China tensions cast shadow over Biden’s State of the Union address

The crisis sparked by the incursion of a Chinese spy balloon in US airspace is set to weigh heavily on the president’s most important speech of the year

Joe Biden
Joe Biden, on February 4 at Hagerstown Regional Airport, in Maryland.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS (AFP)
Iker Seisdedos

US President Joe Biden planned to use his State of the Union address on Tuesday to celebrate the achievements of his two years in the White House. He was expected to tout the strong US economy, which has reported cooling inflation and 53-year-low unemployment levels; his massive infrastructure bill, which boosts investment in the semiconductor industry and lowers the cost of prescription drugs; and the message – which proved successful during the November midterm elections – that Trumpism is a threat to US democracy.

The Republicans, for their part, were planning to use Biden’s speech to argue the contrary: that the country is beset by record-high debt and that wasteful spending by the Democrats is to blame for inflation. The event is also an occasion for Republicans to warn that now they hold a slim majority in the House of Representatives, they intend to make the second half of Biden’s mandate as difficult as possible.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary. But then a Chinese spy balloon entered US airspace and was downed off the Atlantic coast of South Carolina, further straining already tense relations between Washington and Beijing.

Discurso del estado de la Unión
Workers erect a fence to secure the Capitol ahead of the State of the Union address.Sarah Silbiger (Bloomberg)

In response to this crisis, Biden and his team of speechwriters – which includes renowned presidential historian Jon Meacham – spent the entire weekend at Camp David revising the speech to expand the section on China. Meanwhile, Republicans were preparing to pounce on what they consider to be another sign of Biden’s weakness.

It is not the first time that international politics has cast a shadow over Biden’s annual State of the Union speech. Last year, he gave his first address just a week after Russia invaded Ukraine. As a result, the president had to shift the focus of the speech, which condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He’s no idea what’s coming,” said Biden.

It is unlikely that Biden will be as critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping when he delivers the State of the Union at 9pm ET. It is in his best interest, however, to show determination and forcefulness. This is Biden’s second State of the Union address and the first he has delivered before a joint session of Congress, where Republicans have control of the House.

Republican lawmakers have already announced plans to investigate Biden’s response to the Chinese spy balloon. The president said he ordered the balloon to be shot down on Wednesday, but waited until it was over water, when falling debris would not pose a threat to the population. The investigation into the balloon is just one of many set to be launched by the Republican-controlled House. Also on the agenda is a probe into whether the Biden administration is “weaponizing” federal agencies in cases such as when the FBI searched former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home for classified papers.

Over the weekend, the US media released details about the tone of Biden’s address, which is expected to defend bipartisanship and call on the Republican Party to support issues such as the fight against the opioid crisis and the battle against cancer. The president is also expected to point out those occasions when Republicans voted in favor of his economic measures, such as Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

For Biden, the State of the Union address is also an opportunity for him to test his skills as a candidate in the 2024 White House run. According to sources close to the president, in March or April, Biden is expected to announce whether at the age of 80 he will stand for re-election. Giving speeches has never been Biden’s strong suit, and delivering the State of the Union before millions of people is no easy feat for him. Last year, he made several embarrassing gaffes, including confusing Iran and Ukraine in one important speech. To avoid such slip-ups, this year’s speech will be made up of short sentences and easy-to-read words.

Tradition dictates that someone chosen by the other party is allowed to respond to the presidential address. In this case, it is Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who made a name for herself as Trump’s former White House press secretary. The Republican governor intends to highlight “the failures of President Biden” when she delivers the GOP response. “We are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of America – to be written by a new generation of leaders ready to defend our freedom against the radical left and expand access to quality education, jobs, and opportunity for all,” she said.

As workers finished erecting an “impossible to climb” fence to safeguard the perimeter of the Capitol on Monday, new poll results were also casting a shadow over Biden’s big speech. His approval rating is only slightly better than it was last year at this time: 42% compared to 41% in 2022, according to an aggregate estimate by FiveThirtyEight. If Trump and Ronald Reagan are not taken into account, it’s been three-quarters of a century since a US president has had such a low approval rating at this point of his mandate. According to a survey by The Washington Post and ABC News, 62% of Americans believe that Biden “has accomplished little” or “little or nothing” over the past two years, while 36% say he has accomplished “a lot.”

A poll by the Associated Press shows that only 37% of Democrats want Biden to seek re-election, compared to 52% in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections in November. This drop has been influenced by the discovery of classified documents and official records at Biden’s home and former office, which has damaged his image after the Democrats’ surprisingly strong results at the midterms.

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