President Joe Biden is planning to use his second State of the Union address to paint the broad strokes of a likely campaign ahead, contrasting his notion of steady leadership with the newly elected, likely chaotic Republican House.
Privately, aides are hoping the GOP lawmakers in attendance will help him achieve the contrast.
The president will command his biggest audience of the year for Tuesday night's address to Congress when, aides said, he will extend his hand across the aisle while also warning that extremist voices on the right pose a threat to liberties both in Europe and at home.
Though Biden won't mention them by name, aides believe the presence of newly prominent House Republicans in the chamber will underscore his arguments. A year ago, Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) heckled Biden during his speech, and photographs of their shouting went viral. White House aides privately admit that they wouldn't mind that happening again this time, creating a contrast between rabble-rousing in the crowd and steady leadership on the dais.
"The theme of a State of the Union is always 'Who are we, who do want to be? What do we stand for, what do we want to believe?'" said Jen Psaki, Biden's former press secretary. "That is not to ignore or deny huge problems in the country but to say 'I will work with people to take them on.'"
But the subtext of the address will not be the lawmakers in the seats but the campaign ahead. Biden has not yet declared his candidacy but the State of the Union could very well double as a soft launch for a 2024 bid. The president has said he intends to stand for re-election, though some of his closest advisers caution that a final decision has not yet been made. In somewhat classic Biden fashion, the timeline for an announcement has shifted, according to four people familiar with the decision.
Originally pegged to March or April, in part for fundraising purposes, there had been talk of moving an announcement up to late February. That now may have slipped again as the White House grapples with the appointment of a special counsel to investigate the discovery of mishandled classified documents at Biden's Delaware home and former office.
Biden advisers have downplayed the impact of the discovery - pointing to his unchanged approval rating in the face of the controversy. They believe the Democrats' triumphs in November squelched any talk of an intra-party challenger and bought the 80-year-old president time to make his decision.
Still, Biden faces challenges heading into Tuesday's address.
A divided Washington and a growing array of challenges could define his presidency in the months ahead. House Republicans are ramping up their investigations. The battle for Ukraine continues to rage. And in just the last fortnight, the nation has been left reeling by video of a brutal deadly assault of a Black man at the hands of police.
Biden is expected to rally Americans on Tuesday with the notion that the nation is at an inflection point as it emerges from the COVID pandemic and the trials put forth by Donald Trump's time in office.
A year ago, Biden delivered his first State of the Union just days after Vladimir Putin sent his Russian forces over the Ukrainian border. The fate of Kyiv hung in the balance and Biden used a sweeping portion of his speech to argue that the defense of Ukraine was a defense of democracies around the globe.
Now, the case will be different. Ukraine has shown remarkable resilience, repelling much of Russia's aggression, but the war has settled into a grinding slog with Kyiv clamoring for more weapons to defend itself for months if not years. Biden, aides said, will outline to the public why continued, sustained American involvement is needed. He will urge Republicans to ignore the voices in their own party who want to curtail funding to Ukraine.
Another standoff with Republicans will also be central to Biden's pitch: the need to lift the nation's debt ceiling. He will make clear that he will not negotiate on the country's fiscal future, connecting it to his stewardship of the economy. Though inflation remains high, it has begun to cool, and the president is expected to point to historically low unemployment, strong jobs numbers and a growing feeling among economists that the nation could avoid a recession.
"There should be a focus on tone: be firm without [being] combative," said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser on Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign. "And there has to be an acknowledgment of the pain inflation has caused. It can't just be 'happy talk' about what they've done on the economy. You run the risk of looking out of touch."
Any State of the Union is of the moment, and reflective of the challenges facing the country when it is delivered. In recent days, Biden aides have inserted sections into the speech on the collective traumas suffered by the nation last month.
In the wake of several mass shootings, including two in California just days apart, Biden will again call for a ban on assault weapons, an idea that has little chance of receiving Republican support. And he will likely mourn with the nation over Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died at the hands of Memphis police officers last month, trying to thread the needle of showing support for law enforcement while also advocating for police reform.
Even if some legislation - like the George Floyd Policing Bill and the assault weapons ban - have little chance of becoming law, there is still value in the president proposing something that polls show is popular with most Americans, aides said.
Some of Biden's speech will be backward-looking, reflecting the political reality of a divided Congress unlikely to pass meaningful legislation against a backdrop of GOP probes into the president's administration and family. But White House aides believe that could be to their advantage, allowing the president to blame the GOP for gridlock while he can extoll the accomplishments of the last two years.
One example will be infrastructure. Aides plan for Biden to highlight the projects underway thanks to the $1 trillion in federal funding and point to last week's schedule - the president visited one project in Baltimore and another in New York City - as a preview of the year ahead. Biden will start criss-crossing the country to tout work funded by his administration, beginning with a post-speech barnstorming tour across the Midwest later this week.
The president, always deliberative, will consider his political future by making more rounds of calls to his longtime allies, talking through themes and timing, pushed by a belief that he remains the one Democrat who could defeat Trump. Most close to Biden believe that, soon enough, an official campaign will begin in earnest.
"He should focus attention on … big legislative achievements, the national pandemic emergency ending, the economy stabilizing and still growing, and how the midterms went very well for his party," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "If this was any other president, without the age issues or concerns about what the Republican campaign might look like, this would be a message to launch 2024."