,” but strong jobs data mean the process of tightening interest rates could continue for “quite a bit of time.”
Biden will continue to hammer corporations for profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and run through a wish list of economic proposals, the White House said, although many are unlikely to be passed through Congress. They include a minimum tax for billionaires, and a quadrupling of the tax on corporate stock buybacks.
On foreign policy, Biden is expected to highlight the U.S.-led response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the strength of the NATO alliance and tensions between the United States and China, recently spotlighted by a Chinese spy balloon that was shot down by the U.S. military this week.
The president sees good prospects for continued bipartisan efforts on his “unity agenda” to advance cancer research, support veterans and reduce their high rates of suicide, expand mental health services overall, and beat the “opioid and overdose epidemic,” the White House said.
Biden aides describe the speech, which will draw millions of viewers and perhaps the president’s largest television audience of the year, as a milestone ahead of the second presidential campaign he is expected to launch in coming weeks.
Biden turned 80 in November and, if re-elected, would be 82 at the start of a second term, a fact that concerns many Democratic voters, recent polls show.
Another area he will ask Congress to work together on is to toughen regulation of the technology sector – including what the administration sees as a need for stronger privacy protections, one aide said.
Reforms in policing will loom large in Biden’s speech after the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died last month after being beaten by officers in Memphis, Tennessee last month, with his mother and stepfather to be guests at the speech.
The president will again call for Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill named for a Black man killed under the knee of a white police officer in 2020.
He will push Congress to require background checks for all gun sales and ban assault weapons, the White House said, although the prospects for passage remain slim.
NOT NEGOTIATING ON DEBT .
Biden will face a rambunctious and splintered gathering of Republican lawmakers, eager to put their conservative mark on U.S. policy following four years of Democratic control of the House.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy will sit behind Biden for the address for the first time. The two are at loggerheads over the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling, which must raised in the coming months to avoid a default.
McCarthy said on Tuesday that he won’t rip up Biden’s speech, referencing the actions of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi after former President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address.
“I respect the other side,” McCarthy said in a video. “I can disagree on policy. But I want to make sure this country is stronger, economically sound, energy independent, secure and accountable.”
Some House Republican lawmakers have questioned Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential race against Trump, vowing to investigate his Cabinet and family. But with a razor-thin majority and intraparty divisions, Republicans had a difficult time electing a speaker and are expected to continue to struggle to unite their far-right and more moderate members.
Biden will insist during his speech that raising the debt limit is not negotiable and should not be used as a “bargaining chip” by lawmakers, National Economic Council director Brian Deese said Monday.
While the U.S. economy continues to outperform expectations, faith in Biden is undermined by entrenched political divisions, high prices and concerns over his age, polls show.
Biden’s senior aides plan to use the speech to build an argument that Biden’s policies have helped to stabilize the U.S. economy following the COVID pandemic and are the way to go to bring down inflation and boost good-paying jobs.
Biden plans to explain how his strategies “makes a clear contrast to the trickle-down economic philosophy that has pervaded thinking for years and decades in the past,” Deese said.