Voices: Why this year’s State of the Union Address will be so different

Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi (Getty Images)
Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi (Getty Images)

This year’s State of the Union Address will be very different from the last in more ways than one. Personifying the new era of divided government, Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will be sitting behind President Biden’s left shoulder next to Vice President Kamala Harris. But even with the new backdrop and looming headaches, Joe Biden appears to be feeling good about where he stands. So good, in fact, his sights are already set on how he can lock in term number two.

On February 7, President Biden will deliver a State of the Union that will serve as a platform and messaging framework for his 2024 campaign, which we expect to be announced in the coming weeks. Biden will seek to frame the 2024 debate on his own terms, and outline not only what he’s for and against, but also tout what he’s already done.

This speech comes amid the new narrow House Republican majority, whose newly empowered extremist members have wasted no time in causing chaos. Biden is currently facing obstructionism on the debt ceiling and incoming House investigations into his administration and family. There is also the new Special Counsel probe into Biden’s handling of classified documents. It’s important to note that both former Vice President Mike Pence’s and President Biden’s cases are distinctly different from Donald Trump’s case, which is a criminal obstruction probe. Nonetheless, no president likes being under investigation by a Special Counsel. In spite of those headwinds, and some concerns about his age, the President feels the political wind is at his back.

Biden is delivering this speech on top of a perch built on a midterm election performance that defied history, an improving economy, and an impressive list of legislative accomplishments. Biden is known to not have the final version of consequential speeches complete until moments before they’re delivered, but we already have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

In a post-midterm press conference this past November, Biden was asked if he will do anything differently over the next two years to change people’s minds. Biden replied, "Nothing, because they’re just finding out what we’re doing. The more they know about what we’re doing, the more support there is." That’s what we’ll see in the speech. Biden will promote his legislative accomplishments, highlight his bipartisan achievements, and outline an economic message that spotlights progress and frames Republicans as a threat to that progress.

In a streak of appearances over the past few months, President Biden has been touting his bipartisan infrastructure law. In an effort to emphasize the bipartisan nature of this law, Biden has gone as far as to appear with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to promote Kentucky’s new infrastructure projects. It makes sense why Biden wants to highlight this particular law. From expanded broadband being provided to the midwest to investments combatting climate change, there’s a lot to love, regardless of what side of the aisle you’re on.

This week, President Biden has taken his infrastructure tour up and down the east coast. On Tuesday, President Biden delivered remarks highlighting the new funding for the Hudson rail tunnel in New York City and hammered his message about "building an economy that works from the bottom up and the middle out." There are some objective measures to bolster his arguments.

Inflation is improving and GDP growth remains solidly above expectations clocking at 2.9 percent in Q4. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) just raised its 2023 growth outlook for the global economy and predicted a more optimistic outlook for the US economy than the Federal Reserve’s own forecast. But still, recession fears loom as Americans are still facing high prices and increased anxiety under a flood of "X company cuts staff by X percent" headlines. Biden will need to strike a tone balanced with optimism and "I feel your pain" energy.

While touting the economic progress his administration has overseen, President Biden might continue to hit Republicans as a threat to that progress. Depending on where the debt ceiling talks are by next week, we could see Biden hammer Republicans’ refusal to negotiate and initial efforts to target social programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Although he will seek to strike a bipartisan tone, President Biden could feel empowered to go even harder when attacking Republicans. Biden’s approval ratings have largely remained steady, but Republicans’ approvals have plunged. New polling from CNN found that 73 percent of Americans say Republicans haven’t paid enough attention to the country’s most important problems and 67% disapprove of Republican leaders in Congress.

In order to further hammer this point, we could see President Biden go down a laundry list of his accomplishments, some of which may have slipped the minds of Americans. It was a remarkably productive first two years of a presidency. Biden passed the American Rescue Plan, the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant gun safety legislation since the assault weapons ban 30 years ago, the CHIPS ACT, expanded NATO, the Electoral Count Act, and successfully appointed Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

But of course, Americans want more and were promised more. Among the key areas that President Biden underdelivered, due to roadblocks from Republicans and Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ), is racial justice. It will be interesting to see if Biden reiterates his intention to pass voting rights legislation. And now, given the depraved killings of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police, will Biden renew calls for police reform?

It’ll also be interesting to see how House Republicans behave under their new Speaker. Will they take cues from how McCarthy behaves on the dais or will it be open season, with lawmakers booing at will? How will McCarthy behave? Will he seek a viral moment like Speaker Pelosi repeatedly garnered when sitting behind Donald Trump? He probably couldn’t pull off a clap like her though.

Overall, the most important part of this speech to watch will be how well Biden balances optimism with empathy, achievements with promises, and affirmative statements of what he stands for with precise attacks on what he stands against.

With Donald Trump already hitting the campaign trail and speculation surrounding Governor Ron DeSantis, the 2024 election season is already heating up. Let’s see how President Biden decides to enter it.