Five questions for Biden’s State of the Union address
President Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.
The speech comes at a critical point for Biden. Republicans now control the House, the glow from Democrats’ better-than-expected performance in the midterms is fading and the first moves in the 2024 campaign are already being made.
Here are some of the biggest questions around Biden’s big speech.
Will Biden be confrontational or conciliatory with Republicans?
Biden has tried to thread a complicated needle when it comes to the GOP.
On the one hand, he has emphasized his willingness to reach across the aisle and make deals — a skill honed during his three decades in the Senate.
He will almost certainly emphasize how he was able to push a $1 trillion infrastructure spending package into law, with some Republican support, in late 2021.
Yet, at the same time, Biden’s attacks on “ultra-MAGA Republicans” were effective in the run up to the midterms. The president surely won’t want to ease off that line of attack now, particularly as House Republicans start rolling out probes into a range of matters, including his son Hunter Biden.
Biden is likely to try to marry the two themes, holding out the possibility of bipartisan agreement on one hand while trying to paint the GOP as in thrall to its hard-liners.
Whether he can make that work remains to be seen.
Can Biden give himself a boost?
The president is in a tough spot despite the relative Democratic success in holding down losses in the midterms.
His approval rating, as measured in the FiveThirtyEight weighted polling average, has not been in positive territory for well over a year. The chance of him notching significant legislative accomplishments is slim in a divided Congress. And questions about his age are only growing sharper.
Biden has also had to grapple with new controversy over his handling of classified documents.
But Biden has been underestimated throughout his political career.
He still retains a capacity to connect with an audience and, in the eyes of many voters, a basic decency.
If he can turn in a performance of force and vigor on Tuesday, he could get a least a short-term boost.
How much prominence does the Chinese spy balloon get?
The instantly infamous Chinese balloon seized the political headlines last week — and its political importance hasn’t faded even as its smithereens are being retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean.
Reaction to the balloon saga was yet another example of how the supporters of each of the major parties increasingly reside in different universes.
For Democrats, Biden had prudently waited until the balloon was above water rather than land, then downed it in emphatic fashion.
For Republicans, allowing the balloon to wend its way across the continental United States was another example of Biden’s weakness in the face of Chinese provocation.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have been among Biden’s critics on the issue.
The president can at least take advantage of the big occasion Tuesday night to push his side of the story with a massive TV audience.
How do lawmakers react to mention of Ukraine?
Biden has made full-force backing of Ukraine an article of faith since Russia invaded its neighbor almost one year ago.
But the question of whether the United States will keep backing Volodymyr Zelensky and his government at the same intensity is up in the air.
Many Republicans have expressed unease at the sheer volume of aid headed to Kyiv. The broad spending bill passed by Congress late last year took the total U.S. aid since the Russian invasion began over $100 billion.
But how the war in Ukraine plays in American domestic politics is not a simple question.
Polls show significant support for Ukraine, and Biden has cast the conflict as a vital one for U.S. and Western interests.
Some Republicans, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), have expressed support for Ukraine while insisting they want to see more accountability about where the money goes.
In any event, Biden is sure to reiterate his commitment to helping Ukraine. The reaction from the GOP members will be telling.
Can Biden get his economic message across as debt fight looms?
Above all, the president wants to make the case for his economic record.
He has a story to tell — 12 million jobs created since he came to office, an economy that added more than 500,000 jobs just last month and an unemployment rate that, at 3.4 percent, is the lowest since 1969.
But the chronic inflation that peaked in the middle of last year is a real problem. It has faded somewhat but hasn’t gone away. December’s figures showed the annualized rate of inflation still north of 6 percent.
Biden’s argument that the nation is on its way back to prosperity is further complicated by the looming question of when and how the debt ceiling might be raised.
Biden and McCarthy met last week on the issue. Both sides expressed cautiously positive sentiments, but there is still a sizeable gap to be bridged.
That leaves Biden with a complex message to deliver on Tuesday: The economy is getting better, but he feels the pain of struggling Americans — and there is also a big threat ahead.
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