For Biden, a Chance for a Fresh Start in a New Era of Divided Government

WASHINGTON — President Biden probably will not put it quite this way when he gets up before Congress to address the nation this week, but the state of America’s union is disunion. To see that, he will need only turn around to find a Republican House speaker seated behind him, determined to block his every move.

So Mr. Biden’s message of unity, a hard sell already during his first two years in office, may prove even more out of sync on Tuesday night as he delivers his first State of the Union address of this new era of divided government. Yet for a president who prides himself on working across the aisle, a unity pitch may paradoxically be a useful cudgel to hammer his newly empowered opponents.

Mr. Biden plans to present himself to what is likely to be his largest television audience of the year as the adult in the room, willing and able to reach bipartisan compromises in an age of deep partisanship, according to advisers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the speech in advance. He will point to legislation he signed with Republican support since taking office and call on Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the G.O.P. majority that won control of the House in November’s midterm elections to follow that example.

But knowing that any such cooperation is unlikely from a caucus that claims a mandate to resist him at every turn, Mr. Biden’s advisers expect him to try to draw a mature contrast to squabbling, angry Republicans divided over the election of Mr. McCarthy as speaker and more intent on investigating Hunter Biden than advancing the nation’s business.

“Sometimes having divided government actually helps you politically because it allows you, as president, to present your agenda as eminently reasonable, meaning that only unreasonable people would oppose what you’re trying to do,” said Peter H. Wehner, who was the director of strategic initiatives for President George W. Bush when Republicans lost both chambers of Congress in the 2006 midterm elections.

“Biden’s been dealt a pretty good hand if you want to portray the opposition party as extreme and radical — because they are,” Mr. Wehner added. “Let’s call it a target-rich environment.”

Still, White House advisers have been debating in recent days how hard to go after House Republicans after what they considered a decent meeting between Mr. Biden and Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican, on the debt limit and spending restraints. While the two leaders remained at loggerheads, both sides deemed the session an important step and advisers said the president cannot give up the idea of making deals, however unlikely they may seem.

A Divided Congress

The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.

  • Reviving an Old Debate: The House Republican majority is pursuing limits on how long members of Congress can serve. Similar proposals in the 1990s went nowhere; will the result be the same this time?
  • Avoiding a Train Wreck: For the first time, the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and the White House budget official are all women. Can they avert a fiscal disaster?
  • Coronavirus: Republicans pushed legislation through the House that would repeal vaccine mandates and declare the pandemic over. As they debated the measures before the vote, they made several misleading claims.
  • Matt Gaetz: The far-right congressman’s role in recent House melodrama has only entrenched his stature as a political arsonist. But House G.O.P. leaders say, begrudgingly, that he’s also now a lawmaker with new powers.

The president huddled at Camp David over the weekend to go over the latest draft of the address with top advisers, including Mike Donilon, Bruce Reed, Anita Dunn and Steven J. Ricchetti, as well as Vinay Reddy, the chief White House speechwriter, and Jon Meacham, the historian, who often helps craft some of Mr. Biden’s most significant speeches.

Republican leaders have little incentive at the moment to seek common ground with Mr. Biden, pushed by their conservative wing to stand up to what they characterize as an administration that has taken the country too far to the left with big-spending programs that have fueled inflation and deficits.

To respond to Mr. Biden’s address, G.O.P. officials have selected Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas, the former White House press secretary under President Donald J. Trump, who made clear she planned to use her platform to highlight “the failures of President Biden,” as she put it in a statement.

“We are ready to begin a new chapter in the story of America — to be written by a new generation of leaders ready to defend our freedom against the radical left and expand access to quality education, jobs and opportunity for all,” she added.

Mr. Biden wants to use Tuesday’s speech to make the case that government works, citing legislation to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and broadband, jump-start the semiconductor industry and expand health benefits for veterans, all of which passed on bipartisan votes. And he plans to discuss defending democracy at home and abroad at a time when Mr. Trump is talking about “termination” of part of the Constitution to restore himself to power and Russia is waging a war of conquest in Europe.

