The last time a president delivered a State of the Union speech with the House controlled by the opposite party, the Democratic speaker literally tore up a copy of the Republican president’s speech when it was over.
This year, there’s no sign of the kind of animosity between Democratic President Joe Biden and Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy that was present between former President Donald Trump and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2020.
Trump’s second State of the Union to a Democrat-controlled House featured Pelosi rebuking Trump by tearing up his speech. The speaker said in a subsequent CNN interview that she didn’t enter the House chamber planning to do that, but she “realized that almost every page had something in it that was objectionable.”
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that “there’ll be no question that this is a Joe Biden, Joe Biden State of the Union speech.”
“This is a president that’s incredibly optimistic, when he talks about the possibilities, he talks about not betting against the American people,” Jean-Pierre said.
McCarthy may well find plenty objectionable in Biden’s speech Tuesday, but not in the way that Pelosi opposed Trump. Biden and McCarthy met at the White House on Wednesday, with each vowing to continue discussions on the debt limit and federal spending. And they were together the next morning, seated side-by-side at the National Prayer Breakfast in the Capitol Visitor Center.
‘Treat each other with respect’
“Let’s start treating each other with respect. That’s what Kevin and I are going to do. Not a joke,” Biden said after the breakfast. “We had a good meeting yesterday. I think we got to do it across the board. It doesn’t mean we’re going to agree, and fight like hell, but let’s treat each other with respect.”
The last time a Democratic president was flanked by a newly minted Republican speaker for the first time was 2011.
Just weeks earlier, then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot at a constituent event outside a supermarket in Tucson, Ariz., leading House members and senators from both parties to break from the tradition of sitting on their respective sides of the House chamber during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
That meant the speech lacked the familiar scene of lawmakers from an entire side of the room standing and applauding while those on the other side sat on their hands.
“We are part of the American family,” Obama said. “We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.”
Biden got the chance to offer a prelude to his speech Friday, thanks to a strong jobs report that saw the unemployment rate dip to 3.4 percent and a scheduled appearance at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meetings in Philadelphia.
“You know, as of this month, we’ve created 12 million new jobs,” Biden said. “We created more new jobs in two years than any President did in their entire term. And that’s because of you. The strongest two years of growth in history by a long shot.”
The audience at a Democratic Party reception is of course unlike the scene the president will experience Tuesday night, looking out over the narrowly divided Congress and trying to deliver a message both to those in the chamber and to the national television audience.
Chinese balloon, economy mentions expected
Always in question is just how much of the speech will be directed at foreign policy, where there’s likely to be more common ground with Republicans especially when it comes to support for Ukraine’s ongoing efforts to respond to the invasion by Russia. There’s also always the issue of the news of the minute, in this case the presence in U.S. airspace last week of an allegedly wayward Chinese balloon that was eventually shot down off the South Carolina coast Saturday.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday that the speech would reference the balloon incident in the context of the U.S. response to China’s military and economic influence. The report also said Biden would in fact be touting what his advisers say are his wins on the economy.
“It’s constantly being reworked and it will be until the very last moment,” Jean-Pierre said Thursday. Biden was at Camp David over the weekend working on the speech.
The address will also kick off traditional post-speech presidential travel with an itinerary that looks like the setup for the president to launch his 2024 reelection campaign. Biden has stops in Wisconsin and Florida planned while Vice President Kamala Harris, who will be sitting next to McCarthy behind the president during the speech, will be heading off to Georgia and Minnesota.
National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, previewing the economic policy themes of the remarks on Monday, said to expect that the way Biden will highlight policy victories will reflect a “real consistent vision that from the campaign to the early days to ongoing, even as we have dealt with variety of unexpected issues that we have had to work through, the president has had a vision about what it could actually mean to grow the — economy from the bottom up.”