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Six Key Questions Ahead of Biden’s State of the Union


The State of the Union address on Thursday is likely to be President Biden’s best opportunity before November to tell Americans at length about his record in office and what he would do in a second term.

It’s not technically a campaign speech, since he will deliver it in his official capacity from the floor of the House of Representatives, but for American presidents in the last year of their first term, the annual address represents the kickoff to their re-election effort.

Mr. Biden will deliver the speech, which typically runs for an hour or more, from a position of political vulnerability but with a host of policy accomplishments to play up. And it comes just as the long-anticipated matchup between him and his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump, is settling into place.

The speech will address big themes like Mr. Biden’s attempts to restore democracy, and highlight smaller, more personal policy changes his administration has enacted, such as fighting credit card fees and lowering prescription drug costs, the White House told allies in a briefing about the speech Wednesday, according to a person who attended the session.

Here are six questions facing Mr. Biden before he steps to the rostrum on Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern.

This one is pretty simple: Donald Trump is a dire threat to democracy and Americans’ freedoms.

How fine a point Mr. Biden puts on this message in the State of the Union is a different question. It would break with decades of political tradition to attack a campaign rival by name during the address, but Mr. Biden and allied Democrats have argued throughout his campaign that 2024 may be an inflection point that calls for unusual measures.

“He should point to the real danger Trump poses,” said Pat Cunnane, who was a White House speechwriter during President Barack Obama’s second term. “People sort of drown that out a bit, they’ve heard it so much. So I’d also love for him to use a bit of humor and just remind everybody how weird of a guy Donald Trump is.”

The bar on the age question is pretty low for Mr. Biden. He just has to deliver a standard-issue State of the Union speech with vigor and parry whatever interruptions come his way. He took great pride last year in successfully clapping back against Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia when she called him a “liar.”

But not meeting the moment has the potential to be treacherous.

A serious verbal stumble, or even a physical one on his way in or out of the chamber, would be replayed nonstop on cable news and social media, and could have the potential to bring to a boil many of the private concerns Democrats have long expressed about the president’s ability to campaign effectively for re-election.

Data on the U.S. economy says one thing. But most Americans say another.

So far, Mr. Biden has been unable to convince voters that the economy is faring well, despite falling inflation, low unemployment and a record stock market. Roughly half of registered voters believe the economy is in “poor” condition, according to a poll conducted late last month by The New York Times and Siena College.

Democratic presidents are typically told not to brag too much about the economy to avoid alienating voters who are struggling. That’s a bad choice, said Michael Waldman, who was a chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton’s White House.

“In 1984, people were still feeling pain and they didn’t realize the economy was surging until Reagan said, ‘America is back standing tall,’” Mr. Waldman said. “In 1996, Clinton was being advised: ‘Do not talk about economic success.’ He had a surprisingly positive tone in his State of the Union.”

In his stump speeches, Mr. Biden cites a litany of encouraging statistics and emphasizes expanding the economy “from the middle out and the bottom up.”

Vibes are a stubborn thing to shift, though, and the president may need to show he empathizes with Americans who say they are struggling financially. Otherwise, his approach may boil down to a version of: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

Mr. Biden, a practicing Catholic, is known to be uncomfortable using the word “abortion” too much, instead choosing phrases like “reproductive health” and “the right to choose.” But abortion rights have become his party’s biggest electoral weapon since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, driving unexpected victories.

Abortion advocates will closely watch how Mr. Biden talks about the subject on Thursday night, as well as the language he uses. It is likely he will highlight an Alabama court ruling that determined frozen embryos have the legal status of human beings, which led fertility clinics in the state to stop operating temporarily. I.V.F. is widely popular among Americans, and the ruling put Republicans on the defensive as Mr. Biden and Democrats sought to exploit it.

Just about everywhere Mr. Biden goes, protesters angry about Israel’s war in Gaza follow.

The demonstrators have interrupted several of his speeches — sometimes repeatedly — and have had tense standoffs with the police outside his events. They even gained access to a hotel where he stayed during a trip to San Francisco.

Security is ultratight at State of the Union addresses, and decorum (usually) prevails. But nothing would illustrate the anger many progressives feel over Mr. Biden’s support for Israel like a protest during his most visible speech of the year.

It’s unlikely that House Democrats who have demanded an unconditional cease-fire will shout at Mr. Biden about it. They have for the most part deferred to Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, the only Palestinian American in Congress, who has held relatively cordial meetings with the Biden campaign and been in touch with the White House about her concerns.

But several House members are bringing Palestinian Americans who have lost family members in Gaza to be their guests at the event. Emotions could be raw.

At last month’s Super Bowl, Mr. Biden turned down a televised interview for the second year in a row. His aides said they didn’t want to distract from the spectacle on the field. But Mr. Biden’s refusal cost him the chance to sell his message at a game watched by 123.4 million people, a record audience.

State of the Union addresses typically generate much less interest. Last year, about 27.3 million people watched Mr. Biden’s speech live on television, down 29 percent from the year before.

Most of the voters Mr. Biden will need to win re-election probably won’t be watching the speech live anyway. They are generally not paying attention to politics eight months before the general election, and are more likely to catch clips of the speech on TikTok than to be sitting on their couch with CNN on the television.

But an election-year State of the Union might attract more viewers. And although Mr. Trump has said he will be posting on social media during the speech, he is not set to engage in any sort televised counterprogramming that might draw attention away from Mr. Biden.

Jonathan Weisman, Michael M. Grynbaum, Lisa Lerer and Michael Gold contributed reporting.



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