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Biden to test message before divided Congress with eye on 2024

Feb. 6, 2023 Updated Mon., Feb. 6, 2023 at 9:11 p.m.

President Joe Biden visits Penn Station in Baltimore on Monday, Jan. 30 to talk about the bipartisan infrastructure law.    (Tribune News Service)
President Joe Biden visits Penn Station in Baltimore on Monday, Jan. 30 to talk about the bipartisan infrastructure law.   (Tribune News Service)
By Jordan Fabian Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden will get to test drive his 2024 campaign message in front of the nation on Tuesday when he delivers his State of the Union address.

Though Biden has yet to officially announce his re-election run, he has begun the year by using a sharper tone against Republicans at a series of campaign-style events. His address to a joint session of Congress is an opportunity to tout his achievements and contrast himself with his opponents before tens of millions of voters.

Biden will deliver his second State of the Union under very different political circumstances than his first, though he is riding high off two recent headline-grabbing events. On Friday, the U.S. reported a blowout jobs report that exceeded expectations and on Saturday the U.S. military downed an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

Taken together the two events affirm key tenets of Biden’s economic and foreign policy stances: that the economy remains strong and is more likely to experience a soft landing rather than recession, and that a tougher U.S. posture toward China is warranted.

On Friday, Biden lauded the report showing the nation added 517,000 jobs in January and the unemployment rate fell to the lowest level in five decades.

“Put simply, I would argue the Biden economic plan is working,” he said.

That swagger was again on display Saturday as Biden, clad in his signature dark aviator sunglasses, answered reporters’ questions about the balloon by simply saying, “We’re going to take care of it,” hours before an F-22 fighter jet destroyed it.

Still, his handling of the Chinese aircraft is a fresh partisan flashpoint, as Democrats praise his decision to wait until the aircraft was over Atlantic waters to minimize the likelihood of casualties while Republicans argue that it should have been downed earlier.

Meanwhile, the president faces a hostile Republican House majority that is forcing a high-stakes showdown over the nation’s debt limit and pledging to investigate his administration, family and possession of classified records – the latter of which is the subject of a special counsel probe. Those conflicts will shadow the expected launch of Biden’s 2024 campaign this spring.

Biden plans to deliver an optimistic message, promoting the many legislative accomplishments from his first two years in office, according to a White House official, such as his sweeping climate and health law that passed in 2022 and the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package. Biden will also look ahead to the coming year, the official said. But with slim hopes for passing bipartisan legislation through the GOP House, the White House is focusing its work on implementing laws already on the books.

The president is also expected to speak about the nation’s economic resilience in the face of inflation. Separately, even before the downing of the balloon, Biden had planned to address competition with China in the speech, the official said.

Biden defied the odds by leading Democrats to a stronger-than-expected November midterm performance but still faces political challenges ahead of a reelection run, from persistently poor polling to lingering questions about his age.

Roughly 53% of Americans disapprove of how Biden is handling his job as president, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, a number his team would like to bring down in order to improve his chances of winning a second term.

Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Cabinet officials plan to leave Washington to tour the country following the address, highlighting his achievements at more than two dozen events in 20 states.

Biden has already this year hit the road to stage events with a campaign feel. He has touted initiatives backed by the infrastructure law, including funding for a bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio, efforts to remove lead pipes and improve access to clean water, and new rail projects in Baltimore and New York City. Last week in Baltimore, Biden spoke from a stage positioned between the American flag and an Amtrak train that blared its horn as he finished his speech.

While the infrastructure package received Republican support, Biden hasn’t been able to resist taking swipes across the aisle. He said in New York that the nation’s middle-class was hollowed out because of “trickle-down economics” supported by the GOP.

“We have to do two things. Lay out what we’ve done. Tell them what more we have to get done and how we’re going to pay for it. And lastly, point out these MAGA Republicans,” Biden said last Friday at a Democratic National Committee event in Philadelphia.

The president will likely touch on the debt ceiling fight – remarks that will be closely watched by investors – and policing overhauls after the death of Tyre Nichols, whose parents will be in attendance Tuesday.

Biden is also expected to highlight international support for Ukraine as some Republicans in Congress have voiced skepticism about further U.S. aid. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the speech, cautioned the speech text continues to evolve and the contents could change.

Those are all issues on which Biden will need to work with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to advance his goals. Both men met last Wednesday for the first time since Republicans took over the House. There were no breakthroughs on the debt-ceiling fight, but the two men agreed to continue talks.

During the State of the Union, the Speaker sits behind the president on the rostrum. McCarthy’s reactions to Biden will be well scrutinized. In 2020, the last time a speaker from an opposing party attended a president’s State of the Union, Nancy Pelosi tore up a copy of Donald Trump’s speech as he concluded.

In a sign cooperation with Republicans will not be easy for Biden, the House Oversight Committee plans to hold a hearing the day after the State of the Union on Twitter Inc.’s decision to restrict access to a story about Hunter Biden, the president’s son, in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign.

The State of the Union will be delivered at 6 p.m. PST on Tuesday.

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