What to expect from President Biden’s State of the Union address

Two prominent scholars weigh in on what Texans should be listening for in Tuesday night’s speech.

By Rhonda Fanning and Glorie MartinezFebruary 7, 2023 4:52 pm,

How to watch and listen to President Biden’s State of the Union speech.

Cómo escuchar la cobertura bilingüe del Estado de la Unión de NPR.

On Tuesday night, President Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address.

He will likely use the occasion to provide progress updates on the agenda items he laid out in last year’s address and touch on hot-button topics at home and abroad. Among them: the state of the economy, border security and increased tensions with China. The speech also marks the first time Biden will address Congress since Republicans took control of the House. 

For more on what to expect, the Standard was joined by Sherri Greenberg, Professor of Practice and Assistant Dean for State and Local Government Engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT-Austin, and Jeffrey Engel, founding director of Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Back in the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson moved the State of the Union from a mid-day affair to a televised address in the evening. What does that mean for the State of the Union in 2023? Does this still serve the needs of Congress and the nation, or is this primarily a political event? 

Sherri Greenberg: It certainly is an opportunity for President Biden to discuss and to try to influence and let the nation know what he has accomplished as president. I think that it very much does serve that purpose. 

Jeffrey Engel: I think it is a political event, but I don’t want to put a negative spin on the word “political,” as we often do. I mean, this is about how Washington is going to function not only in the second half of Biden’s term, but also more importantly with a new Congress – a new House that is now in Republican control. It does, as my colleague mentioned, give a chance for the president to lay out his agenda and also for him to hear the official response, which is very Washington-focused. But I think it’s important for that speech to go out to the entire nation, since obviously that is the political context we’re dealing with.

There have been some reports that say that the Biden administration has been scrambling to try to tweak the section in the State of the Union focusing on China, especially in the aftermath of the U.S. shooting down that spy balloon over the weekend. How much do you think China will be a part of the conversation tonight as opposed to other issues?

Jeffrey Engel: You know, I think the China balloon incident, however wacky and misunderstood it may be, I think it’s actually very helpful to the administration on this front. It allows President Biden to put China in the category of autocracies, which has really been one of his great themes of his first three years of his presidency: a battle between democracies and autocracies. 

Of course, he was going to talk about China already, but he’s also going to talk about Russia’s threat in Ukraine and other states. So, I think that this allows him to put China in the context of the broader conversation he wants to have without necessarily getting into too many details about China as a specific threat, which is important, because the problems of China are frankly much different than the problems of Russia. But President Biden has, if you will, a bigger balloon to put them all in at this point in his general framework. 

Sherri, China has dominated the news media agenda, but what’s dominating conversation around the kitchen table? The economy has got to be front and center tonight. 

Sherri Greenberg: Certainly. I do concur that China fits into the broader theme of threats and security, but I don’t think there will be a focus on the balloon per se around the kitchen table. Certainly, the economy is the topic of the day. Now, Biden has a really strong story to tell on the economy. Inflation has come down. Employment is good. So, that is a very strong story. 

I also think that the situation with the debt ceiling will be a big issue because, if that were not to be resolved, that could be quite detrimental to the economy and lead to a recession not just here, but around the globe. 

With the recent police killing of Tyre Nichols, some of Biden’s early promises for police reform have started to come back under scrutiny. When you think about the promises that the president made at the start of his term, is this going to be an issue – police reform or race relations in the United States? What do you expect on that front, Professor Engel?

Jeffrey Engel: Unfortunately, I think this is going to be an ongoing issue. At the presidential level, I think it’s going to be an ongoing issue that’s more rhetoric than reality, because there’s simply too much of a divide on Congress in this particular issue, with a divided Congress and the president in opposition to the House parties. I don’t think we’re going to see any particular movement on this issue, but it does really raise a broader problem. 

For the Biden administration, most of the economic numbers that you mentioned are certainly trending in his direction. He does have a good story to tell. And frankly, he thinks that he is on the right side of the issue of race relations. That’s not to say that race relations are good, but that he has the right agenda, if you will. But the truth of the matter is, despite all that, he’s not personally popular and he has to find some way to try to get people to understand that America is actually doing well and that he deserves some credit for that. 

We know that Gov. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, to say nothing of Attorney General Ken Paxton, are all outspoken critics of this administration. If you follow some of the polls from the Texas Politics Project and Texas Tribune and others, you see that the Biden administration’s position on immigration and immigration enforcement has come under fire here in Texas. Do you think the president is going to make this part of his address tonight?

Sherri Greenberg: I think he cannot avoid the issue of what’s happening at the border. As you said, it has been a big issue for the governor and lieutenant governor here in Texas. I think that he will try to make the appeal that we have to have overall immigration reform and that this is something that is long overdue in this country, but it is simply not something that he can ignore. 

Jeffrey Engel: I think what you’re pointing out is an important thing to note as we listen to the unions in general, these big public addresses from the Democrats and of course, the Republican response later tonight by [Arkansas Gov. Sarah] Huckabee. 

There are two categories of topics that we should really listen for. The first are topics that are listed that the president can go out the next day and say, “look, I talked about immigration, I talked about jobs, I talked about balloons.” Whatever it is, he might mention it once. He might mention it twice. Basically, check off the box to say, “yes, this is on my agenda.”

The second thing is the theme. The theme is what I think we really should be listening for, which is: what things as a president come back and try to weave into a story? What things are you trying to tell the American people to say, “this is the direction we’re going?” He’s going to mention a ton of things that are going to be very boring for people to listen to, because he’s going to check off the boxes. But here’s what really matters. I would encourage people to try to listen to that second part more than the first part. 

Sherri Greenberg: Yeah, and I concur with that when I say that this is an opportunity for him and to tell the American people and others what he’s been doing. What is that clear, compelling narrative that comes across? He certainly wants that narrative to be that we’re in good shape, that the country is doing well, so on and so forth. 

Jeffrey Engel: Let’s not forget the elephant in the room, which is the biggest thing that President Biden has to get across: that he personally is competent and capable of handling it. The biggest criticism against President Biden has been his demeanor and let’s face it, his age, especially in the context of him thinking about running for a second term. People are looking at him and saying, “is this a man I want to be in charge, not just for another two years, but for another six years?” He has to put on a good show on top of everything else, in a way that I think most presidents have not had to, simply by the fact of his age. 

President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address is set for 8 PM Central/7 PM Mountain Time.

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