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President Biden's State of the Union speech faces dual political challenges

President Biden faces at least two big tasks in his State of the Union speech on Thursday: to offer an agenda for the rest of his term, and to show voters he is ready for another one.

Strictly speaking, only the first item is his duty. The Constitution mandates only that the President should "from time to time" give Congress information on "the State of the Union" and recommend legislation. So the State of the Union speech is part of the job, not part of a campaign.

But Thursday's talk comes as the 2024 general election takes shape, and can't easily be separated from it.

The annual gathering puts leaders from both parties and all three branches of government on display in the same room. It's an illustration of how the system is supposed to work.

NPR will be hosting live in-studio video stream coverage of the State of the Union on NPR.org on March 7 starting at 9pm ET.
NPR will be hosting live in-studio video stream coverage of the State of the Union on NPR.org on March 7 starting at 9pm ET.

In an interview with NPR's Morning Edition, Biden's chief of staff Jeff Zients said the president will demand that Congress do its part in that system.

Biden is pressing lawmakers to pass spending bills, approve funding for Ukraine and address a crisis at the border. All these measures are stuck in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where Speaker Mike Johnson has been trying to manage an extremely narrow majority.

On Ukraine and immigration, the election is explicitly on the table. Biden's all-but-certain opponent Donald Trump has urged lawmakers to block action.

It's "not our assumption" that Congress will not act, Zients said, though "it's going to be difficult."

Steve Inskeep will host NPR's live coverage of the State of the Union on March 7. You can watch the video stream on NPR.org beginning at 9 p.m. ET.

In speeches leading up to this moment, Biden has been warming up campaign themes for the fall. In February, an NPR analysis of four Biden talks found him repeatedly using the word "freedom" to describe his agenda on issue after issue.

"Freedom is on the ballot," he said in Manassas, Va., "like the freedom to choose; the freedom to vote; the freedom to love who you want; the freedom to go to work, go to school, go to your house of worship without fear of being gunned down by a weapon of war."

This month, a New Yorker profile of Biden quoted an aide saying the "freedom agenda" would be the center of his campaign. Democrats hope to use the idea to counter Trump, whom they regard as a threat to democracy after his attempt to overturn his 2020 election defeat. Trump also played a central role in overturning the right to abortion, an issue on which Democrats believe the majority of voters are on their side.

This theme amounts to an effort to address a chronic Democratic Party deficit. Democrats have often been able to cite polling that shows the public favors their policies — but they still lose some voters who prefer Republicans' attitudes and cultural cues. Freedom is Biden's bid to encompass a lot of issues in a single idea.

The theme does not easily encompass every issue, though.

The public gives Biden low marks for his handling of immigration. Biden is obliged to enforce complex laws that were designed less to allow freedom and more to keep people out of the country, or at least make it hard to get in.

Trump has centered his campaign on a promise of mass deportations. While Biden is left saying that he wants to get tough on migrants and asylum seekers — but that Congress won't act.

It will be even harder to apply this theme to the Israel-Hamas war. The president strongly supported Israel after Hamas attacked, prompting criticism from his own supporters for failing to halt the Israeli bombardment of Gaza — a Palestinian area long described as a giant open-air prison.

Biden has been unable to broker a long-term cease-fire, but will at least offer a rhetorical shift on Thursday night. His chief of staff Zients told NPR, "The president will spend a good deal of time talking about the massive toll on innocent civilians in Gaza."

Beyond any issue is the fitness of the president himself. Democrats have openly expressed anxiety that the president, at 81, is seen as too old to run again. Polling shows Trump, 77, facing a similar problem, though less pronounced.

Biden faced this concern regarding his age during his 2023 address, and overcame it by sparring cheerfully with hecklers from the Republican side of Congress. Now another year has passed, and the job calls on him to stand before the cameras and his critics once again.

Steve Inskeep will host NPR's live coverage of the State of the Union on March 7. You can watch the video stream on NPR.org beginning at 9 p.m. ET.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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