Few State of the Union Speeches Have Had Lower Stakes Than This One

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For much of the political world, the State of the Union speech and attached spectacle—the applause, the hyperbolic rejoinders, the over-hyped pronouncements about its significance—will be an unrivaled event, the political equivalent of the Super Bowl, the Oscars, or even a royal wedding. But the spin could hardly be further from the reality. For President Joe Biden on Tuesday night, the stakes for his address are as low as the expectations.

Harsh? You betcha’. True? Even more so.

For the first time in his presidency, Biden is going before a divided Congress, where House Republicans seem determined to oppose the White House at every turn and Senate Democrats, unwilling to change that chamber’s rules to allow a simple majority to govern, are always in search of GOP collaborators. Meanwhile, Biden is on the cusp of announcing his re-election campaign—or not, maybe—meaning any of the two dozen or so potential Republicans chasing their party’s nomination will be cheering on obstruction and sabotage from afar. Put simply: there isn’t a whole lot of reason to think much of anything Biden proposes on Tuesday can become law in this environment, especially as Republicans open a pile of investigations into Biden in the hopes of denting his hopes for a second term.

The White House is looking to use the speech—likely Biden’s biggest platform of the year—to offer Americans a distinct contrast between two visions of government: one of steady leadership and one of tyranny-by-fringe minority. House Republicans, in particular, have had a rocky start to the 118th Congress, taking five full days of balloting to select Speaker Kevin McCarthy as their leader and spending the first stretch with power taking steps to appease their base. Biden plans to say such extremism at home is as much of a threat as it is abroad, while offering an outstretched hand for any GOP support he can find.

That twin track is shaping up to be the White House’s message heading into reelection mode. Biden made mainstream-over-extreme messaging a cornerstone of his successful 2020 bid, and outside advisers say he’ll do the same for much of the 17-plus months until Election Day 2024. Given the continued influence of the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene on the House agenda, Biden may find that strategy goes over even better this time around and can build on a road-tested message honed during the less-bad-than-expected 2022 cycle.

Still, Biden isn’t one to blow the doors off any room with polished delivery or lofty rhetoric. The President is a grind-it-out guy, and Tuesday’s speech is going to be another installment in his masterclass in governing by adulting. He is expected to address China’s latest spying-gone-wrong balloon, as well as his order for a U.S. missile to shoot it down. Biden is ready to tell lawmakers that they simply must raise the nation’s borrowing limit and that he won’t negotiate on that previously routine move. Advisers say Biden will also once again propose an assault-weapons ban and policing reforms, and those same advisers expect that once again those ideas will go nowhere, even in the wake of more mass shootings and police atrocities in recent weeks.

Expectations around Washington for the speech are fairly low, which befits a tough environment for the White House. U.S. support for the ongoing defense of Ukraine has dipped across all partisan lines, inflation is proving high and stubborn, and fears of a recession are pronounced. The Covid pandemic is still killing more than 400 people per day in the United States—four times as many as die in auto accidents. While unemployment is at a 53-year low, Biden’s potential crowing about that alone could leave him seemingly out-of-touch with a country whose credit card is maxed-out without a plan to increase the borrowing limit, trips to the grocery store are bringing unmatched costs, and interest rates are on the rise.

On top of those headwinds from Republicans, he doesn’t exactly enjoy much of a push from his fellow Democrats, either. Just 37% of Democrats told The Associated Press poll that they wanted Biden to seek another term, down from the 52% who said the same before November’s elections that beat expectations. Among all adults, a paltry 22% say Biden should run again, down from 29% last year. Those doubters’ biggest concern: the 80-year-old Biden’s age.

Regardless, those closest to Biden expect him to fully join the race in the coming weeks. As he calls around with old pals and traditional allies, Biden sounds every bit the candidate and seems to believe he alone can deny Donald Trump a return to power. But White House aides are careful to say no decision has been made, and that Biden is still sounding out friends for their advice. But as long as Biden is publicly signaling he will seek a second term, Democrats are locked in a holding pattern of sorts—unwilling to challenge their incumbent, all the while ignoring problems with the broader brand. But the possibility of a second Biden term also puts most Republican cooperation on ice, all but guaranteeing Tuesday’s State of the Union to be something of a snooze.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com