The State of the Union address

WASHINGTON — Advisers grappling with President Joe Biden’s stubbornly low poll numbers and pressure from Democrats to shake up his strategy are planning a far more aggressive approach in coming weeks, with a keen focus on what they see as a high-stakes opportunity and hurdle to clear: the State of the Union address.

One administration official said the speech’s importance is not lost on the president’s top advisers — and the president himself.

“This is probably going to be the most important speech of his presidency and it’s going to set the tone for [this] year,” another administration official said.

The White House is trying to fend off Democratic anxiety about how the incumbent president enters the election year — virtually tied with former President Donald Trump in national polls.

There is a concern among some Democratic strategists that the White House and Biden campaign have a tendency to brush away the criticism instead of trying to figure out what’s going wrong.

Since launching his re-election campaign in April, Biden has focused his public message almost entirely on the economy. In recent months, he has sought to garner support for funding for Israel and Ukraine as they both wage U.S.-backed wars.

But one Biden adviser says there is now “a window to get back to some of our core messaging,” which started Friday as the president delivered his most pointed rebuke of Trump as a threat to democracy. The campaign feels the speech was successful in commanding significant attention, which they will reinforce with Monday’s address about political violence that Biden will deliver at Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, the site of a deadly 2015 shooting that targeted Black churchgoers.

Biden and his aides have heard an increasing amount of anxiety from Democrats who worry that Trump is gaining a foothold.

Biden had lunch with former President Barack Obama in December, a source familiar with the meeting confirmed. Biden invited Obama to the lunch and the two discussed the campaign, the source said.

Obama expressed concern about Trump and his political strength.

“We all know Trump has a massive and loyal following,” the source said. The source added, “This is an all-hands-on-deck moment.”

One consistent criticism has been that the campaign is taking too long to make decisions — juxtaposed with Obama’s campaign, which had more of his top aides leave the White House. But Biden aides say technology has allowed those inside the administration who are permitted by law to work with the campaign to do so easily.

“The truth is the key people at the White House who are doing campaign work talk to the campaign every day, multiple times a day. I don’t think that’s slowing down decision-making,” the adviser said.

The campaign has shown signs of changing its approach.

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will pick up their pace of travel — some campaign, some official — with a particular focus on the early-voting states in the Democratic primary calendar: South Carolina, Nevada and Michigan — the latter two also important general election battlegrounds. Their message will broaden from the initial democracy focus to include protecting reproductive rights ahead of the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and economic initiatives.

Budget and border negotiations in Congress loom as moments that may pull Biden back into Washington. But aides say the potential standoffs will in some ways highlight what is expected to be a major theme of the president’s State of the Union address: comparing a record of action from the president and a Democratic Congress to an ideology of obstruction from Republicans.

The State of the Union address is a particularly important moment, advisers say, as poll after poll has shown that another of voters’ top concerns about the president in 2024 is an unchangeable fact: his date of birth. The annual address to Congress, now scheduled for March 7, will offer Biden one of the biggest audiences he’ll have this year to not just make the case for the work of his administration thus far, but also demonstrate his ability to continue it well into the future.

Advisers say the speech is not a moment for Biden to telegraph a second-term agenda — which instead will be rolled out by the campaign as the election grows closer. But it is a critical chance to highlight what the president has done in office, and ways that he can continue to leverage and build on those accomplishments.

Officials were reluctant to discuss preparations for the speech, citing what is still an early stage of preparations and the typical secrecy around the major address. Multiple factors could determine what does — and doesn’t — make the final text of the speech, including the dynamic situation in Gaza, negotiations over border security, and progress — or lack thereof — toward a government funding deal before a set of deadlines that could trigger government shutdowns.

But the value being placed on the speech inside the West Wing reflects a defining characteristic of the Biden team’s strategy that often rankles outside allies. Rather than engage in every news cycle, advisers prefer for the president to instead focus his efforts on more significant moments that command wider audiences — ones more likely to include swing voters.

Bruce Reed, the deputy White House chief of staff, has been leading a review process in the administration for weeks focused on identifying policy priorities for this year, an undertaking that will help shape the speech as well.

Biden will offer criticism of congressional Republicans who have largely opposed his agenda. And he’ll have a chance to continue to highlight bipartisan initiatives under the umbrella of his “Unity Agenda” — enhancing access to mental health services, supporting veterans and combatting fentanyl — where additional progress can be made this year.

The White House viewed Biden’s 2022 State of the Union address as a triumph, and not because of anything that was in his prepared text. Biden at times bantered with Republicans who jeered at some of his remarks, and at one point challenged them over whether they disagreed with proposals to curtail retirement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene also shouted out to accuse Biden of being a liar, something that elevated her to become a useful foil for the president as he sought to paint all House Republicans as of her mold. Biden’s deft handling of the situation and his ad-libbed remarks quickly became a part of the regular White House and campaign talking points to demonstrate that the now-81-year-old was more than up to the task.

Similarly, Biden advisers felt that in his speech near Valley Forge on Friday, some of the best moments were again largely unscripted, as he flashed what they said was genuine anger when veering from prepared remarks that cataloged past Trump comments denigrating veterans and expressing admiration for foreign dictators.

More than the president’s age, Biden advisers say, a tougher obstacle is the stubbornly sour state of the American electorate. Nearly 3 in 4 Americans say the country is on the wrong track, according to a recent NBC News poll, a number that has shifted only marginally since Biden took office. Voters have long viewed the nation as moving in the wrong direction. The last time the percentage of Americans who said the country was heading on the wrong track dipped below 50% was in June 2009. That pessimism has only deepened since the pandemic, Biden advisers say, with one official regularly stating that Covid-19 “has a long tail.”

Biden has struggled to balance what he views as a strong economic rebound from the brief pandemic recession with the fact that many Americans feel no reason to celebrate. In last year’s address, he tried to personalize the argument, recalling how his own middle-class family felt the price shocks of higher fuel and grocery prices just as much as most Americans do.

More recently, Biden had tried to take something of a victory lap while vowing to build on that progress.

“I acknowledge there’s a disconnect between the numbers and how people feel about their place in the world right now,” Biden said in an economic address in November. “We still have work to do, but our model for growing is delivering real results for all Americans.”