Biden will Try to Use State of the Union to Contrast With Trump, Sell Voters on a Second Term

AP file photo
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 7, 2023.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is aiming to use his State of the Union address Thursday evening to urge voters to reject “an American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution” as he makes his case for a second term to a dispirited electorate and warns that GOP front-runner Donald Trump would be a dangerous alternative.

Biden’s third such address from the House rostrum will be something of an on-the-job interview, as the nation’s oldest president tries to quell voter concerns about his age and job performance while sharpening the contrast with his all-but-certain November rival.

My lifetime has taught me to embrace freedom and democracy, Biden will say according to prepared remarks released by the White House, not mentioning Trump by name but making it abundantly clear that he’s the subject. “A future based on the core values that have defined America: honesty, decency, dignity, equality. To respect everyone. To give everyone a fair shot. To give hate no safe harbor. Now some other people my age see a different story: an American story of resentment, revenge, and retribution. That’s not me.”

The president hopes to showcase his accomplishments on infrastructure and manufacturing, as well as push for action on aid to Ukraine, tougher migration rules, and lower drug prices, among other issues. But as he does so, the 81-year-old president will be closely watched not just for his message but for whether he can deliver it with vigor and command.

White House aides said Biden would aim to prove his doubters wrong by flashing his combative side and trying to needle Republicans over positions he believes are out of step with the country, particularly on access to abortion, but also tax policy and healthcare. It’s part of his campaign-year effort to use even official speeches to clarify the choice for voters at the ballot box this fall.

Biden spent last weekend working on the speech at the Camp David presidential retreat with his closest aides and presidential historian Jon Meacham. He was expected to keep fine-tuning it right into speech day, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

The president will be speaking before a historically ineffective Congress. In the GOP-led House, Speaker Mike Johnson took power five months ago after the chaotic ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Legislators are still struggling to approve funding bills for the current year and have been deadlocked for months on foreign assistance bills to help Ukraine stave off Russia’s invasion and support Israel’s fight against Hamas.

The State of the Union address is a marquee night on the White House calendar, offering presidents a direct line to a captive audience of lawmakers and dignitaries in the House chamber and tens of millions of viewers at home. But even so, the night has lost some of its luster as viewership has declined.

Still, said, Michael Waldman, a speechwriter in the Clinton White House, “It may not be as big as Taylor Swift at the Super Bowl, but it’s a big audience for a political speech.”

Biden aides inside the White House and on his campaign are hoping for some fresh viral moments — like when he tussled last year with heckling Republicans and chided them for past efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security.

Johnson, eager to avoid a similar episode this year, in a private meeting on Wednesday urged Republicans to show “decorum” during the speech, according to a person familiar with his remarks to lawmakers.

And congressional Republican leaders are showcasing one of their newest lawmakers through the State of the Union rebuttal in order to make a generational contrast with Biden. Alabama Sen. Katie Britt, the youngest Republican woman elected to the Senate, plans to paint a picture of a nation that “seems to be slipping away” and one where “our families are hurting.”

Right now, our commander-in-chief is not in command. The free world deserves better than a dithering and diminished leader, Britt plans to say, according to excerpts released Thursday evening. “America deserves leaders who recognize that secure borders, stable prices, safe streets, and a strong defense are the cornerstones of a great nation.”

Biden goes into the speech with work to do shoring up his standing. Just 38% of U.S. adults approve of how he is handling his job as president, while 61% disapprove, according to a recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The same survey found that more than 6 in 10 (63%) say they’re not very or not at all confident in Biden’s mental capability to serve effectively as president. A similar but slightly smaller share (57%) say that Trump lacks the memory and acuity for the job.

The already intense scrutiny of Biden’s age was magnified when special counsel Robert Hur raised questions about the president’s mental acuity in his report last month on Biden’s handling of classified information.

Jim Messina, former President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, said Thursday’s speech offers Biden an important opportunity to address voter concerns.

The more people see him doing his job, the better, Messina said. “And the more people see him out there being the president of the United States, the better off we are.”

With Hur set to testify on Tuesday before lawmakers about his investigation, Messina said, Biden’s address could serve as a “prebuttal” to the special counsel’s appearance.

Biden is expected to paint an optimistic future for the country as the massive pieces of legislation he signed into law during his first two years in office are implemented. But he also was set to warn that the progress he sees at home and abroad is fragile — and particularly vulnerable if Trump returns to the White House.

Republicans, in contrast, are describing the current state of the union with dark, menacing terms — like “crisis” and “catastrophe” — that echo the dismal tones Trump sounds on the campaign trail.

America is in decline, nothing he says tomorrow night is going to change that, Johnson said Wednesday.

Trump, for his part, said he planned to respond in real time to Biden’s remarks on his Truth Social platform.

This year, Biden could also face protests and heightened emotions — particularly among his base supporters — over his staunch backing for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. The White House had initially hoped a short-term cease-fire would be in place by the speech. It blames Hamas for not yet accepting a deal brokered by the U.S. and its allies.

Amid growing concerns about the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, Biden will announce in his address that he has directed the U.S. military to establish a temporary port on the Gaza coast aimed at increasing the flow of aid into the beleaguered territory, according to senior administration officials.

The president will also issue an emphatic call for lawmakers to pass sorely needed defense assistance for Ukraine. Acute ammunition shortages have allowed Russia to retake the offensive in the 2-year-old war.

The GOP-controlled House has refused to act on a Senate-passed version of the aid legislation, insisting on new stiffer measures to limit migration at the U.S.-Mexico border, after Trump used his influence to help sink a bipartisan compromise that would have done just that.

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said he was expecting that Biden “knocks Republicans in the teeth” for rejecting the border security deal.

Voters want a candidate who cares about the border, but they want a candidate who’s going to do something about it, not just complain about it, he said.

Access to abortion and fertility treatments also is expected to be a key component of Biden’s speech, especially in light of a controversial ruling from Alabama’s Supreme Court that has upended access to in vitro fertilization treatment in the state.

One of first lady Jill Biden’s guests for the speech will be Kate Cox, who sued Texas, and ultimately left her home state, to obtain an emergency abortion after a severe fetal anomaly was detected.

If Americans send me a Congress that supports the right to choose I promise you: I will restore Roe v. Wade as the law of the land again, Biden will say.

The White House also invited union leaders, a gun control advocate, and others that Jill Biden and her husband have met as they traveled the country promoting his agenda. The prime minister of Sweden, Ulf Kristersson, will attend to mark his country’s accession to NATO in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Going into the State of the Union, Biden also has raised the problems of “shrinkflation” – companies putting fewer pretzels in the jar and less yogurt in sealed cups — and so-called “junk fees” on services. Neither is a prime driver of inflation, but the White House hopes to show consumers that Biden is fighting for them.

Biden was also going to unveil an expanded plan to raise corporate taxes and use the proceeds to trim budget deficits and cut taxes for the middle class.

Following the speech, Biden was set for a weekend of campaign travel, holding events in Pennsylvania on Friday and Georgia on Saturday. Trump, too, will be campaigning in Georgia that day. The president’s Cabinet also will fan out across the country to amplify his message.

The Biden campaign said it would host more than 200 watch parties around the country Thursday night, including in cities, suburbs and rural towns in battleground states. Campaign officials will use the events to recruit volunteers and encourage others to get involved in Biden’s reelection effort.