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Here are the key issues to watch for in Biden's State of the Union

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address last March.
Saul Loeb
/
Pool/Getty Images
President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address last March.

The State of the Union represents a chance for the president to address the nation on where he thinks the country stands, where it is headed and what his priorities are ahead of an expected announcement that he will officially run for reelection.

But President Biden, who turned 80 this past November, has quite the task ahead of him. Despite an unemployment rate that is the lowest since 1969, Americans continue to be in a sour mood about the direction of the country. Two-thirds say it is headed in the wrong direction, and a majority disapproves of the job Biden is doing as president.

That's true not just on the economy and inflation, but on issues ranging from crime and guns to immigration and the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, despite the prevailing sour sentiment, Democrats did better than expected in the midterms, and they were able to pass significant legislation in the past two years. Partisanship seems to be fueling the negativity and when compared to former President Trump, the current front-runner for the GOP nomination, Biden is usually even or ahead in head-to-head polls and favorability ratings.

Biden's instinct is to call for unity and strike an optimistic tone. But that will be challenged Tuesday with newly divided leadership in Washington. It will be made all the more obvious for viewers at home with a face they haven't seen before over Biden's left shoulder, recently minted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whose conference is intent on putting Biden's administration — and his son — under the microscope.

Here are several issue areas — China, climate, COVID-19 and health, education, economy, gun violence, immigration, infrastructure, opioids, policing, reproductive rights and Ukraine — and the challenges Biden faces in addressing each:


China

China looms large for the Biden administration, underpinning its foreign policy and animating parts of its domestic economic policy. Biden will almost certainly depict China as a strategic competitor, a challenge to the "global rules-based order" and a threat to America's tech supremacy.

The recent spy balloon episode may also come up, with Biden potentially painting it as a challenge he handled deftly – and an indicator of how real the threat from China is. Where China is not mentioned, it will be a subtext under many issues Biden may discuss.

Hopes for improved relations were buoyed in recent months following Biden's meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Bali in November. There has also been talk of a face-to-face summit in the fall. However, last week's balloon saga seems to have put efforts at rapprochement on the backburner, at least in the near term.

-- John Ruwitch, NPR China affairs correspondent

From a national security standpoint, the president is likely to want to talk about his efforts to strengthen U.S. military alliances in Asia, and efforts to prevent any military confrontation over Taiwan. The Chinese balloon is not considered a significant issue in the big picture, but Biden is likely to address it.

-- Greg Myre, NPR national security correspondent


Climate

How much will Biden talk about climate change? Last year there were just brief mentions and that seemed unusual for someone who made climate change a significant part of his campaign. This year he has the climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act to brag about, it's likely he'll mention that as a success. Also likely: a mention of the electric vehicle and appliance tax credits people can take advantage of.

But will he give any indication of when or how the Biden administration's EPA will establish regulations on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants — or indications of how his administration will fully implement and protect key elements of the IRA? The legislation gets the country to 40% greenhouse gas emissions reductions – Biden's goal is 50-52% by 2030 (based on 2005 levels). Will he propose anything for the last 10%?

And will he reinforce his target for electric vehicles – 50% of new car sales by 2030 – or start deemphasizing it as 2030 gets closer?

-- Jeff Brady, NPR climate and energy correspondent, and Camila Domonoske, NPR business desk reporter


COVID-19 and health

Biden has been able to deliver on many of his promises from last year, and he will almost certainly be touting those accomplishments:

  • Fewer Americans are uninsured than ever before, thanks in part to increased subsidies on the Obamacare exchanges.
  • 988, the national suicide prevention hotline, launched last year, along with historic investments in mental health.
  • And on prescription drugs, Biden can celebrate a $35 copay cap on insulin for Medicare beneficiaries and Medicare getting new power to negotiate drug prices (although it will take a while before that takes effect).
  • There are challenges ahead, though, especially as the public health emergency ends. Biden wasn't able to secure new COVID funding last year and faces House GOP investigations over his administration's handling of the pandemic. And millions of people stand to lose Medicaid coverage in the coming year, which could reverse gains on health insurance.

    -- Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR health policy reporter


    Education

    Biden will almost certainly tout his efforts to erase up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower. Late last month, the White House trumpeted the fact that 26 million people had already applied or were automatically qualified for relief, and 16 million had been approved; whether they get that relief now depends on the U.S. Supreme Court.

    On Pell grants, he'll likely highlight a promise he made in last year's State of the Union and kept: that the White House and Congress recently agreed to a $500 increase in the maximum, per-year Pell grant award. The administration says that keeps them on track to double Pell by 2029.

    -- Cory Turner, correspondent/senior editor for NPR's education team


    Economy

    Biden is likely to devote a lot of the speech to the economy, which has weathered the pandemic and the war in better shape than might be expected, even if there's a lot of teeth gnashing over inflation. Likely topics include:

  • job growth (record numbers in his first two years)
  • GDP growth (nearly 3% annual rate at the end of last year)
  • unemployment at 3.4% — the lowest rate since 1969
  • and gas prices – down sharply from their record high last summer
  • U.S oil production is also expected to set a record this year, despite GOP complaints that the administration has stifled home-grown fossil fuels. How much credit the president's policies deserve for any of this is debatable, just as one can debate how much blame the American Rescue Plan deserves for inflation, which hit a four-decade high last summer. But Biden may claim vindication for his efforts to build an economy that works from the bottom up and the middle out.

    -- Scott Horsley, NPR chief economics correspondent


    Gun violence

    After each mass shooting that has happened on his watch, President Biden has called on Congress to ban assault-style guns.

