State of the Union address: When it’s happening and what Joe Biden will say

Joe Biden will tout his bipartisan legislative record and hope to build off positive economic signs as he delivers his State of the Union address before a newly divided Congress on Tuesday night.

The US president hopes to make the case to Americans that their lives have been improved over his first two years in the prime time address that may mark the unofficial start of his 2024 presidential campaign.

Rather than laying out major new policy proposals, Mr Biden was expected to devote much of his speech to celebrating his biggest legislative victories to date – from improving the nation’s infrastructure, tackling drug prices, combating climate change, tightening gun laws and protecting same-sex marriage.

But the lead up to the US president’s speech has been overshadowed by fresh tensions with Beijing, after a Chinese surveillance balloon floated over the US last week. 

The speech comes as the president is honing his pitch to voters ahead of his expected re-election announcement in the coming weeks, despite voter frustrations about the direction of the nation.

White House aides said Mr Biden hoped to confront pessimism in the country – with Americans still remaining gloomy about the economy, despite some signs inflation is easing. 

When is the State of the Union address and what time is it?

Mr Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address on Tuesday, February 7 2023 at about 9pm Eastern time, or 2am on Wednesday. The speech will be broadcast live on the major US broadcast television networks and online.

The White House’s speechwriters had a busy weekend as they huddled with Mr Biden at Camp David, his presidential retreat in rural Maryland. 

Mr Biden shared a photo of himself prepping for the address before he returned to the White House late on Monday afternoon.

Mr Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president was likely to continue making edits to his speech right up until Tuesday evening. 

What is the State of the Union and who attends? 

The speech is delivered during a joint session of Congress. All members of both the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-controlled House are invited. Members of Mr Biden’s cabinet, the armed forces and the Supreme Court also attend. 

The US president my be formally invited to give the address by the House Speaker. The newly installed Republican Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, will preside over the event and be accompanied by vice president Kamala Harris, who is also the president of the Senate.

The president also invites family members and other guests who sit in the First Lady’s view box from the balcony and can be used to amplify points he is making during his speech. Members of Congress invite guests, too.

This year, guests will include the mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, the black man who was fatally beaten by Memphis police officers, who were invited by Congressional Black Caucus chair Representative Steven Horsford.

Why is it important? 

The State of the Union offers the president a unique opportunity to address both members of Congress and the public with one of his largest television audiences of the year. 

An estimated 38.2 million people watched the speech on US television last year, according to the data provider Nielsen.

But Tuesday’s event also marks an inflection point for the Biden presidency at the half-way mark of its first term. Mr Biden’s address will be intended to be a celebration of his first two years, while offering a sales pitch for his expected re-election bid. 

The huge audience the event provides will also give Mr Biden a chance to shape public perceptions over his looming fights with Republicans in Congress – namely over the debt limit and spending on the Russian war in Ukraine.

It also gives him an opportunity to consolidate support among Democrats, some of whom have expressed concerns about Mr Biden seeking re-election aged 80. As two polls published Sunday and Monday show, well under half of Democrats want Mr Biden, who would be 82 at the start of a second term, to seek re-election in 2024.

What is Biden expected to say?

In some ways, Mr Biden’s speech will be an unofficial start to the 2024 presidential campaign season, laying out a set of policy priorities that may or may not find support in Congress.

He is expected to tout economic progress following the Covid-19 recession, draw sharp contrasts with the priorities of some Republican opponents and lay out “unity” agenda items that he believes should unite both parties.

White House aides suggested Mr Biden would be at pains to highlight the resilience of the US economy and paint a sharp contrast with his bipartisan outreach and Republicans in the House, who have vowed to forensically investigate his administration and his family’s finances.

But, thanks to the Chinese spy balloon drama, Republicans have taken hold of the narrative in the last few days, casting Mr Biden as slow to confront Beijing.

Mr Biden’s speech is weeks in the making and subject to many drafts between Biden, his speechwriters and various political and policy officials in the administration.

White House officials said Mr Biden would discuss his decision to shoot down the surveillance balloon as part of a broader section on countering China’s more assertive economic and military actions around the world.

Who is the designated survivor? 

One person who does not attend is a single member of Biden’s cabinet who will be picked as a “designated survivor”. That individual will be housed in a secure location and is tasked with taking over the government in case of a catastrophe that impairs the president and his other successors at the Capitol.

The designated survivor for this year’s speech has not yet been announced.

Who will give the Republican response? 

Republicans have picked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a rising star of the GOP, to deliver their response.

Mrs Huckabee Sanders, 40, is the youngest serving governor in the country, and the state’s first woman in the role. But she is best known for her fiery exchanges with reporters in the White House briefing room as Donald Trump’s former White House press secretary.

She was sworn into office just weeks ago and has made clear she plans to use the platform to attack Mr Biden personally. In a statement, she said her remarks would highlight “the failures of President Biden”. 

The choice of Mrs Huckabee Sanders is an indication of how Republicans are positioning themselves ahead of 2024 – while she represents a new generation of the party, in contrast to the 80-year-old Mr Biden, she is still closely allied to Mr Trump.

Mrs Huckabee Sanders will deliver her response shortly after the president’s speech from Little Rock, Arkansas. “We are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of America — to be written by a new generation of leaders ready to defend our freedom against the radical left and expand access to quality education, jobs and opportunity for all,” she said in a statement.

Also delivering a response, but in Spanish, will be Juan Ciscomani, a newly-elected GOP congressman from Arizona, a sign of Latino voters’ growing importance in the Republican fold.

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