by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 252 days away. Election Day 2024 is 980 days away.
Biden faces tall task in State of the Union
This was already going to be a complicated State of the Union address for President Biden to pull off.
- How would he talk about Covid? Was it best to begin leaning into an “endemic” strategy, or to stay the course, knowing a new variant could soon arrive?
- How would he talk about inflation? Should he try to convince Americans the economy is humming along fine, or tell them that he “feels their pain” and acknowledge the rising prices?
- How would he talk about his “Build Back Better” agenda? Was there any point in trying to resuscitate the bill, or was it better to try for a slimmed-down version that might get Joe Manchin’s sign off?
- What about rising crime? Migration at the southern border? His botched withdrawal from Afghanistan?
The annual address — which Biden will give at 9 p.m. Eastern Time tonight — always offer the president a prime opportunity to reframe the issues before them and give a positive spin on where the union stands.
In Biden’s case, that was poised to be a particularly heavy lift, requiring him to talk through a knot of complex challenges that have combined to give him months of sinking approval ratings.
And that was all before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Now, Biden will be taking to the lectern during a veritable international crisis, one that is rapidly intensifying by the hour as Putin’s army increasingly targets civilian areas.
The White House has acknowledged that the ongoing war in Ukraine will significantly change Biden’s address. “There’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago,” press secretary Jen Psaki said in her Monday briefing. “There’s always national security in every State of the Union speech, but every State of the Union speech also reflects a moment of time.”
According to a CBS News/YouGov poll, the war in Ukraine is the top issue Americans want to hear about tonight: 73% said it would be important for Biden to address it, compared to 67% who said he needed to discuss the economy, 61% who said that of inflation, and 52% who said it of Covid. (Respondents could pick multiple issues.)
In his discussion of the war, Biden is likely to frame himself as a leader of the Western coalition staring down Putin, taking credit for pushing allied countries towards imposing harsh sanctions against Russia.
“The president will lay out the efforts we are taking, he has taken...to rally the world to stand up for democracy and against Russian aggression,” Psaki said.
In his first address to a joint session of Congress last April, Biden spoke at length about the worldwide “struggle” between democracy and autocracy, a theme he is likely to pick up once again, this time with fresh poignancy.
Besides Ukraine, the economy is also expected to take up large portions of the speech. According to the Washington Post, Biden will call on Congress “to send him legislation designed to make the United States more competitive with China.” He will also advocate for policies he has pushed throughout his presidency, “to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $2,000, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and create a national paid family leave program.”
On the topic of climate change, he will push for the clean energy tax credits that were at the heart of his stalled “Build Back Better” bill, the Post reported.
As for the price increases that have set 40-year records? “The president will absolutely use the word ‘inflation’ tomorrow, and he will talk about inflation in his speech,” Psaki confirmed on Monday. She said Biden would “reiterate his call for Congress to move forward” with “Build Back Better,” making the case that the package would “lower costs” for Americans in the areas of child care, elder care, and prescription drugs.
In other words: expect more of the same from Biden tonight. Many Democrats had been urging Biden to use the State of the Union platform to announce a pivot on Covid, following the lead of several blue-state governors who have eased their pandemic-era restrictions and declared that an “endemic” approach to the virus is now necessary.
At least symbolically, Biden will indeed creep in that direction: the CDC dropped its indoor mask guidance for most of the country last week, and both the White House and the Capitol have followed suit.
That means all 535 members of Congress will be invited to attend the speech and they will not be required to wear masks, a stark contrast to Biden’s address last year, when only 200 masked lawmakers were able to attend. (Members of Congress are still being required to test negative in advance of the speech; some Republican lawmakers have said they won’t attend in protest.)
But Biden’s Covid rhetoric is not likely to shift tonight, even if the visual will be different. According to the New York Times, Biden is “expected to speak about the coronavirus pandemic in broad strokes, invoking the same ‘things are getting better, but we are not out of the woods yet’ tone that he has adopted in recent weeks.”
The White House is working on a “detailed coronavirus response strategy for the next phase of the pandemic,” the Times reported, but Biden is not planning to unveil it tonight, contrary to what some Democrats had hoped.
(According to the Times, the White House is “wary” of making the same mistake he made last summer, when he famously declared “independence” from the virus only to see the Delta and Omicron variants arrive.)
Similarly, Democrats have been nudging Biden to shift his rhetoric on inflation and to move past the “Build Back Better” plan that centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has already tanked. But from the preview provided by Psaki, it appears the policy prescriptions Biden will offer will largely be the same, even if he renames the package to move away from its original branding.
So will Biden be able to say anything to reverse his fairly dismal political situation? It’s unclear. But the stakes are high: in addition to the war in Ukraine, historically high inflation, and a global pandemic, Biden is currently girding for a Supreme Court confirmation battle this spring and then midterm elections in the fall.
He is also grappling with stark divisions in his party and the country. Both which will be on display tonight, as a progressive Democrat controversially gives a response to his speech (normally something done only by the opposition party) and the Capitol police tighten security to prepare for possible demonstrations from trucker convoys protesting Covid restrictions.
With midterm balloting just eight months away, the State of the Union offers Biden a rare opportunity to make the case for his agenda to the American people. At the moment, Democrats are expected to face big losses in November: a new Washington Post/ABC News poll found Republicans had a 7-point advantage when voters were asked which party they plan to support in the fall.
