Biden SOTU to be balancing act of legislative agenda, courting weary voters

President Biden’s first State of the Union address Tuesday is poised to be a delicate balancing act between relaying his legislative priorities before a closely-divided Congress and courting weary voters ahead of the midterms who are feeling the pain of inflation and continued pandemic fatigue.

The address also comes against the backdrop of freshly issued U.S. sanctions that aim to punish Russia in response to aggression by the Kremlin toward Ukraine.

“Biden needs to give the best speech of his life,” said Hunter Bates, partner at Akin Gump and a former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“He has to walk along a very thin precipice balancing his accomplishments on infrastructure and economic growth with the pain of inflation, rising crime and global instability,” Bates added.

The speech comes as inflation has left Americans facing rising prices on food, gas, and goods. The consumer price index rose 7.5 percent annually by the end of January, the fastest rise since 1982.

Biden also goes into the address with approval ratings hovering in the 30-percent range for the last few months. Just 35 percent approved of Biden’s job as president as of a Feb. 16 Quinnipiac University poll.

The address to Congress may leave little room for Biden to call on lawmakers to advance some of his key legislative agenda items but strategists say he could also use the opportunity to tout the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, some components of which are currently being implemented. 

But Biden’s biggest legislative goal – the Build Back Better Act – remains out of reach after moderate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in December effectively killed any chance the behemoth proposal had of passing, in the end eventually blaming inflation concerns. 

It’s an uphill climb for any part of the sweeping economic agenda to pass before the midterms, but the president has said he is willing to break it up to get certain provisions passed separately.

Biden could, however, champion the America Competes Act, also referred to as the China competition bill, which is aimed at bolstering domestic supply chains and scientific research to make the U.S. more competitive with nations like China.

That bill passed the House in February along party lines with just one Republican voting in favor. The Senate passed its own, much smaller version in June, but both chambers will have to reach an agreement that 10 Senate Republicans could vote for to reach the 60-vote threshold. 

“I don’t think you’re going to hear him say Build Back Better, but you are going to hear him say Competes Act instead. You’ll hear him talk about that and that’s something that I think a lot of folks have been working hard to pass— on the Hill, both sides, as well as other stakeholders,” said Izzy Klein, former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y) and co-founder of Klein/Johnson Group.

Stewart Verdery, founder of Monument Advocacy and former assistant secretary at Homeland Security under President George W. Bush predicted that any remarks about Build Back Better will focus on certain provisions of that agenda instead of touting the package as a whole.

“I expect he’ll talk about the parts of it that he thinks are still polling very well as opposed to the grab bag as a concept. The problem is that this bill became a Rorschach test—for some people it was a climate bill, for some people it was a housing thing, for some people it was health care. It got so big and unwieldy that it defied explanation,” he said.

When White House chief of staff Ron Klain joined the Senate Democratic lunch earlier this month, the discussion revolved around the goals of the State of the Union, namely touting legislative accomplishments such as the COVID-19-related American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bill.

While Biden often touts wanting to come to a bipartisan consensus, a White House official said the discussion also included “drawing a clear contrast with Republicans that continue to stand in the way of progress for working families.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week would not divulge any information on whether Biden had recently spoken to any members of Congress about Build Back Better. 

“He has no choice but to tout the elements of BBB that still have a pulse, like green energy, and highlight the China competitiveness bill, which is likely to become law over the next few months,” Bates said.

The other hurdle facing the Biden administration’s legislative priorities involves simple math. 

“The current margins in both the House and the Senate make it a nearly impossible situation as you really never know when your ducks will be in line,” said David Castagnetti, co-founder of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas and former chief liaison to Congress during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential run.. 

“So, part of this is not just making Congress comfortable but also making the nation feel comfortable by providing a vision of the possible instead of just a long to-do list,” Castagnetti added.

On a broader spectrum, Biden will also have to court voters as they take to the polls in November to determine who will control Congress for the remainder of Biden’s first term.

“The American people will judge him more on his tone, style and delivery than the specifics of any policy proposal,” Bates said. “Ultimately, every move that Biden makes has to be directed at trying to change the mind of the American people on one question: is this President capable of leading the country through an historic malaise and multiple, raging crises?”

Tags Chuck Schumer Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Kerry Mitch McConnell Ron Klain

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