“The president’s message is made for this moment,” said Jon Favreau, who was President Barack Obama’s chief speechwriter when he lost the House in 2010. “He’s the guy who’s been working with both parties to get stuff done that matters to people, while Republican leaders have been working to appease the most extreme wing of their party. I would bet that he’ll emphasize policies that have broad, bipartisan appeal and ask for good-faith cooperation instead of cheap political stunts. And if Republicans refuse, he can take that case to the American people in 2024.”

By all accounts, Mr. Biden plans to announce a campaign for re-election, probably in March or April. Advisers are acutely aware that his delivery of the speech may be as important as its content, that he needs to appear forceful and vigorous at age 80 to demonstrate that he can handle the burdens of the presidency even at 86, at the end of eight years in the Oval Office.

To that end, former speechwriters for other presidents said White House aides may be especially attuned to ensuring that sentences are not too long and do not include words he may stumble over. In last year’s State of the Union address, Mr. Biden said “Iranian” when he meant “Ukrainian,” “America” when he meant “Delaware” and “profits” when he meant “prices.” But he exhibited energy, which will be important to display on Tuesday night.

Mr. Biden is not the first president to face the challenge of taking on ascendant congressional opposition after a midterm defeat. All four of the most recent presidents lost at least one house of Congress during their tenures, forcing them to recalibrate, each in his own way and with varying degrees of success.

After a Republican sweep in 1994, President Bill Clinton pivoted toward the middle, confronting Speaker Newt Gingrich before eventually forging compromises to overhaul welfare and balance the budget. Mr. Bush defied the new Democratic Congress elected in 2006 by sending more troops to Iraq, but teamed up with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to tackle the financial crisis of 2008. Mr. Obama gave up his most expansive legislative ambitions after the House went Republican in 2010, turning instead to executive actions to pursue his goals.

Mr. Trump relished waging war against Ms. Pelosi’s Democrats after they seized the House in 2018 and made no effort to move to the political middle, although he did agree to bipartisan relief packages once the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Mr. Trump ended up being impeached by House Democrats — twice — although he was never convicted by the Senate.

The difference for Mr. Biden is that while Democrats lost the House in November, it was not perceived as a repudiation the way it was for his four most recent predecessors because the election did not produce the Republican “red wave” many had anticipated. Although Republicans took the House, they did so with the barest of majorities.

“The change then was in many respects far more dramatic,” said Don Baer, who was Mr. Clinton’s chief speechwriter, recalling the 1994 Republican victories. And the politics of opposition have changed since then. Mr. Gingrich and his Republicans felt compelled to try to enact a policy agenda, called the Contract With America, not solely to be obstructionist.

“For President Clinton, it was a matter of finding the right way to navigate a constructive way to work together,” Mr. Baer said, “while in this case, there doesn’t seem to be any willingness whatsoever to work together.”

Polarization has become the new normal in American society. Three-quarters of Americans consider the country divided — and they are, naturally, divided about who to blame, according to a poll by YouGov. Only 23 percent say Mr. Biden has made the nation more united, while 44 percent say he has made it more divided and 24 percent say he has made little difference.

Mr. Biden finished his second year in office with more political good news than after his rocky first year. Gas prices and inflation are falling, unemployment is at its lowest level in more than half a century and average daily Covid-19 deaths are down about 75 percent since his last State of the Union speech. He passed major legislation tackling prescription drug prices and climate change while assembling strong coalitions at home and abroad to confront Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Yet the border crisis has inflamed many Republican voters, and a new investigation into the mishandling of classified documents has sapped some of his momentum. More profoundly, Americans remain unmoved in their views of Mr. Biden. His approval rating stands at 42 percent, barely above the 41 percent at his last State of the Union address, according to an aggregation of surveys by FiveThirtyEight — and lower at this stage than any president in 75 years of polling except for Mr. Trump and Ronald Reagan, who was hobbled by a deep recession.

Mr. Trump of course went on to lose re-election, but Mr. Biden prefers the lessons of Mr. Reagan, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, all of whom rebounded to win a second term. Each of them started out their path to recovery with a State of the Union address.

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