How should Mainers grade President Joe Biden when he delivers his State of the Union Address to Congress Tuesday night? Never mind what George W. Bush once said about the “soft bigotry of low expectation,” this is going to be an important speech for America’s 46th president and what he says telegraphs to Washington and the nation if not what to expect, then where the political battle-lines will be drawn.
For a man who hasn’t yet declared his intentions about running for re-election, and whose favorable rating has hovered between the high 30s and low 40s during his two years in office, there is a lot at stake at this half-way point.
Here are five things to look for in the speech:
- What kind of bipartisan message will Biden, who inveighed against Republicans just before last fall’s mid-term election essentially saying that voting for the party other than his own jeopardizes our very democracy? Albeit by a slimmer margin than hoped, Republicans control the House and it will be Speaker Kevin McCarthy sitting alongside Vice President Kamala Harris behind him. That makes it the wrong room for his now standard line about the MAGA-wing of the GOP. Given compromise was what he was supposed to be good at in the Senate, expect a different tone and an opening overture to bipartisanship.
- One place he may seek common ground is Ukraine. As of late last year, his administration and Congress had pledged almost $50 billion to sustain the country Russia invaded without provocation nearly a year ago. Republicans today are increasingly leery both of more spending and what some see as sleepwalking into WWIII – today only a third of Republicans see Russia’s invasion as a threat to the U.S. versus the 51 percent who did last February. Biden will likely try to make the case for why a Ukrainian defeat could imperil us as well.
- How much did the so-called Inflation Reduction Act improve all our lives? By listening carefully to the speech, we’ll likely learn. Biden is known to boast, and this is one of the few things that – to his mind anyhow – he can brag about. The CARES Act, through which trillions of COVID-19 stimulus dollars flowed, now ends on June 30th. For states like Maine, that means we’re headed for a fiscal cliff. Is there some reason we shouldn’t worry? Bear this in mind as Biden describes how the IRA and other federal spending blunted the effects of a flailing economy.
- No matter how bad things are now, if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll all have more to worry about than Chinese balloons, Biden could say. He will urge support for raising the debt ceiling and, if he’s clever, will offer something in exchange that sounds like a deficit reduction plan. Knowing this is what Republicans want, how he addresses this issue will be another test of his seriousness on the first point.
- And finally, what will the president say about justice in America today? Clearly this will be tricky terrain, especially with special counsels investigating both former President Trump and Biden himself for mishandling classified documents. Given his desire to be seen as not influencing either investigation, will he echo the words of his Attorney General and FBI director who last month insisted there is not a two-tiered system of justice in the country today?
The recent indictment of a senior FBI agent for allegedly being on the payroll of the Russian oligarch he was supposed to be investigating paired with an impending House probe of First Son Hunter Biden’s business dealings and another on the “weaponization” of federal agencies against political opponents puts pressure on Biden to say something. The question is what, and whether he takes offense, or instead deflects entirely through calls for gun control or criminal justice reform.
And then there is the balloon. Rumors that presidential speechwriter Jon Meacham wanted to let one loose in the House chamber towards the end of the speech so Biden could shoot it down have been dispelled. But the whole country watched in bewilderment as a spy balloon belonging to strategic competitor and geopolitical rival China was allowed to float across America for five days. Accused of being soft on China in the past, Biden will have to say something. Or will he?
It’s not just Biden who has a lot on the line Tuesday night, and that’s why it might be worth tuning in, with a handy scorecard at the ready.