What you need to know about the US State of the Union address

United States President Joe Biden is set to deliver the State of the Union address to kick off his third year in office.

The annual speech – delivered to members of the US House of Representatives and Senate, and broadcast across the country – will offer Biden a chance to run down his administration’s successes and goals, as well as give his assessment of the state of the country and the path ahead.

The political party not in the White House – in this case, the Republican Party – traditionally offers a “rebuttal” following the speech.

Biden is expected to strike a positive tone during the 9pm (02:00 GMT Wednesday) address in the House chamber, showcasing his administration’s efforts to rebuild the economy and create jobs after a COVID-19 lull, its overseeing of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and its role in leading Western aid to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

In a preview of the speech, the White House said Biden will also call for higher taxes on billionaires and corporate stock buybacks aimed at addressing the country’s rampant inequality – measures all-but assured to face insurmountable odds in Congress.

He will also outline new steps to address illegal drugs amid an ongoing fentanyl crisis, as well as measures to boost support for veterans and cancer patients.

“I want to talk to the American people and let them know the state of affairs – what’s going on, what I’m looking forward to working on,” Biden said on Monday.

The recent diplomatic spat caused by a Chinese balloon that floated over the US – before being shot down by a US fighter jet – is also expected to be mentioned. The Biden administration has maintained the device was a so-called “spy balloon”, while China has said it was a wayward weather balloon.

The speech also comes as Biden faces a US Department of Justice investigation into classified documents found at his private residence.

Biden spent the weekend at the presidential retreat of Camp David, working with top advisers and speechwriters to finalise the speech, with Jean-Pierre saying tweaks would be ongoing “until the last minute”.

The event has potential to deliver Biden his largest television audience of the year, after an estimated 38.2 million people watched the speech on US television in 2022, according to the data provider Nielsen.

“This is a president who is incredibly optimistic,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Setting the stage for 2024

Tuesday’s address will also set the stage for Democrats’ attempts to hold the White House as the 2024 presidential election approaches.

Biden has not yet announced whether he will seek a second term, although reports have indicated he may do so shortly after delivering the State of the Union. If he does announce his run, the speech on Tuesday could prove essential to rousing a disinterested base.

Two recent polls – one conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, the other by the Washington Post and ABC News – found that a majority of Democrats currently do not want the 80-year-old to run again. That comes despite a better-than-expected showing by Democrats in last year’s midterm elections.

Biden is also expected to address the heightened political polarisation in the country, which has persisted since he took office, despite his stated goal of lowering the temperature. His State of the Union will be the first since Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives last year.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former press secretary to ex-President Donald Trump and current Arkansas governor, is set to deliver the Republican response to Biden’s speech.

“I am excited for the nation to hear from Governor Sanders on Tuesday and witness a sharp contrast with this exhausted and failing administration,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement announcing Sanders’s selection last week.

The choice is widely seen as a reflection of the Republican Party’s willingness to give a platform to a figure seen as closely aligned with Trump, even as concerns over the former president’s candidacy in the upcoming election have grown within the GOP.

Trump announced last year that he will seek the Republican nomination in the upcoming vote, but he is likely to face a crowded field of challengers, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Sanders, for her part, has kept the former president at a distance since leaving the White House.

Who will be in attendance?

State of the Union addresses fulfil a US constitutional requirement that calls on the president “from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient”.

While that requirement can technically be met through several avenues, the prime-time event has been increasingly embraced by modern presidents as an opportunity to put the spotlight on their administrations. It has become the norm for presidents, no matter what the surrounding circumstances, to declare the “union is strong”.

Another tradition has been for presidents and top congressional officials to bring a collection of guests, who often reflect their political priorities. Every member of Congress is also allowed to bring one guest.

Among Biden and First Lady Jill Biden’s guests this year are Ukraine Ambassador Oksana Markarova, Irish musician and humanitarian Bono, and Brandon Tsay, the US man who was called a hero by authorities for disarming a gunman who killed 11 people during a Lunar New Year celebration in Monterey Park, California.

The Bidens also have invited the parents of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old unarmed Black man who died shortly after he was beaten by five Memphis, Tennessee police officers in January.

Other prominent guests invited by Democrats include family members of victims of school shootings in Uvalde, Texas and Parkland, Florida, as well as Michael Brown Sr, the father of Michael Brown, whose 2014 shooting by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri helped give birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. Brown Sr has been invited to the State of the Union by Representative Cori Bush.

Among the guests of Republican legislators are former Afghanistan Ambassador Roya Rahmani, who was invited by House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul as the party has upped investigations into the Biden administration’s handling of the withdrawal.

Representative Elise Stefanik has invited Sheriff Jeffrey Smith of Fort Plain, New York, a pick she announced as she criticised Biden’s law enforcement policies, an area Republicans have made a political sticking point.

One person who will not be in attendance on Tuesday will be the so-called “designated survivor”.  That individual, a single selected member of Biden’s Cabinet, will be housed in a secure location and will be tasked with taking over the government in case of a catastrophe that impairs the president and his other successors at the Capitol.

This year’s “designated survivor” had not yet been announced.

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