March 2

By Susan Milligan

Presidents love to use the State of the Union address – a nationally televised prime-time speech with a captive audience of lawmakers and influencers – to tout the accomplishments they’ve racked up in the previous year.

That would not be a wise move for President Joe Biden as he delivers his first State of the Union speech Tuesday night, experts say. Despite successes he’s had in passing big-ticket legislation and in presiding over record job growth and a sharp drop in COVID-19 cases, the president is deeply unpopular, the electorate is pessimistic about the future, and the country faces serious challenges at home and abroad, analysts note.

The reality is that Americans are “exhausted,” says John White, politics professor at Catholic University. They’re tired of the pandemic, angry about the highest inflation in 40 years and anxious about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and implications for the United States.

“All presidents tend to brag, say, ‘Things were terrible until I got in.’ But I don’t think the country’s in the mood for that,” White says. “I think they’re in the mood for a very sober, realistic address,” where the commander in chief will “limit your bragging and instead show that you are on top of the issues” facing Americans, he adds.

The president is not expected to go full-on Gerald Ford, the Republican president who bluntly told Americans in 1975 that “the state of the union is not good.”

He didn’t sugar-coat the situation after that dire assessment.

“I’ve got bad news, and I don’t expect much, if any, applause,” Ford said, citing inflation, energy dependence on other nations and a public skepticism that people in government can make hard decisions and stick with them.

Biden has some advantages Ford did not – such as a record 6 million-plus jobs created and an economy that, despite high inflation, is growing. But like Ford, Biden is facing an uneasy and frustrated public weary of crises. A Washington Post-ABC survey over the weekend showed the president with a meager 37% approval rating, meaning he has a lot of ground to make up not only for his own political future but for Democrats facing a very challenging midterm election season.

Biden needs to respect that and recognize it in his address, says Allison Prasch, a rhetoric, politics and culture professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

“He needs to acknowledge the very real pain and hardship Americans are living through and have been thinking about,” Prasch says. For example, while the restrictions from the pandemic are easing along with new cases – Congress, unlike last year, may attend the State of the Union unmasked Tuesday night – parents of children too young to be immunized are still living in fear, she notes.

“He needs to acknowledge those realities and that just because we’re in the middle of another crisis doesn’t mean those have gone away,” she adds.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine a week ago forced speechwriters to redo the address, White House officials said. Biden has long connected the sovereignty of Ukraine to the global battle to sustain democracy, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told MSNBC on Monday.

The U.S. and its allies and partners have imposed severe financial sanctions against Russia and its elites, but Biden has rejected the idea of sending American troops to Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is running into both a strong Ukrainian resistance and an international community unusually united in a strategy to stop him by throttling his access to cash.

When presidents deliver State of the Union addresses at a time of crisis – such as Barack Obama did during the fiscal crisis and George W. Bush did months after the 9/11 attacks – it’s “always about expressing how you’re going to lead the country,” White House press secretary said in an MSNBC interview Monday.

At the daily press briefing, Psaki said “there’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago. And there’s always national security in every State of the Union speech, but every State of the Union speech also reflects a moment of time.

“I think people can expect to hear him position that as the importance of the United States as a leader in the world, standing up for values, standing up for global norms, but also the efforts that he has undertaken to mitigate how it will impact people here,” Psaki added.

Even as the Biden administration wrangles with the Ukraine crisis, domestic issues still loom large. Inflation is a troubling 7.5%, and escalating gas prices are expected to rise even more with the crisis in Eastern Europe.

Biden will lay out a plan to reduce costs for Americans, the White House said in a background fact sheet released Monday. It includes making goods in America, improving supply chains and passing legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs and child care.

The pandemic appears to be easing, with cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the decline.

States and localities are lifting vaccine mandates and mask mandates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week rolled back its coronavirus safety guidance for schools, no longer recommending mask requirements for schools in communities with low to medium risk of COVID-19 spread and severity at the community level.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said the CDC’s updated guidance on masks marked “a new phase of the recovery,” and it prompted a cascade of announcements by school district and state officials about lifting mask mandates in the coming days and weeks. Nearly all K-12 schools are open in-person and full-time.

For the first time, among the 500 largest school districts in the country, the number that are mask-optional exceeds the number that are still requiring masks, according to the school tracking site Burbio.

The relaxing of rules will be evident as well at the State of the Union venue itself: Just 200 lawmakers were allowed to attend Biden’s speech to the nation last year (which was not technically an official State of the Union address) but all may attend Tuesday night – albeit without guests.

Still, parents of children under 5 are still waiting for approval of a vaccine for their kids. Hopes for immunizing the youngest Americans hit a roadblock in mid-February when Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration delayed authorization of the vaccine for young children.

Biden is also expected to discuss his infrastructure plan and elements of the all-but-dead Build Back Better plan. The president and first lady Jill Biden are scheduled to travel to Superior, Wisconsin, on Wednesday to tout the infrastructure law and to discuss what the White House is now calling “Building a Better America.”

Education specialists expect Biden to discuss his plan to expand the availability of child care, one of the elements of the sweeping Build Back Better plan that fell apart late last year as Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, said he was through negotiating on it.

The high price of child care has also made it harder for women to return to the workforce as offices begin reopening.

With so many issues facing the administration – and the country – the previous week was more about trimming the missive down than adding to it, Psaki said in her MSNBC appearance. “No one wants a three-hour State of the Union speech,” she said.