What to watch out for in Biden’s second State of the Union address

On Tuesday night, the president of the US will stand before a joint session of Congress for the first time since the midterm elections. Look for new faces and fresh political dynamics, coupled with attention to some old problems brought back into painful focus by recent events

Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden salutes as he boards Air Force One at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse, New York, on February 4.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (AFP)

The President of the United States will stand before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening for the first time since voters in the midterm elections handed control of the House to Republicans. Biden, like presidents past, will make the case that the nation is strong and that better days lie ahead. But he finds himself in choppy waters as he passes the halfway mark of his term. After a series of legislative victories during his first two years in office, Republicans are looking to undo some of his early wins. Recent mass shootings and a police killing in Memphis, Tennessee, have brought renewed focus to the issues of gun violence and excessive police force. And on the foreign policy front, Biden faces the formidable task of keeping a Western alliance – and the American electorate – united behind Ukraine in its effort to repel Russia’s ongoing invasion. He’s also dealing with fallout from the US downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon that floated across the US last week. On top of all that, a special counsel is investigating how classified information from Biden’s days as vice president and senator ended up at his Delaware home and former office.

Here are some things to watch out for on Tuesday night:

Biden vs. McCarthy

It will be new GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy wielding the gavel and seated behind Biden on the dais this time rather than Democrat Nancy Pelosi. Watch the body language between the two – and how Republican legislators treat Biden overall after some sharp GOP outbursts from the audience last year.

The president and new speaker recently had a productive first sit-down but are at an impasse over the nation’s borrowing limit. Republicans have refused to raise the statutory debt limit unless Biden accepts cuts in federal spending. Biden has said raising the cap is not up for negotiation, and Congress must pay the nation’s bills or the country will face economic calamity.

The Democratic president last week said McCarthy made “absolutely off the wall” commitments to win the speakership. Biden’s rhetorical jabs might not be so sharp in the formal address, but look for him to more subtly argue that there’s an enormous chasm between how he and Republicans approach the economy, health care and Social Security.

Gun violence and policing

The parents of Tyre Nichols, who was severely beaten by police officers in Memphis and later died, are expected to be in the audience for Biden’s address. So is Brandon Tsay, who disarmed the gunman who shot and killed 11 people last month in Monterey Park, California, along with others who jumped in during recent mass shootings.

Watch how Biden, in their presence, speaks to the recent rash of mass shootings and the beating death of Nichols, after his past efforts to address gun violence and police excesses have been sharply restricted by resistance in Congress.

New faces

There will be plenty of new faces in the crowd as Biden addresses the nation. The nation has a new Supreme Court justice since last year’s address in Ketanji Brown Jackson, and in recent years justices have tended to attend addresses by the president who nominated them. There are new legislators from both parties, as well. Among those getting outsized attention: Rep. George Santos, the New York Republican who has been in the spotlight for embellishments and lies about his education, work experience and other aspects of his personal and professional life.

The Chinese balloon

Look for Biden to talk about his decision to have the military shoot down a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon on Saturday, but how tough will he be on China?

His comments on the balloon will be part of a broader section on countering China’s more assertive economic and military actions around the world.

What next in Ukraine?

Biden has repeatedly said the US is committed to helping Ukraine “as long as it takes” to beat back Russia. The United States has already committed nearly $30 billion in security assistance since the start of the war.

Polls show Americans remain broadly in favor of providing support to Ukraine as it tries to fend off Russia. Administration officials, however, have made clear to Ukraine that Congress’ patience with the cost of war is not endless.

Look for Biden to spotlight that Ukraine has been able to stay in the fight with a more formidable Russian military because of US and allies’ generosity. He’ll also try to spell out why Americans must remain committed to a war that has ramifications far beyond Europe.

Classified document probe

Will Biden bring it up? Not likely.

After criticizing his predecessor, Republican President Donald Trump, for holding on to classified documents after his presidency, Biden now finds himself in the middle of a special counsel inquiry into classified documents that were found in his home and former office space.

The White House makes the case it’s important to distinguish between Biden voluntarily turning over documents and the behavior of Trump, who refused to hand over hundreds of documents, prompting the FBI to raid his home.

Biden is likely to steer clear of the controversy in his address, as past presidents have tended to avoid mention of whatever’s got them into difficulty.

The 2024 question

Biden is expected to announce he’s running for reelection sometime this spring, but there’s growing sentiment among voters that he should stick to one term. Will Biden address the reelection question head on? Probably not. But his speech could well be framed as an argument for an additional four years of a Biden White House. And millions of viewers will be evaluating not just Biden’s words but his delivery as they weigh whether that’s a good idea.

Culture wars

Arkansas’ new governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, will deliver the Republican response to Biden’s address.

Sanders has staked out ground in the early days of her term on hot cultural issues in schools by issuing executive orders targeting the teaching of critical race theory in Arkansas schools and expressing support for legislation banning instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through the third grade.

Don’t expect her to hold back on the national stage in making the case that Democrats are out of touch with mainstream American values.

The fence returns

It’s back: the tall, imposing security fencing at the Capitol complex.

Following the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol by Trump supporters who refused to accept Biden’s election victory, a massive fence went up around the grounds as a temporary security measure.

It stayed there for six months before finally being removed. It went back up briefly before last year’s State of the Union address, when Democrats were still in charge of Congress. And now it’s back again for this year’s address.

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