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A preview of the State of the Union address


President Biden spent the weekend at Camp David working on a very big speech. That's right - it is time for the State of the Union. It's the annual address where the president lays out his priorities and his plans for the year ahead. And one of many people who will be watching that speech is our colleague Mara Liasson, NPR national political correspondent. Hey, Mara.


SUMMERS: So, Mara, as you well know, this is a tried and true Washington tradition, but tell us what you will be watching for this year.

LIASSON: That's right - big Washington tradition. It's a Washington set piece, the president addressing a joint session of Congress. It's really important politically because it's the biggest audience a president gets all year - maybe 38 million people. And especially important because this is a president that we expect is about to announce for reelection. So it's very hard not to see this speech as a kind of curtain raiser or preview for his campaign. And the other dynamic that's new with this State of the Union speech is divided government. We now have a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. And one of the most noticeable things about the speech tomorrow night is you will be looking at Biden, and instead of Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris on the podium behind him, it will be Kevin McCarthy and Kamala Harris. So it's a whole new chapter for Joe Biden.

SUMMERS: Yeah, different backdrop there. So, Mara, how is he going to deal with that? Do you expect that we'll hear the president offering to work across the aisle to get things done? And I should just ask, how realistic is that given the makeup that we see on Capitol Hill?

LIASSON: Well, there will be plenty of bipartisan talk about reaching across the aisle. That's part of Joe Biden's brand. But that is not realistic. What I'm watching for more tomorrow night is how Biden uses the House Republicans as a foil. You know, presidents who've lost one or both houses of Congress in their first midterm - and there have been plenty of them - have generally used divided government as an opportunity. And I'm looking for Joe Biden to cast himself as a reasonable bipartisan guy who's passed all kinds of practical, popular policies, like an infrastructure bill and gun safety bill and a bill to make American computer chips more competitive with China. And he will contrast that with House Republicans, who he will paint as extremists who are fighting among themselves. And I think that he'll talk about the debt ceiling, which is the first big issue for divided government. He will be looking to use this giant audience as an opportunity to cast Republicans as willing to let the U.S. go into default and ruin the country's credit rating and the economy all in an effort to cut Medicare and Social Security.

SUMMERS: And I expect then that the president will still be laying out some sort of agenda of his own, right?

LIASSON: Some sort of agenda but not the big laundry list that he did early in his term - the White House knew that maybe he would only have two years to pass his agenda. That's why they worked so hard to get it done. They thought that they might lose one or both houses of Congress, and they did. I think he will call on Congress to pass things that he knows are popular with Democrats and the broader public, even if they're unlikely to get through Congress - things like police reform after the Tyre Nichols fatal beating or an assault weapons ban after the recent spate of mass shootings. But I don't think tomorrow night is a time to lay out a big, new legislative agenda.

SUMMERS: So part of the set piece of the speech is that the president gets to fill in the blank. The State of the Union is - what? How do you expect him to end that sentence?

LIASSON: That's a good question. I think Biden will give an optimistic outlook on the State of the Union. But for him, the State of the Union is pretty mixed. He knows that two-thirds of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Despite all the good economic news he can point to - like inflation coming down, a recent really good jobs report, COVID in the rearview mirror - his approval ratings have stayed stubbornly bad. The state of the economy might be getting better, but the state of Joe Biden is remarkably stuck. He is an unpopular president with a majority of his own party's voters saying they'd prefer someone other than him to be their nominee.

SUMMERS: And the president has been preparing for this year's big speech while also dealing with the aftermath of the Chinese surveillance balloon that was shot down on Saturday - has to play in here, yeah?

LIASSON: Well, there's nothing more easily politicized than something that has to do with China. But I think the president tomorrow night will point to the fact that he acted quickly and safely to shoot down the balloon at a moment when it would do the least harm to people on the ground from falling debris and when the U.S. intelligence community had their biggest chance to actually collect technology and - from the balloon and find out what was in it.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.