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What the State of the Union looks like amid dysfunctional democracy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden will deliver the annual State of the Union address this evening. His speech comes the day after Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee in the 2024 presidential race. This is the largest national audience Biden will have before he gives his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in Chicago this summer. There's a lot at stake, and two of our political correspondents are here to preview the speech. Mara Liasson and Susan Davis, good to have you both in the studio.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Mara, let's start with you. President Biden is facing historically high disapproval ratings for an incumbent president running for reelection. Many voters say they believe he is too old to run for president. How much of tonight's speech do you think is going to be about reassuring Americans who have those doubts?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: I think a lot of tonight's speech is about that. This is the performative aspect of the presidency, where Biden is at his weakest. So I think tonight we are led to believe that he's going to be feisty and vigorous. He's going to try to convince people who haven't paid much attention to him, have no idea what he's passed, but have heard the drumbeat of, Biden is senile. Biden is senile. He needs them to watch tonight and say, hey. He may be old, but he seems to know what he's doing, and he's fighting for me. Remember; last year he was spontaneous. He improvised. He was quite vigorous. He riffed...

SHAPIRO: Responded to Republicans...

LIASSON: ...Responded to...

SHAPIRO: ...Shouting out.

LIASSON: ...The Republican hecklers on Social Security. He did get a bounce from last year's State of the Union address, but it just didn't last very long.

SHAPIRO: Well, speaking of optics, Sue, this is the first State of the Union for speaker Mike Johnson...

DAVIS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Who will be seated just over the president's shoulder. What approach are lawmakers taking to tonight?

DAVIS: Well, earlier this week, the speaker told lawmakers to behave, to bring some decorum to the room. If you recall, last year, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted down Biden. She shouted liar at him. He said, let's not do that this year. Remains to be seen what will happen. But look. There's a lot of hostility among Republicans towards the president. And I would point to just one example of that. The guests that the speaker is going to have in his box tonight really seem to highlight the grievances the party has against the president. He has guests that - military guests that highlight the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, law enforcement officers who were attacked by undocumented immigrants in New York City, other family members of victims of violent crime and critics of medical treatment for transgender youth. I think Republicans here are not really looking for common cause with the president tonight but rather ammunition for reasons why they need to oppose him.

SHAPIRO: But what about within the party? There has been so much chaos in Congress for Republicans, one of the most unproductive Congresses in modern times. What's to come for the rest of this year?

DAVIS: You know, they have some spending bills they need to wrap up. But the big question, and something that the president is obviously expected to focus on clearly tonight, is outstanding money for Ukraine. He asked for Congress to send this money late last summer. He still hasn't received it. He's expected to make the case for why this money is vital to the U.S. interest. But this is also an issue that divides the Republican Party. It split the Senate Republicans in half. It's likely to do the same to House Republicans. And this is still going to be the toughest vote for this Congress because their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, opposes this money.

LIASSON: You know, what's interesting about that - I'm wondering if President Biden is going to point out that if that bill to fund aid to Ukraine and Israel and Taiwan went to the floor, it would get something like 300-plus votes.

DAVIS: And it would.

LIASSON: In other words, it has a majority support, but it's the Republican MAGA extremists who are keeping it off the floor, and that's simply undemocratic. This isn't just a...

SHAPIRO: That'll be his talking point.

LIASSON: ...Close vote.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LIASSON: This is a giant majority, bipartisan majority that would be for this. And, you know, this is probably the most consequential thing for the global political order that is before Congress this year - United States passing aid to Ukraine to help it defend itself against Putin's invasion. Biden has come close in the past to saying, you're either for arming Ukraine or you're standing with Putin. And I'm looking forward to seeing what version of that charge he levels tonight. And if he does, will it make any difference?

SHAPIRO: On domestic issues, many people were surprised at how little he said about abortion and reproductive rights last year. You expect this year to be different?

LIASSON: Yes. I think that he will talk about abortion and reproductive rights. This is one of the best motivating issues that Democrats have this election year. Over a hundred Republicans, including the speaker, have voted for a bill that says life begins at conception. In other words, embryos are human beings and should be protected as such. So the president has a lot to work with there. In this case, Democrats are very close to the middle of the electorate, which basically believed that Roe was a pretty sensible thing. Abortion should be mostly legal, with restrictions.

SHAPIRO: Has Biden clearly articulated what a second-term agenda would look like, what four more years of him as president would mean for the country?

LIASSON: No, he hasn't. And this is one of Democrats' biggest complaints, that there's been no clear narrative. They say he wants - he needs to do tonight - to say not just what he's done, but what he's going to do. And one thing I'm waiting to see - we haven't heard much about this - is whether he'll talk about housing. That's something that people really care about. Some Democrats have suggested that he pass - suggest a big, bold plan for subsidized mortgages, where you pay back the subsidy when you sell your house. He has to show not just that he's vigorous, but he and the Democrats are the ones who sent them those checks, who dropped their drug prices, who got them that infrastructure job and that he has plans to help the middle class even more in a second term. And I wouldn't be surprised if you also hear him say, the other side are the guys who want to cut Social Security and Medicare, ban abortion and destroy democracy and give tax cuts to the rich.

SHAPIRO: Sue, this seems like a difficult needle for Biden to thread tonight, to both run against Trump and the Republican Party and also extend a hand to try to get things done. How does he balance all that?

DAVIS: I think the Democratic Party is trying to draw a distinction between what they call MAGA Republicans and reasonable Republicans. Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries echoed that message on Capitol Hill today. Where there are reasonable Republicans, Democrats will seek to work with them but paint the sort of MAGA-Trump wing of the party as extremists who can't be trusted. I think that, in particular tonight, the timing of this is resonant for Biden as he extends an olive branch to Nikki Haley voters, just as he did this week after she dropped out of the race. He put out a statement crediting her campaign and saying, quote, "there is a place for them in my campaign." These are disaffected voters sort of lost in the political process right now. And Joe Biden is - I think tonight, when you're thinking about who outside of that room is he's speaking to, I think that is a core audience for the president.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Susan Davis and Mara Liasson. Thank you both.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: And stay tuned to your local member station for live coverage of the State of the Union or watch the speech at npr.org or visit NPR's YouTube page, where we'll have a live video stream of our coverage, including Mara, starting at 9 p.m. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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