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Biden's test in the State of the Union tonight is to show he's still got what it takes

President Biden had a big moment during his 2023 State of the Union address where he sparred with Republicans. He's been talking about it ever since.
Patrick Semansky
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AP
President Biden had a big moment during his 2023 State of the Union address where he sparred with Republicans. He's been talking about it ever since.

In February of 2023, President Biden hadn't yet launched his campaign for reelection. He had said he was planning to run for a second term, but there were a lot of people in his own party who wondered whether he was really up for it.

His answer came 32 minutes into his State of the Union Address.

"Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset," Biden said, prompting a cacophony of boos from Republicans. Biden kept the back and forth going, negotiating in real time. And thus began a moment that quieted Biden's critics and soothed nervous supporters.

Tonight, Biden, now 81, delivers another State of the Union address that once again gives him an opportunity and a big television audience to try to put to rest lingering questions from voters about whether he has what it takes to another four years in the highest office in the land.

Biden's unscripted fight with Republicans last year quelled some doubts

After that spontaneous moment in last year's speech, questions about Biden's political plans quieted down and the Democratic establishment quickly fell in line behind the incumbent president.

"I think for those of us who see the president often working off a teleprompter, it was a reaffirming moment that the president's still got it," said Faiz Shakir, who managed the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. "He's got his wits, he's got his humor, he's got his fight."

He said the speech worked on two levels: Biden was standing up for popular programs, and taking the fight directly to his Republican antagonists in Congress.

When Biden took his show on the road last spring, he recounted the story again and again. All he had to do was mention the State of the Union, and supportive crowds would respond.

But polls show the questions persisted. The special counsel report underscored them

But Biden's big moment from last year is but a distant memory as he heads into this State of the Union address.

Poll after poll show voters still wonder whether Biden is too old for the job. Then last month, a special counsel report about Biden's handling of classified documents damningly described him as a "sympathethic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory."

As part of an effort to push back against that assessment, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre again cited that moment in the House chamber. "I mean, we saw it at the last State of the Union," Jean-Pierre told reporters. "You know, he was able to negotiate while giving a very important speech."

"You can only eat so many lunches on that, I think," said Carolyn Curiel, who was a speechwriter in the Clinton White House.

/ NPR
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NPR

With so much attention in recent weeks to Biden's age, his stamina and the occasional mix-up of foreign leaders' names, it both raises the stakes for this speech — where he's likely to get one of his biggest television audiences of the year — and also lowers expectations for his performance.

"My take: Biden has his critics right where he needs them. He's always been underestimated," Curiel said.

It's about policy for his second term — but also about 'fight'

The White House has said Biden will lay out what he's done for the American people so far and his vision for the future. He'll talk about implementing and protecting his agenda, including investing in infrastructure and getting rid of junk fees.

And he'll draw contrasts with Republicans on economic policy, protecting democracy and reproductive rights — a day after former President Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in the race.

"Really now we are at the start of 2024, and it's the opportunity for President Biden to really lay out, 'Here's what this election is about,'" said Karen Finney, a Democratic political consultant. "Here's what my presidency has been about, what's at stake, what I'm fighting for."

There will be updates on the war in Gaza, an effort to harangue House Republicans into voting for Ukraine aid, and talk about finishing the job on a long list of domestic priorities.

But 'fight' is a word that kept coming up as people described Biden's task in his speech.

"This is sacrilegious for a speechwriter to say but, it's actually not in the words he says but in the way he presents those words," said Sarada Peri, who was a speechwriter for former President Barack Obama.

"It is one thing to sort of say, 'I am the person who is fighting for you' — but if you appear as though you don't have a lot of fight in you, that's not particularly compelling to people who want that," Peri said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.