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What to expect from the State of the Union address

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden will give the annual State of the Union address before Congress tonight. This year's speech comes as Biden faces a divided Congress while also planning his reelection run. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid and NPR political correspondent Susan Davis are here in the studio with a preview - good to have you here.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Asma, to start with, what's the president likely to focus on tonight?

KHALID: Well, a few things. I mean, we're certainly going to see and hear him give a bit of a victory lap, which he's been on - right? - touting his legislative accomplishments and the economic progress the country's made during his first two years in the White House. But I will say, Ari, I mean, I think it's important, and we're going to see him sort of strike this delicate balance because while there are certainly economic gains, you know, many of us who go out to the grocery store still realize that prices are higher than they were before the pandemic.

You know, Biden is also going to be trying to emphasize some of the policies that he wants to, you know, implement over the next two years. A White House official told me that that includes doing more on gun violence, doing more on having some sort of police reform. You know, it's important to note that Tyre Nichols' mom and stepdad are going to be special guests joining the first lady tonight. And Tyre Nichols, remember, is the young man who died recently after being beaten by police in Memphis. You know, I will say collectively, the president does want to strike this optimistic tone. He wants to talk about issues where he thinks both members - members of both parties can actually get something done and find common ground. But at the same time, this speech is about drawing lines in the sand and creating, you know, some contrast with Republicans.

SHAPIRO: And, Sue, this is the first address to Congress that Biden is going to give without the health protocols...

DAVIS: Yep.

SHAPIRO: ...That were in place all through the pandemic. What's it going to be like tonight?

DAVIS: No masks, no testing requirements, no social distancing. I mean, part of this is a reflection of the reality of Republicans taking over the House. One of the first things the new majority did was eliminate the final COVID-19 protocols. They opened the building back up to tours. You know, Republicans have been putting pressure on the president to end the national emergency sooner than he'd like. They passed a bill just last week to do so immediately. The president said he'd veto that bill, but it did provoke the White House to say that they would be ending the national emergency in May. And one thing I'm curious to listen for tonight is how Biden frames the chapter that the country is at when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic and whether he talks about it as sort of mission accomplished...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DAVIS: ...And something in the past.

SHAPIRO: Asma mentioned a couple of the guests. I know there's a long list...

KHALID: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...That the White House released. Anybody in particular you're looking to?

DAVIS: I think the focus on police reform, especially for members of the Congressional Black Caucus, is interesting. The Tyre Nichols family was an invitation on behalf of the head of the CBC. The father of Michael Brown, the teenager who was shot in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. - that was a big moment in the Black Lives Matter movement. His father will be there at the invitation of Cori Bush, a Democrat from the state - also a focus on gun violence. Several - two of the notable guests are Brandon Tsay - he's a 26-year-old man who confronted the shooter in the recent Monterrey Park shooting in California - and also Richard Fierro. He was the military vet who helped stop the gunman at Club Q in Colorado Springs last November. Also, another push that I think the White House shares in with Democrats in Congress is for additional gun legislation, although obviously that seems quite unlikely in a divided government.

KHALID: And if I can chime in here...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

KHALID: Another guest that we know that's going to be sitting in the first lady's box is the Ukraine ambassador to the United States. And that's the second year in a row that that ambassador will be there. And it speaks to the fact that the president is expected to speak tonight about the ongoing war in Ukraine and the United States support for that effort.

SHAPIRO: How much of this is going to look towards the 2024 presidential election and a reelection campaign that Biden has not officially announced?

KHALID: Well, I will say it is the underlying subtext, I think, in everything here. I mean, a White House official told me that the president intends to discuss how we have to, quote, "finish the job," which I thought was really interesting language.

SHAPIRO: Like, with another four years - that kind of finish the job.

KHALID: I mean, the president, as you point out, has stated that it's his intention to run. He has not officially made that declaration. But, you know, this is arguably going to be the biggest audience of the year that he has. And so I think, you know, former speechwriters I've spoken with say that he needs to quiet some of the concerns that people have about him. His approval rating has remained underwater. And a recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows that even a majority of Democrats, you know, would prefer someone else to be their party's nominee. There are, I think, lingering questions about his age, but there's also, I think, a desire for for Democrats and broadly for this White House to convey some of the achievements that they have made this year. You see that not really translating over with the public. The president's certainly going to try to do that. And he's also going to try to emphasize contrasts. And when you talk about emphasizing contrast, that, again, is about, I think, looking forward.

SHAPIRO: Big contrast on the issue of the debt ceiling. Sue, he's undoubtedly going to address that tonight as Speaker McCarthy tries to extract a spending cut agreement in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. What's the status of those talks?

DAVIS: Speaker McCarthy gave what they called a prebuttal the State of the Union last night in which he framed the national debt, which is now about just over $31 trillion, in his words, the greatest threat to the future of the country. So that's the way that they've been framing it. But Republicans are really kind of dragging Biden and Democrats to the negotiating table here. Democrats' position is pretty simple. Just raise the debt ceiling. We don't think we should negotiate over this because the risks of the default are too great.

SHAPIRO: As they did during the Trump administration.

DAVIS: Exactly. And the challenge for Republicans here is they want spending cuts, but they haven't articulated exactly what they want to cut. What McCarthy has done is taken things off the table. He said this week, we won't cut Social Security and Medicare. We don't want to cut the Pentagon. We don't want to cut any benefits for veterans. That's a pretty small part of the pile. So Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, today said, look. You want to talk about spending cuts. Show us what you think you can cut that's left over there that you can balance the budget on. And we don't have an answer to that question yet.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Susan Davis and Asma Khalid. Thank you both.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

KHALID: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAMANTHA BARRON SONG, "SIN MI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.