    In November, after a shooting in Colorado Springs, Biden said: "The idea we still allow semi automatic weapons to be purchased is sick. It's just sick," he said. "Not a single, solitary rationale for it except profit for the gun manufacturers."

    After two recent shootings in California, Biden is likely to repeat the plea. The last Congress – where Democrats had a slim majority in both houses – passed its first piece of gun safety legislation in three decades. That bill included funding for red-flag laws and prevents people who assault their partners from buying guns, among other measures. There are steep odds against any broader action on guns in the new divided Congress. Still, gun safety activists are pushing for more executive action on the issue.

    -- Roberta Rampton, NPR White House editor


    Immigration

    For most of his presidency, President Biden has avoided talking about immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border — and it's not hard to see why.

    Record migrant apprehensions at the border over the past two years have made it difficult for the Biden administration to advance its immigration agenda in Congress, and courts have blocked many of its attempts to shape immigration policy.

    Republicans who now control the House of Representatives have launched a series of hearings on what they call the "crisis" at the southern border, and have threatened to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The chances of a legislative compromise on immigration seem smaller than ever.

    Still, there's a chance Biden will use this speech to tout his administration's latest enforcement measures, which he announced last month before his first visit to the border as president. Immigration authorities say they're working, at least so far. The number of migrant apprehensions at the border dropped about 40% in January compared to December, the biggest monthly decline of Biden's presidency.

    -- Joel Rose, NPR national desk correspondent


    Infrastructure

    Expect the president to spend some time talking up one of his signature accomplishments, the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

    Biden has been traveling the country to announce huge grants to finance some megaprojects, including funding to repair and replace Amtrak and commuter rail tunnels into Baltimore and New York City that are 150 and 113 years old respectively, as well as funding for a new bridge over the Ohio River connecting Cincinnati and Kentucky.

    In addition to highlighting long overdue spending to expand, repair and build new roads, rails, bridges, ports, pipes, dams and airports, the president will likely tout investments in climate resilient and green energy infrastructure, as well as EV charging stations. Biden may also highlight the $800 million in grants announced recently to localities to make streets, sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes safer to stem the recent sharp increase in pedestrian and cyclist injuries and fatalities.

    It'll be noteworthy if he pushes for new funding to upgrade the FAA's technology after a critical system failure last month led to the first nationwide ground stop of all airline flights since Sept. 11, 2001.

    -- David Schaper, NPR national desk reporter


    Opioids

    Street fentanyl is fueling a devastating public health crisis that killed 107,000 people in the U.S. last year. Biden is under enormous pressure to stop the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. from China and Mexico. But convincing those two countries to help stop fentanyl trafficking is hard, especially at a time when other big issues, like immigration and Taiwan, keep getting in the way. So far the Biden administration hasn't had much success.

    In his speech Biden may focus on providing treatment for people with addiction. His team has made some real progress on that front: there's a lot more federal money now for drug treatment and the White House has also fulfilled one of Biden's promises, cutting government red tape that prevented many doctors from helping patients with substance use disorder.

    -- Brian Mann, NPR national desk correspondent


    Policing

    Biden is likely to call to revive the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, legislation that's been stalled in the Senate for almost two years. The bill is a grab-bag of law enforcement accountability measures, such as a ban on certain neck restraints, the creation of a national database of misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions against officers and the restriction of no-knock warrants.

    The changes would apply to federal law enforcement, and offers incentives for state and local police to follow suit. The biggest sticking point in the Senate has been the legislation's change to the "qualified immunity" doctrine, which critics say makes it too hard to sue police for civil rights violations.

    Biden signed an executive order last May, applying portions of the act to federal police — for instance, the database to track misconduct — but he continued to call for passage of the full legislation. Interest in the bill was revived late last month by Vice President Harris, who had a hand in writing it when she was a senator. At the funeral for Tyre Nichols, killed by Memphis police officers, Harris and other speakers called for the act to be passed.

    -- Martin Kaste, NPR national desk correspondent


    Reproductive rights

    Biden has faced criticism in the past from abortion rights activists who've seen him as failing to speak strongly enough about his support for abortion rights, including from leading Democrats including Sen. Patty Murray who felt he was too slow to take action in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision in June 2022.

    In recent years, activists have used hashtags like #SayAbortionJoe to urge the president to speak more forcefully about the issue, particularly in major speeches like the State of the Union.

    Without Roe v. Wade and without control of Congress, there's now little Biden can do to stop Republican-controlled states from implementing abortion bans. But his base supporters will be looking to him for leadership, policy solutions and a commitment to continue the fight.

    Biden may also try to build on the momentum that many reproductive rights advocates are feeling after the 2022 midterms, when voters in several states with abortion-related ballot measures voted to support abortion rights. His challenge will be to maintain that momentum as he approaches the 2024 election.

    -- Sarah McCammon, NPR national desk correspondent


    Ukraine

    The Ukraine war is at a crucial juncture. Russia launched a full-scale invasion on Feb. 24 last year. As we approach that one-year mark, there's widespread speculation that both Russia and Ukraine are looking to launch offensives in the near future. Under Biden, the U.S. has been the leading supplier of military aid to Ukraine, and his speech may provide additional clues as to the kind of assistance that's likely to come next. For example, Ukraine is now seeking F-16 fighter jets, but Biden says he will not be sending the planes because the U.S. does not consider them a good fit for Ukraine.

    -- Greg Myre, NPR national security correspondent

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.