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How congressional Democrats can make Biden’s big speech stick with weary voters
Sure, the president’s State of the Union comes with high stakes. But it’s what House and Senate Democrats do after the address that will make most the difference.
Less than a week removed from a visit to the US Capitol to speak at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Joe Biden will return on Tuesday night to deliver the second State of the Union address of his administration before a joint session of Congress.
The speech comes at a consequential moment for Biden: He’s navigating a divided government after two years of a Democratic-controlled House and Senate. He’s just entered a critical phase of his presidency when his administration must implement a series of landmark laws he signed in 2022 — at the same time new polling suggests these major wins have gone unnoticed by everyday Americans.
Biden’s also expected soon to launch his reelection campaign for a second term in the White House so he’ll likely contrast himself as the adult in the room against Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who critics say has empowered his most extreme members to call the shots in his conference. And although many of the bold policies Biden is expected to propose will immediately fall into partisan gridlock, this will be one of the biggest audiences he’ll speak in front of this year.
“In this scenario, it is always the president’s job to boldly lay out an aggressive agenda for his party and for the country,” Democratic Strategist Michael Hardaway said in an interview with Supercreator. “Some of those items may be obstructed by partisanship on the Republican side. But whether it actually happens or whether it does not, it doesn’t actually matter for the president on a day like tomorrow. What matters is that he outlines what the country needs — and it’s Congress’s job to follow up and make that happen.”
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Biden spent the weekend at Camp David with several of his closest advisers — including Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed, Senior Advisors Mike Donilon and Anita Dunn, speechwriter Vinay Reddy and historian Jon Meacham — to prepare for the speech. A White House official said the speech will focus on the president’s plans to create new jobs, lower inflation, reduce the deficit and protect Medicare and Social Security.
In substance, the speech is expected to pick up where the president left off last year when Biden introduced a “unity agenda” that hit on four themes he thought could generate a bipartisan consensus and moved him closer to the political center ahead of what turned out to be a historically favorable midterm election for a sitting president.
But in tone, Biden is expected to opt for a sharper spirit than he did a year ago when he called for a “reset,” while adding: “We can’t change how divided we’ve been. But we can change how we move forward.”
The difference now? The president is likely about to be a candidate again, a role that inherently requires sharper elbows. Not to mention, Biden’s got a legislative record to defend against a House Republican conference hellbent on undoing the administration’s progress, albeit in mostly symbolic fashion.
What’s still the same though is Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is coming up on its first anniversary. Last year, Biden devoted ample time in his speech to the conflict and explained America’s role in supporting Ukraine as it defended itself. This year, he’ll need to remind voters why billions of their taxpayer dollars are better served in defense of democracy instead of invested at home.
And while voters will likely be listening for clear and meaningful ideas on thorny domestic issues like police reform, immigration and expanding the social safety net, Hardaway said that Biden, a politician known both for his folksy charm and an inclination to go off-script, should stay out of the weeds if he hopes to connect with a broad audience of supporters, critics and fence-sitters.
“Nobody remembers the weeds. No one understands the weeds,” he said. “High-level ideas and high-level facts on what you have provided is the only thing you should be focused on.”
Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas will deliver the official response to President Biden’s speech where she’ll passionately protest his policy proposals and affirm her party’s voters and persuadable independents that conservative policies and principles are the fixes to what ails the country.
“I am grateful for this opportunity to address the nation and contrast the GOP’s optimistic vision for the future against the failures of President Biden and the Democrats,” Sanders, the youngest governor in the country and the second secretary to former President Donald Trump, said in a statement. “We are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of America — to be written by a new generation of leaders ready to defend our freedom against the radical left and expand access to quality education, jobs and opportunities for all.”
But Democrats say that these policies are unaddressed in the Republican agenda.
“And so if I’m the House Democrats, I see that as a signal for what I’m in for,” Hardaway said. “Republicans are uninterested in governing. They have no agenda. They have no plan. Their only plan is just to attack the president and his family.”
After the speech, President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and cabinet officials will complete a customary post-speech blitz through the country to reinforce the themes of the address and promote the president’s economic agenda.
Biden will be in Wisconsin on Wednesday to talk about jobs while Harris will travel to Atlanta to detail the White House’s response to the climate crisis. He traveled to Wisconsin the day after last year’s State of the Union too while Vice President Harris sat for interviews on ABC’s Good Morning America, NBC’s TODAY Show and CBS Mornings. And to prove what a difference 365 days make, the White House COVID response team held a press call last year to detail Biden’s new pandemic strategy. Last week, Biden announced he will end the two national and public health emergencies for COVID-19 this May. (500 people on average are still dying from the virus every day.)
On Thursday, Biden will discuss health care during a stop in Tampa, Florida; the vice president will be in St. Cloud, Minnesota to tout the administration’s investments in electric vehicles. The two will host the nation’s governors at the White House during the National Governors Association winter meeting for a discussion on key priorities, including infrastructure, manufacturing, workforce development and lowering costs for American families.
And during each of these stops, expect Biden and Harris to accuse House Republicans of taking direct aim at earned benefits in favor of tax cuts for the rich.
“Think about that: They’re targeting the Medicare and Social Security benefits that middle-class families pay in to earn their whole lives, then turning around and giving tax handouts to big corporations,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement. “The American people want more jobs and lower costs, not a death panel for Medicare and Social Security.”
But it’s not just the White House’s responsibility to brag about its legislative accomplishments.
“[Congressional] Democrats must continue to sell the victories this president has delivered over the past two years to their constituents and really connect what these things mean for their daily lives,” Hardaway said. “That first of all helps those members of Congress protect their seats and get reelected. But the president has delivered these things — it’s their job to sell it.”
It’s also up to House Democrats primarily to protect the president against relentless House investigations into his administration and family.
“In the next two years, you’ll see tens of millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on personal-vendetta investigations,” Hardaway said. “And so it is the job of House Democrats to help protect the president.”
To do so, Democrats will rely on a mix of young messengers who connect with a new generation of engaged voters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and expert tacticians, including Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Democratic Whip Katherine Clark who are known for their operational and policy know-how. There’s also Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who is still available as a resource even though she no longer serves as the top House Democrat.
“I think for all those reasons, House Democrats will deliver and they’ll be able to protect the president in the next two years in the way that he needs protection.”