All eyes on Biden as he faces critical moment at State of the Union

File – US President Joe Biden speaks to the press before he departs the White House in Washington, DC, for the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, on March 1, 2024. US President Joe Biden said Friday he was “hoping” for agreement on a ceasefire deal in the Israel-Hamas conflict by Ramadan. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden faces a major test during Thursday’s State of the Union, where he’ll have a chance to dispel doubts about his age and vigor, at least for one night.

The annual address to a joint session of Congress will give Biden a big stage and rare prime-time opportunity to deliver a lengthy speech that traditionally reaches a broad spectrum of Americans, many of whom by then will have cast a ballot in presidential nominating contests across the U.S.

The opportunity is ripe to serve as a springboard to his general election campaign against his likely GOP foe, former President Trump, where Biden is expected to tout his accomplishments, set up what his second term might look like and make his case against so-called MAGA Republicans. 

“He has two tasks. One is to get voters to feel better about his presidency and the accomplishments he’s had, and the other is to remind voters of the chaos of Donald Trump and to make that a searing memory that they don’t want to go back to,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at left-leaning think tank Third Way.

The Biden campaign thinks the timing of the State of the Union will put the difference between Trump and Biden on clear display. The former president’s dominance on Super Tuesday will be followed by Biden in prime time laying out what he would do in a second term — two major media events that the campaign argued will help Americans, some for perhaps the first time, realize November will be a 2020 rematch.

“I think this week is when the general election really begins,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic strategist. “With Trump, in all likelihood, doing well on Super Tuesday and the State of the Union — the general election is here now. I think the tempo is going to increase; it’s going to feel far more like a general election campaign than it’s been in the last few months.”

But the speech also comes at a precarious moment for Biden’s presidency, as polls in recent days underscore how he’ll have to overcome the skepticism many Americans have about his job performance, his handling of the economy and age issues that have particularly plagued him this year after a damning special counsel report that called into question his well-being and memory.

A New York Times/Siena College poll found 65 percent of registered voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, while 73 percent of registered voters said they either strongly or somewhat agree that Biden is too old to be an effective president.

Biden has also struggled against Trump in hypothetical match-ups in some key swing states, which will be imperative to either candidate in clinching the 2024 contest. 

In a rather stark assessment, Biden barely beat Trump in a recent poll that asked which candidate would be a better bet on saving democracy, despite Trump’s actions leading up to the Jan. 6 insurrection being at the center of a special House investigation and a federal criminal indictment.

Democrats argue that the State of the Union is a time for Biden to turn some of these lingering poor polling numbers around.

“He needs to continue to remind voters about how far we’ve come since he took over in January 2021 … and he needs to start giving people an idea of what he will do in four years. We know what Trump is going to do,” Rosenberg said.

Other issues bedeviling Biden include backlash from fellow Democrats on his handling of the war in the Middle East, harsh criticism from Republicans on the influx of migrants at the U.S. southern border, and disagreements with Republicans on providing more aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia.

Biden last year used an impromptu exchange with House Republicans heckling him from the floor to bait them into agreeing they would not go after Social Security or Medicare, the kind of memorable moment strategists suggested the president could use this year to show voters he’s quick-witted and up to the job.

“I think part of it is the performance, and he usually does these very well, and that will help with voters. The other part is what he has to say,” Kessler said, arguing Biden should make clear where he stands on issues that matter to voters such as border security, crime and the economy.

A White House official said Biden will cite efforts to lower costs, proposals to increase taxes on wealthy Americans and corporations, measures to protect democracy and reproductive health care, and the focus on his unity agenda, which includes ending cancer, protecting minors from big tech, aiding veterans and curbing fentanyl.

The State of the Union is typically one of the most watched events of the year, with the 2023 version drawing roughly 27 million viewers. White House and campaign officials are hoping to maximize the reach of the event to get Biden’s message out to as many people as possible.

After the address, Biden, Vice President Harris and other administration officials plan to fan out across the country to states such as Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Kentucky. For his part, Biden will spend part of the upcoming weekend in Philadelphia and Atlanta, two Democratic strongholds located in swing states.

“In a fractured communications landscape, many Americans won’t consume the State of the Union collectively in the same moment or through the same medium; therefore, we’re fanning out aggressively not only on Thursday but in the weeks ahead to reach Americans where they receive the news with the President’s message about whose side he’s on,” White House communications director Ben LaBolt said in a statement.

Democrats are hopeful that Thursday’s speech and the uptick in travel and campaigning after it will give Biden a much-needed boost.

“Neither candidate is where they want to be,” Rosenberg said. “We have a lot of work to do, but so does Trump.”

The Hill on NewsNation

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