The challenges Biden faces in his State of the Union address

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — As President Biden is set to make his first formal State of the Union address Tuesday night, he and the country are facing pressing issues, from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to inflation and the continuing pandemic.

It also comes at a time when Biden’s political capital is at the lowest point of his presidency with his worst approval ratings on a host of issues and a majority of the country saying his first year in office was a failure.

Biden badly needs a reset.

He has the opportunity to do that Tuesday night. Here are the challenges he faces on those three sticky issues — and how he might handle them in his speech:

Security has been heightened and fencing was erected around the U.S. Capitol ahead of President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.
Security has been heightened and fencing was erected around the U.S. Capitol ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. The speech comes as Biden badly needs a reset. [Justin Sullivan | Getty Images]

1. The Ukraine crisis

It’s tough to know the political impact of Russia’s invasion. Americans are war-weary and many in the country have shifted to a more populist, inward-looking stance.

But the invasion is hard to avoid. It’s all over cable TV 24/7, and it has galvanized NATO allies and the world’s attention in ways that haven’t happened for years.

Biden will likely have a national security focus in the speech, especially considering the current good feelings toward Ukrainians for how they have stood up to the far-larger Russian army. That could help Biden in an area where Americans didn’t seem to have much confidence in him before the invasion.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll taken days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military operation, for example, showed just 34% of respondents approved of the job Biden was doing handling the Ukraine situation.

For now, many Republicans have dialed back their criticism of the president as the war plays out. That likely won’t last for long, but look for Biden to use Russia’s aggression as a unifying moment to rally the U.S. with a nonpartisan tone.

It’s an opportunity to focus the country’s attention on standing behind Ukraine and with NATO allies — while also preparing Americans for likely higher gas prices as a result of isolating Russia and Putin.

2. Rising inflation

For as much attention as there is on Ukraine right now, make no mistake that pocketbook issues are front of mind for voters.

Those potentially higher gas prices could take a further bite out of Biden’s standing — and surveys have shown inflation topping Americans’ concerns.

In the latest NPR poll, 38% said they wanted inflation to be Biden’s top priority going forward. Just 11% said the ongoing coronavirus should be. The same number said voting laws, while 10% each said foreign policy and violent crime should be.

Biden has been criticized for being slow to make inflation a front-burner issue. The White House has complained that a disproportionate amount of attention has been paid to inflation rather than the fuller context of strong jobs and economic performance under Biden.

Early on, the president indicated inflation would be transitory and was a result of the economy opening back up. More recently, he has empathized with people dealing with higher prices, while also touting other positive economic news.

But prices have continued to rise and been a continued political nuisance. In the speech, Biden is going to have to show he’s taking the issue seriously.

“The president will absolutely use the word ‘inflation’ tomorrow, and he will talk about inflation in his speech,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday in previewing Biden’s speech. “A lot of what you’re going to hear about tomorrow as he talks about it is how he’s going to reduce costs.”

The problem is a president doesn’t have much control over rising prices, especially in the near term, and that makes for a potentially dangerous political problem.

Biden, though, has had control over two major, multitrillion-dollar pieces of legislation that passed — the COVID relief bill and the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The COVID relief bill provided aid to millions of Americans and has been credited with spurring economic activity. (Republicans and some Democrats have criticized it as too much of an influx of money, leading to the level of inflation seen now.)

Biden is also expected to make a key selling point out of the infrastructure law, which — partially because the promised social spending bill, Build Back Better, failed to pass along with it — seems to have been met largely with a collective political shrug.

It’s another area in which the White House feels the president hasn’t gotten enough credit. After all, the bill made hundreds of billions of dollars worth of new investments in roads, bridges and other infrastructure — something that has eluded multiple presidents over the past couple of decades.

3. The ongoing pandemic

Another issue a president has little control over is whether the world is truly moving on from the coronavirus pandemic, which is tied to inflation.

It has been true from the outset of Biden’s presidency that as goes COVID-19, so goes his presidency.

Mask mandates have been dropping in blue states across the country; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week loosened its guidance for masks; and the Biden administration is likely to speed up federal workers’ return to the workplace — in person.

That reflects the optimism that was found in the latest NPR poll, with 7 in 10 people saying they believed the pandemic would be ending soon.

But Biden is going to have to be somewhat cautious about showing his own optimism about the new phase of the pandemic, even as he needs to give people hope about life after COVID-19. After all, he nearly declared independence from the virus on July Fourth of last year, only to see the delta and omicron variants dash those hopes.

“He does have to say, ‘It does look like we’re turning a corner, but we have to be humble here,’ ” said Zeke Emanuel, a doctor and professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has advised Democratic administrations, including this one. “The virus has outwitted us. We learned that the hard way last July and August.”

He added that Biden needs to show how he is taking steps to “sustain the new normal.”

Kathleen Sebelius, a former Democratic governor of Kansas who was health and human services secretary under former President Barack Obama, said Biden has to walk a “balance.”

“I think step one is to say, ‘We are on the path back,’ ” she said, “but, boy, there is a lot of uncertainty right now with inflation and chaotic lives and schools and day care still in very precarious conditions. And then, I think, give people hope that it’s going to look different.”

Biden has to hope that inflation will recede as the pandemic does, because the optimism Americans are showing about COVID-19 also came in a survey in which the top concern was inflation and two-thirds said the country is headed in the wrong direction.

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