The Post/ABC poll also found Biden’s approval rating at a new low, with just 37% of the country saying they approved of his job performance and 55% disapproving.
His marks heading in tonight’s address don’t look much better in the aggregate: according to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s average approval rating stands at 40.7%.
Going back 75 years, only one president has been more unpopular at this point in their term: Biden’s onetime (and possibly future) rival, Donald Trump, whose approval rating at this stage stood just a tick lower at 40.6%.
The latest from Ukraine: “Russian forces struck the central square of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv early Tuesday, as Moscow, frustrated in its plans for a quick victory, switched to a new strategy of pummeling civilian areas in an attempt to demoralize Ukrainian resistance.” Wall Street Journal
Climate change: “In the hotter and more hellish world humans are creating, parts of the planet could become unbearable in the not-so-distant future, a panel of the world’s foremost scientists warned Monday in an exhaustive report on the escalating toll of climate change.” Washington Post
Inside the GOP: “Republican congressional leaders on Monday broke their silence about the participation of two House Republicans at a far-right conference with ties to white supremacy, denouncing the actions of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona.” New York Times
It’s primary day: The 2022 midterm elections will kick off today in Texas, with the year’s first primaries. The top race on the Democratic side is a rematch between Rep. Henry Cuellar, a centrist incumbent currently being investigated by the FBI, and progressive challenger Jessicia Cisneros.
- On the Republican side, former President Donald Trump’s endorsement will be tested in several contests, including a race between Trump-backed state attorney general Ken Paxton and presidential grandson George P. Bush.
- More via the Texas Tribune on the top races to watch
Each morning, WUTP’s team of contributors — all student journalists — rotate to offer a briefing on the latest news in a different policy area.
It’s Thursday, so Kirsten Shaw Mettler is here with all the education news to know this week:
The CDC replaced its guidance calling for universal mask use in schools. Now, the health agency only suggests masks in K-12 schools located in the 37% of counties with high risk of serious illness or strained health resources. The policy shift comes as Omicron case rates drop across the country, with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona calling it “a new phase of recovery” for schools.
This time last year, 18 states required mask wearing in schools. At most, only five states and the District of Columbia will still require school masking by the end of this week. On Monday, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that New York schools would stop requiring masks on Wednesday, and the Maryland education board voted early last week to let local school systems determine mask requirements.
A federal judge blocked a magnet school’s diversity admissions policies. On Friday, Judge Claude M. Hilton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia struck down changes to the admissions policies at a prestigious magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. The school’s new admission policies had eliminated standardized testing requirements and guaranteed eligibility to top students from previously underrepresented middle schools in order to increase student diversity.
The judge halted the policy, saying it would “disproportionately burden Asian American students” and was created with the “goal of achieving racial balance.” Affirmative action debates in education have proliferated in recent months, including in the recent school board recall elections in San Francisco.
A few more education headlines to know:
- Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state child welfare officials to launch child abuse investigations for transgender youth receiving gender affirming care.
- Colleges across the country have reacted to recent developments in the Ukraine.
- The College Board is piloting a new AP African American studies course.
All times Eastern.
— President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:50 a.m. He has no other events on his public schedule until 9 p.m., when he will deliver his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol. Vice President Kamala Harris, First Lady Jill Biden, and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will also attend the speech.
- Click here to watch President Biden’s address.
- Click here to watch the Republican response by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds after Biden is done.
— The Senate will convene at 10:15 a.m. and resume consideration of H.R. 3076, the Postal Service Reform Act. The measure, which advanced in a 74-20 vote on Monday, would strike down a mandate that required the U.S. Postal Service to pre-fund health benefits for its retired employees 75 years into the future. The bill, which aims to rescue the agency from the dire financial situation the pre-funding requirement had imposed, would instead require USPS retirees to enroll in Medicare.
From 12:30 to 2:15 p.m., the chamber will recess for each party to hold their weekly caucus lunches.
— The House will convene at 10 a.m. The chamber is scheduled to vote on the rule paving the way for consideration later in the week of H.R. 3967, the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (Honoring our PACT) Act. The measure, championed by Jon Stewart, would offer expanded access to health benefits for approximately 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to burn pits and other toxic airborne hazards while serving in the military.
— The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases today.
At 10 a.m., the court will hear consolidated arguments in Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States. Both cases concern a provision of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which allows registered doctors to prescribe controlled substances under certain circumstances. The cases involve two doctors who have been accused of inappropriately prescribing opioids; one of them, Dr. Xiulu Rahn, allegedly ran a “pill mill” in Alabama and was one of the top prescribers in the U.S. of a certain type of fentanyl.
The doctors claim that they were prescribing the drugs for legitimate medical purposes, and are arguing that subjective intent — whether the prescriptions were made in good faith — should play a role in convictions under the CSA. The government says an objective standard should be applied.
At 11 a.m., the court will hear arguments in Marietta Memorial Hospital v. Davita Inc. According to SCOTUSBlog, the question in the case is “whether an insurer’s reimbursement practices for outpatient dialysis discriminate against patients with end-stage renal disease in violation of federal law.”
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