Biden to deliver State of the Union address: All you need to know

US President Joe Biden will lay out his policy priorities in an address to Congress eight months before the presidential election.

US President Joe Biden delivers the 2023 State of the Union address as VP Kamala Harris claps behind him
US President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address in 2023, as Vice President Kamala Harris applauds [File: Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via Reuters]

United States President Joe Biden is to deliver the third State of the Union address of his presidency, an opportunity for him to highlight his successes and chart a path forward.

But this State of the Union speech will also be his first since he announced his re-election bid last year. That makes it a pivotal moment for Biden, as the Democrat faces fierce criticism both from within his party and from the Republican opposition.

The president is expected to face his Republican predecessor Donald Trump in November’s general election. Recent polls show the pair in a neck-and-neck fight for the White House.

Against that backdrop, the State of the Union address will allow Biden to make his case to the American people about why he should get a second term.

Speaking at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Thursday evening, Biden is expected to make the future of US democracy a central theme. Biden has repeatedly warned that Trump and his supporters are a threat to the country, referencing their efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

Support for foreign allies such as Ukraine and Israel, migration at the US-Mexico border and a push to bridge political partisanship in Washington, DC, are also likely topics for Biden.

Here’s all you need to know about the 2024 State of the Union:

What is the State of the Union?

The State of the Union is an annual speech in which the US president outlines — as its name suggests — the state of the country and priorities for the future.

This fulfils a requirement in the US Constitution, which asserts that a president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union”.

Ultimately, the State of the Union address provides US presidents with a “big stage” to speak both to Congress and the American public, said Donna Hoffman, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.

Biden will want to claim credit for his accomplishments and also say, “Here are the things that I want to get done,” Hoffman told Al Jazeera.

When is the State of the Union?

This year’s State of the Union is set for 9pm local time on Thursday (02:00 GMT on Friday).

Who attends the State of the Union?

The State of the Union is delivered to a joint session of Congress. This means members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives will be in attendance.

As is custom, Vice President Kamala Harris and the speaker of the House, Republican Mike Johnson, will be seated behind Biden.

The president’s cabinet will also be present, as well as any Supreme Court justices who choose to be there.

The White House also typically invites special guests to attend. Last year, Biden invited the parents of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who was beaten to death by police in Tennessee, and Brandon Tsay, who disarmed a mass shooter in California.

Already, two key figures have reportedly declined the White House’s invitation to attend this year. Yulia Navalnaya — the widow of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny — and Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska both bowed out of the engagement.

Have US presidents always delivered the State of the Union?

Yes, though the format has changed over the years.

George Washington, the first US president, delivered the inaugural address in 1790. “This ritual originated from the British practice of giving ‘a speech from the throne’ to open every new session of Parliament,” according to a US Congressional Service report.

Washington and John Adams, the country’s second president, also presented their messages in person.

But that changed in 1801 when Thomas Jefferson sent his in writing. “That precedent held until Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver his message in person in 1913, a tradition that continues today,” a Senate fact sheet explained.

A statue of George Washington in South Carolina
A statue of George Washington is seen at the South Carolina State House [File: Allison Joyce/Reuters]

Was it always called the State of the Union?

No. For many years, it was referred to as the “President’s Annual Message to Congress” or simply the “Annual Message”.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd US president, was the first to call it the State of the Union address. But the title only became official during the tenure of President Harry Truman, who took office in 1945, after Roosevelt’s death.

The format of the State of the Union has changed over the years too. “The first national radio broadcast of the message occurred in 1923,” the Senate fact sheet said.

“Truman’s 1947 address was the first to be televised, and in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson began the tradition of delivering the address in prime time.”

OK, let’s get back to this year’s address. What can we expect from Biden?

The speech provides an important platform for Biden, who will address a deeply divided Congress months before a presidential election.

The 81-year-old continues to face questions over whether he is fit enough to seek a second term, as well as protests in critical swing states over his staunch backing of Israel despite its deadly military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Axios reported in mid-February that Biden’s team is hoping the State of the Union will be a “big, public reset moment” in his bid for re-election.

One unnamed source close to the president told the US news outlet: “Everyone around him is well aware — well aware — of the need to jack this campaign up.”

What will be the focus of Biden’s speech?

Biden has tried to present himself as a bulwark protecting American democracy against Trump and his Make America Great Again (MAGA) base.

A mob of the former president’s supporters stormed the US Capitol in January 2021, in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying Biden’s 2020 election victory. Trump also faces two criminal cases linked to his efforts to overturn the election results.

“Their extreme agenda, if carried out, will fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it,” Biden said in September, articulating a message he will likely bring to the State of the Union too.

Biden will likely “do a lot of credit-claiming on the state of the economy”, Hoffman said. She noted that “the economy is doing much better than it was when he started his term.”

She also said reproductive rights — an issue that resonates with Democratic voters — are expected to come up as well.

US presidents have typically used their State of the Union addresses to lay out what they want Congress to do. On that front, Biden is likely to urge Republican lawmakers to pass a bipartisan immigration bill.

A proposal had previously been blocked by Trump’s allies in Congress, who said it did not do enough to stem immigration. Critics argue they rallied against it to make the border an election issue.

Biden is also expected to push Congress to pass supplemental funding for Ukraine and Israel, two top US allies.

“In this year in particular with the conflicts in Gaza, in Ukraine, and the nature of what’s going on in the Congress related to funding in those two areas, I would expect there to be some emphasis on international issues,” Hoffman said.

US President Joe Biden
Biden has been urging Congress to approve more US funding for Ukraine and Israel [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

What else happens at the State of the Union?

Every year, the opposing political party offers a rebuttal to the president’s State of the Union.

The Republican rebuttal will be delivered by Senator Katie Britt of Alabama and will take place after Biden’s address.

“We’ll have a candid conversation about the future of our nation — and I’ll outline the Republican vision to secure the American Dream for generations to come,” she wrote on social media last week.

How can I watch the State of the Union?

The State of the Union will be livestreamed by the White House here.

Source: Al Jazeera