WASHINGTON — While many Americans are likely to tune out to President Biden’s State of the Union speech Tuesday evening, the president has a lot riding on it.
If the president, as assumed, is gearing up for reelection, he’s likely to use the speech to determine which issues will give him a better chance for him to remain in the White House. If not, the speech will be a tool for the president to put the last touches to his legacy.
“It provides the president with a stage to road test his ideas,” said Tim Lindberg, political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris, of Tuesday’s address to the nation.
Lindberg also said the speech gives Biden an opportunity to boast about what he has done and what should be done in the crucial two years before the presidential election, which could cement his legacy since there’s no guarantee he’ll win reelection.
Biden’s address will be a balancing act. Because he is its leader, the president must say the state of the union is good and tout the number of jobs created during his first two years in office and the nation’s low unemployment rate. But he also must try to rally the nation for his ideas that would make the nation better and hope some of those ideas resonate.
Since he will speak before a joint session of Congress, Tuesday will also be Biden’s first appearance before the Republican-controlled House, which likely will be the target of some of his negative comments.
Biden is likely to blame the GOP for the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v. Wade and for the tie up in federal court of his student loan forgiveness program.
In the wake of the police beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Biden is also expected to make another appeal to Congress for approval of the George Floyd Justice Act, which aims to reform policing but lacks enough GOP support for approval.
“If the president adopts a very honest and accurate take on the issue of social justice, it will resonate in Minnesota,” Lindberg predicted.
Climate change and carbon-reducing initiatives, including the increased use of electric vehicles, will also likely be a topic of the speech. Biden will double-down on this with Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to St. Cloud on Thursday. The New Flyer bus company manufactures electric buses in that town.
Biden is also expected to pitch his immigration initiatives to undercut GOP criticisms of his administration’s border policy and speak about the importance of continued U.S. aid to Ukraine, bashing Republicans who want to curb or stop it.
On Monday, the White House confirmed that Biden would call for quadrupling the levy on corporate stock buybacks and renew his calls for a minimum tax on billionaires. It also said Biden would push for a $35 a month cap on the cost of insulin for all Americans. Last year, Congress approved a $35-a-month insulin cap that was limited to Medicare beneficiaries.
First Lady Jill Biden will also play a role, as she hosts guests to sit with her in a gallery above the U.S. House chamber. Those guests will help the president drive home policy priorities to the public, a tradition begun by former President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
Congressional Democrats will also help broadcast Biden’s message.
“The last two years of legislating in Washington have been the most productive in decades,” said Sen. Tina Smith.
She credited Biden and congressional Democrats for passing “historic relief for families, a transformational infrastructure plan, a landmark gun-safety law, the most important expansion of veterans’ health care benefits in a generation, and a law that’s already boosting our global competitiveness and bringing manufacturing home to America,” among other things that include combating climate change.
Yet the president faces a divided Congress in the next two years, which will limit what he can get done, at least as far as legislation.
Lawmakers press their agendas, too
Members of Congress will also use the State of the Union to promote pet issues, mainly through the guests they invite to the speech, a practice that has been reinstated after COVID-19 concerns prevented invitees from attending last year.
Smith, for example, invited Allison O’Toole, the head Second Harvest Heartland, a large food bank. Smith said Second Harvest was helped by the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, allowing it to provide more than 107 million meals to families across Minnesota and western Wisconsin last year.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., meanwhile, invited Amanda Barbosa, the wife of a former Army helicopter pilot who has colon cancer. Barbosa has been an advocate of better health care for veterans and has worked with Klobuchar on the PACT Act, a new law that expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.
“I decided Amanda was the perfect guest for the State of the Union because one, without her and her caring heart, not just for her husband, but also for all our veterans we wouldn’t have passed this bill,” Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar plans to introduce the Barbosa Act, named after Amanda’s husband Rafael Barbosa, which would expand access to colorectal cancer screenings for toxic-exposed service members.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, has invited Amir Locke’s father to join her. Amir Locke was shot and killed a year ago by Minneapolis police officers who burst into an apartment where Locke was sleeping. Police were serving a “no-knock” warrant, and Locke was not the target of the warrant. Omar plans to introduce legislation that would ban no-knock warrants.
The guest of Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, will be Tony Sanneh, founder of the Sanneh Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to aid at-risk youths with a number of in-school and out-of-school programs.
Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, is bringing Sharon McMahon, a former high school government and law teacher from Duluth. A conservative with a popular podcast, McMahon preaches civility and has been credited with bridging the growing ideological divide between Americans when it comes to politics.
Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd District, has invited Hennepin County Sheriff Dawanna Witt. He said he hoped Biden would speak about the importance of public safety “in an ethical fashion” during the speech and balance the need for policing with reform. Phillips said he plans to reintroduce his “Pathways to Policing” bill, which aims to boost recruitment of law enforcement officers.
And Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, will host Heather Mathews, a special education resource teacher at Southview Elementary in Apple Valley. Craig said she hopes Biden will talk about the need for the federal government to fully fund special education programs.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, has invited two constituents to be in the chamber to hear Biden’s speech, retired Saint Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson and fourth-generation dairy farmer Hannah Molitor.
“Hannah and Blair have both dedicated their lives to service,” Emmer said in a statement. “They represent the best of the Sixth District.”
The State of the Union speech has been televised since 1947, when Harry Truman gave the first broadcasted version of the address. For decades, a nationally televised speech was considered the most potent way to reach the American public. But many now consider it an anachronism, required by an article in the U.S. Constitution that says the president must periodically “give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Early presidents submitted a written report to Congress, until Woodrow Wilson in 1913 began the regular practice of delivering the address to Congress in person.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will deliver the GOP response to Biden’s speech. Also tapped to give a GOP rebuttal is Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, who will give his speech in Spanish.
Story was updated at 3:32 p.m. to add Rep. Tom Emmer’s guests.