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What to expect in Biden's State of the Union speech, according to his chief of staff

Chief of Staff Jeffrey Zients, pictured with President Biden in February 2023, spoke to NPR's <em>Morning Edition</em> ahead of the president's 2024 State of the Union address.
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Chief of Staff Jeffrey Zients, pictured with President Biden in February 2023, spoke to NPR's Morning Edition ahead of the president's 2024 State of the Union address.

President Joe Biden's pitch to 2024 voters will get an even bigger spotlight on Thursday night, when he delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.

The address comes right on the heels of Super Tuesday, the results of which all but guarantee a rematch between Biden and former president Donald Trump in November. And it's an opportunity for Biden to highlight his administration's accomplishments so far, building off of last year's refrain: "let's finish the job."

White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep on Wednesday that Biden's speech will also highlight his agenda for a potential second term.

"Lowering costs, continuing to make people's lives better by investing in childcare, eldercare, paid family and medical leave, continued progress on student debt," Zients said, listing a few. "But I think importantly, the president is also going to call for restoring Roe v. Wade and giving women freedom over their healthcare. And he'll talk about protecting, not taking away, freedoms in other areas, as well as voting rights."

But Zients also acknowledged that restoring Roe is one of many objectives that the president can't accomplish without Congress.

In a period marked by congressional instability, infighting and partisanship, Republican lawmakers have blocked foreign aid for Ukraine and Israel as well as a would-be landmark border security bill — in part because of Trump's vocal opposition (which Biden has suggested is an effort to boost his own reelection odds).

Zients acknowledged "it's going to be difficult" for Congress to move forward on major issues, and said Biden will use his address to urge lawmakers to act with urgency.

National polls underscore Americans' widespread lack of enthusiasm for either candidate, but also show Trump with a narrow lead over Biden in their anticipated 2024 matchup.

It's against this backdrop that Biden will assume the podium at the U.S. Capitol to make his case — both to voters at home and lawmakers in the room.

Support for Ukraine is a 'no-brainer'

Zients said Congress must act urgently on several major issues, including passing the $118 billion national security supplemental agreement — which includes funding for Israel and Ukraine — and approving resources and policies to manage the border.

The supplemental passed in the Senate on a bipartisan basis with 70 votes, and is awaiting further action by House Speaker Mike Johnson, who said last month that "the House will have to continue to work on its own will on these important matters."

Zients stressed the urgency behind the bill, arguing that Russia's invasion has put Ukraine as well as Europe at large "at risk" and that U.S. support is critical.

"I'll let the speaker speak for himself, but what I do know is the need is urgent and there's bipartisan support in the House, and if it's brought to the floor, it'll be passed into law," Zients said. "And I believe that's what needs to happen. And you're going to hear the president push Congress to do just that in the State of the Union."

More than two years into Russia's war in Ukraine, U.S. support for additional military aid has dwindled — especially among Republican voters and lawmakers — but remains a key priority for Biden and the Democratic Party.

Zients said Biden, his team and many members of the House and Senate are "working every angle" to get Ukraine the resources it needs. He said help from other allies is no substitute for the military resources that the U.S. is "uniquely positioned" to provide, to its own economic benefit.

"Look, this is a no brainer," Zients added. "We need to defend democracy here at home and we need to create jobs here at home. And we need to lead the world as we always have."

Biden can't act alone at the border

Immigration has become a top issue in the 2024 race, with both Biden and Trump making dueling visits to Texas border communities last week to outline their competing visions for how to manage the influx of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

Zients accused some Republicans of prioritizing chaos over order at the border, and said the Biden administration can't "manage the border in an orderly way" without help from Congress.

That, he said, would take the form of policy changes and more resources, such as Border Patrol agents and asylum officers.

"The president has done many executive actions at the border," Zients added — nearly 300 in Biden's first year alone. "There's no executive action that replaces the need for the resources, and also the changes in law to asylum and an emergency order to close down the border, that needs legislation."

The administration defends its approach to the Israel-Hamas war

Biden is also expected to discuss the ongoing conflict in Gaza, where Israel's military response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack has killed more than 30,700 Palestinians and displaced more than 75% of the population.

His administration's response has angered many within the president's party, from the thousands of voters checking "uncommitted" in protest over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war to other discouraged Democrats who may not vote at all.

Critics of Biden's response to the conflict want a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to unconditional U.S. military aid to Israel and a clear path to Palestinian statehood. After more than 13% of Michigan voters voted "uncommitted" in the primary, the Biden campaign told NPR that the president had "received that message many, many times."

Zients said Biden will make clear that Israel has the right to protect its people and "degrade Hamas," while also addressing the toll on innocent civilians in Gaza.

"He will talk about his work day and night, and his team's work, to negotiate an immediate cease-fire for at least six weeks, secure the release of the hostages, get more humanitarian aid in and hopefully be on a path to a possible end to fighting," Zients said. "And he'll talk about, as he has the last several months, in the last many years, about enduring peace in the region and the need for a two-state solution, peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia."

Inskeep asked if such a settlement would be possible under the right-wing government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Biden's rift appears to be growing publicly. Zients replied that Biden will continue to work with Israel and Arab nations to accomplish those goals.

The broadcast interview was produced by Lilly Quiroz and Milton Guevara, and edited by Mohamad ElBardicy. The digital version was edited by Olivia Hampton.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.