While not a wholesale rewrite of the address, which will be delivered at 9 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday from the U.S. Capitol, the new version will reflect the way the crisis has added urgency to Biden’s longtime theme of defending democracies, according to one adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.
This new heavy dose of foreign policy is one of several ways the speech will depart from the typical State of the Union address, which modern presidents usually use to sell domestic ideas and exhibit sunny optimism. This year, Biden must also contend with a 40-year high in inflation — which he plans to address under the rubric of “lowering costs,” according to one person briefed on the address — along with voter angst driven by high crime and lingering coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
“This is a dicey one,” Christopher J. Dodd, former senator from Connecticut and a close Biden friend, said of Tuesday’s address. “He’ll appreciate that this is not the moment, given the events of the last few days alone — forget about covid and everything else — to go in and try ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ It would be a huge mistake.”
Top White House aides, briefing reporters on the speech Monday afternoon under the condition that their names would not be used, said Biden will tout the things he accomplished in the past year despite “deep challenges,” as an aide put it, and outline his aspirations for the next year. “He’ll remind the country that our best days lie ahead,” said one of the Biden aides.
The speech will include a big section on the president’s economic plans, including calling on Congress to send him legislation designed to make the United States more competitive with China.
The White House aides offered a blizzard of statistics that will be used Tuesday to sell the roughly $2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan passed into law last year. The funds will be used, they said, to improve 65,000 miles of roads, repair 1,500 bridges, do work on 600 airports and help purchase more than 1,500 new buses, ferries and subway cars.
The president will also call on Congress to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $2,000, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 and hour and create a national paid family leave program, according to aides.
Aides said that Biden will also address how any new plans should be paid for. “The president will outline proposals to make sure that corporations and the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share,” an aide said Monday.
White House officials cautioned late Sunday that the speech was still in flux and noted that elements and even major themes sometimes get dropped from the final version.
But on Monday, aides said there will be four parts to the economic portion of the address: making more goods in America, reducing consumers’ costs, promoting fair competition and eliminating barriers to jobs.
During Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress a year ago — which was not an official State of the Union address — lawmakers were prohibited from bringing guests because of the pandemic, a restriction that will be in force again Tuesday. Still, the audience will be significantly bigger than the 200 allowed last time in the House chamber.
Attendees are expected to include six of the nine Supreme Court justices, after only one was invited to attend last year’s speech. And about 20 Cabinet officials are scheduled to attend, according to a person involved with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the guest list. First lady Jill Biden’s box could include up to eight guests, the person said.
Under new guidance from Congress’s Office of the Attending Physician sent out Sunday, lawmakers and other attendees will not have to wear masks. That office had said earlier February that masks would be required, but since then, the Biden administration shifted health guidance to say face coverings are not needed in Washington.
Meanwhile, a temporary fence was erected over the weekend around the Capitol to provide an additional layer of protection against any Jan. 6-style incursions during the address. Conservative activists are also planning protests against covid restrictions in Washington in coming days.
Despite the drumbeat of bad news facing Biden, he will contend that Americans broadly are better off now than they were when he took office, given covid’s retreat and the economy’s recovery, according to two people familiar with drafts of the speech. But Biden also plans to speak to the pain Americans are still feeling from the pandemic and higher prices, according to one of the people.
The president also may note the broad opposition to Russia’s invasion among Americans of both parties to argue that the country is not as fractured as it sometimes appears, the adviser said.
Either way, the threat to the international order posed by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor will be a defining element.
“The magnitude of the visceral reaction to what’s going on there is so significant that it’s just hard for me to imagine him just relegating it to point number five,” said Michael Waldman, who helped write four of President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses and is now president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Biden needs to rally the democrats — with a small ‘d’ — against the autocrats worldwide, and he cares a lot about that.”
Work on the speech has been underway for months inside the White House. Bruce Reed, Biden’s deputy chief of staff, has been coordinating policy initiatives to be highlighted in the address, while longtime Biden aide Mike Donilon and Biden’s chief speechwriter, Vinay Reddy, have taken the lead on writing and framing it.
One person familiar with the address said the speech appeared designed to appeal to three groups of voters whose support Biden needs: moderate Democrats, independents and “Never Trump” Republicans. Biden’s approval rating has hit the lowest point of his presidency, with only 37 percent of Americans saying they approve of the job he is doing, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday.
Biden is particularly weak with independents. Sixty-one percent of them disapprove of his performance, according to the poll, and 59 percent said they do not believe the president, who is 79, has the “mental sharpness” to do his job effectively.
As the White House seeks to strike the right tone between touting accomplishments and acknowledging pain, there has been no shortage of outside advice. A guest essay published in the New York Times by David Axelrod, for example, urges Biden to adopt a humble tone during the address.
“Recognize that we are still in the grips of a national trauma,” advised Axelrod, who was President Barack Obama’s chief political strategist. The essay was circulated among Biden allies, though it’s not clear top White House aides agree with the advice, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private dynamics.
Despite the wartime emphasis, some parts of the speech will be more traditional. The White House has signaled to activists, for example, that Biden will use the address to sell the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that he signed into law in November. He will travel to Superior, Wis., soon after the speech to highlight how funds from the package can be used to repair the community’s roads and bridges.
Biden said in January that he hoped to travel around the country more in 2022, but his events outside of Washington have not noticeably increased, as the White House has been consumed with the Ukraine crisis, choosing a Supreme Court nominee and other priorities. Biden’s aides now say his ramped-up travel will come after the State of the Union address.
Biden aides briefing reporters on the speech Monday afternoon would not say whether Biden would mention his one-time signature legislation by name. “It’s not about the name of the bill. It’s about the ideas,” said one top Biden aide.
The Russian invasion complicates Biden’s message in some ways, activists said.
Climate activists have been pushing the White House to use the speech to elevate the need for clean energy incentives and renew his call for electrifying the country’s transportation system. But some said they recognize that Biden will also need to address the urgent spike in gas prices resulting from the war, which could require an increase in gas supply in the immediate future.
“He’ll put the near-term energy supply first, but I do think he may pivot, saying that current high oil prices demonstrate exactly why we need to move to an electrification of our transportation systems,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute who was part of Clinton’s climate team.
As a combination of a wartime speech and a more traditional talk, the address risks running long, as many have in the past.
Dodd, who watched many of them during his years in Congress from 1975 to 2011, warned against that tendency, saying, “Sometimes the length of the thing can obliterate the core message.”
Jeff Stein and Anna Phillips contributed to this report.