Things to watch in Biden's State of the Union address

President Biden’s first State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday will come in the midst of a war in Ukraine.

The president will have just nominated the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. But he’s facing a frustrated American public grappling with the two-year coronavirus pandemic and heightened inflation. 

Biden is staring down dismal approval ratings and there are questions about whether he can turn it around before the 2022 midterm elections. 

Here are five things to watch for Biden’s first State of the Union. 

How much of the address is about Ukraine? 

What weeks ago would have been an address focused on domestic issues is expected to hit squarely on the unfolding foreign policy crisis in Europe that has consumed Biden’s attention over the past week.

“There’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Biden is expected to talk about his work to unite allies behind a common approach to counter Putin with punishing economic sanctions. 

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told reporters last week that he expected Biden to “deliver a forceful message both reinforcing our sacred commitment to NATO as the most important alliance the United States has and our determination to provide support for Ukrainian refugees, for a Ukrainian resistance and for the future of a free and democratic West.”

The president will likely frame the current crisis as a struggle of democracies to win out over autocracies, a notion that has become a central theme of his presidency. He likely will also talk about what that means for Americans. 

“The war represents a game changer,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council under President Obama. “We’re witnessing the most significant war in Europe since the end of World War II. It’s going to change the world. It’s going to lead to a remilitarization and a redivision of Europe. It could potentially spill over.”

Can he foster unity? 

Biden came into office vowing to restore a sense of professionalism and bipartisanship in Washington but so far he’s run into fierce resistance from Republicans who have opposed his agenda and questioned his fitness for office.

The president hasn’t given up on bipartisan outreach, and he is likely to highlight instances of cooperation on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and push for broad support for his Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced Biden and his team to rework the speech in recent days, but the crisis could present a potential rallying moment for Biden as his administration ratchets up sanctions on Russia.

“I think it will be a less partisan State of the Union than we’ve seen from past presidents, in part because of who Biden is but also because the national security tensions is an opportunity to unite the country,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. 

Still, an ABC/Washington Post poll released Sunday found Biden’s approval rating at just 37 percent, and Republicans indicated ahead of the speech there would be little opportunity for Biden to win them over as they focus on regaining control of Congress in the midterms.

On a call with reporters ahead of the speech, GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the party would be watching whether Biden addressed inflation, crime, immigration, inconsistent messaging on the pandemic and foreign policy.

“Unfortunately we won’t hear about the things the American people care about tomorrow night,” McDaniel predicted. “He will put on a show, he will say what he wants the American people to believe what he is doing. But we are seeing it with our own eyes, we are feeling it with our pocketbooks.”

Does Biden declare it’s time to live with COVID-19?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last Friday issued updated guidance easing recommendations on mask-wearing for the majority of the country.

The looser stance on masks comes after weeks of Biden officials signaling a shift in tone on the state of the pandemic as cases dropped off significantly from the peak of the omicron wave. 

Several Democratic governors have started to lift mask requirements after many Republicans did the same, and the White House itself will loosen its mask requirements for fully vaccinated employees starting Tuesday.

Biden will almost certainly use Tuesday’s speech to highlight success on vaccination and the development of treatment options, and he may signal it’s time to change how the nation approaches the virus. In a sign of the times, masks will not be required in the House chamber for those in attendance.

“There are still people dying every day of COVID. There are still immunocompromised populations,” Psaki said Friday. “But what we are trying to work towards is a period of time where we are -- where COVID is not disrupting our daily lives.”

Biden could see a boost from the public if cases continue to level off as the nation moves into the summer months, especially if the economy grows and inflation settles.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist who advised the Biden team during the transition, noted that there is still a possibility that future variants like omicron could emerge. He said that Biden should tell the public that they can feel confident cases will decline while emphasizing the need to prepare for whatever comes next. 

“This is just a hard time because no one wants uncertainty right now,” Osterholm said.

What is his message on Build Back Better?

The keynote speech will offer Biden the opportunity to try to revive talks with Congress on his signature legislative proposal after it fizzled at the end of last year. 

Biden is expected to call on Congress to act on elements of Build Back Better, such as healthcare, childcare and energy provisions, though it’s unclear whether Biden will actually say the name of the legislative proposal. White House officials and allies have suggested in recent weeks that the proposal could be renamed.

“It’s not about the name of the bill. It’s about the ideas, it’s about lowering costs for families, and I think you can expect to hear the president talk about those ideas,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday.

Administration officials also said that Biden would talk about the need to lower the deficit, a detail that seems geared toward winning over Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who torpedoed the House-passed version of the bill in December when he said he could not support it due to ongoing concerns about inflation.

Kessler argued that the Ukraine crisis creates an opening for Biden to advocate for his domestic agenda because climate and clean energy provisions are at the center of the Build Back Better proposal. 

“Moving from gas to electric and to nuclear cripples Russia’s economy in the long term,” said Kessler. “It has a national security implication that it didn’t three weeks ago.” 

How does he address economic concerns? 

Biden will address inflation head on in his speech by emphasizing that more must be done to address rising costs, according to administration officials. 

Biden is expected to describe a plan to address rising costs that involves strengthening supply chains and promoting fair competition - both of which are already a focus of the administration - and pushing Congress to pass elements of his domestic economic agenda.

Inflation hit a 40-year high last year and polls have shown a majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the economy despite the pace of the recovery. Biden’s poll numbers have tanked as the public continues to struggle with exhaustion with both the pandemic and inflation.

But Biden is likely to strike a balance between acknowledging the pain caused by inflation and offering an optimistic view of the road ahead, reminding the country of the staggering job growth last year.

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