State of the Union: What to watch as Biden addresses the nation

Published 4:15 pm Wednesday, March 6, 2024

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State of the Union speech is one of the biggest pieces of political theater every year. It’s rooted in a simple requirement in the U.S. Constitution that directs the president to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” But in modern times, it’s a televised extravaganza where every detail is carefully scrutinized.

Here’s how to watch and what to look for during Thursday’s address by President Joe Biden.

Where to find it

You can find the State of the Union on all major networks, which will be carrying it live. It will also be streamed online by the White House and The Associated Press. The speech starts at 9 p.m. ET.

Cast of characters

You might notice a new face behind Biden when he starts his speech. Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana became the House speaker in October after unhappy Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. Rep. Nancy Pelosi had the job before McCarthy but lost it when Democrats failed to keep the majority in the 2022 midterm elections.

That makes Johnson the third House speaker to sit behind Biden during a State of the Union, reflecting the political instability in Washington and a challenging shift for Biden. House leadership has fallen further under the sway of the chamber’s right flank, making it harder for the president to cut deals with the opposing party.

Biden’s age

No president gets a free pass on the world’s biggest stage, but Biden will be watched more carefully than most because of his age. At 81 years old, he’s the oldest commander-in-chief in history, and he would be 86 at the end of a potential second term.

Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican predecessor and likely opponent in this year’s election, is 77. A majority of U.S. adults doubt either of them have the mental capabilities to serve as president, according to a new survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The State of the Union is a chance for Biden to dispel doubts about whether he’s up for the job at an age when most Americans are retired. Any verbal slips or apparent confusion would provide fodder for his opponents.

Policy agenda

Keep your ears open for any new policy proposals. The State of the Union is a chance for presidents to lay out their goals and rally Americans to support their plans. For example, Biden used a previous speech to discuss his “unity agenda,” which included expanded healthcare benefits for veterans.

The White House hasn’t disclosed specific proposals that will be in this year’s speech. But he could reference unfinished business from his first term, and he’ll likely press for military assistance for Ukraine to reinforce American leadership overseas.

Special guests

There are more than just lawmakers and top officials in the chamber for the speech. Politicians bring guests to the gallery to put a face to whatever issue they want to highlight.

The most high-profile guests are invited by the White House and are often recognized during the president’s speech. So far the White House has disclosed only one, Kate Cox, a Texas woman who was unable to get an abortion in her home state even though her health was in danger and her fetus had a fatal condition. Democrats are eager to demonstrate how the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade has limited reproductive rights.

Lawmakers will have their own guests too. Johnson and two New York representatives are bringing police officers whose brawl with migrants in Times Square caused a political uproar among Republicans who have blamed Biden for loose border security. Rep. Elise Stefanik, another New York Republican, invited a Border Patrol officer who also serves as a union official.

Fashion statements

Television cameras will pan across the chamber during the State of the Union, so you’ll have a clear view of everyone in the audience too. This is a chance for lawmakers and guests to send a message of their own with their clothing.

Democratic women wore white, the color of the women’s suffrage movement, during Trump’s State of the Union in 2019. In 2022, some lawmakers wore blue and yellow ribbons to show their support for Ukraine. (The country’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, was a guest as well.)

Protest potential

You might think that everything about the State of the Union is scripted, but that’s not the case. Even in a tightly controlled environment, it’s still possible that someone could stage an interruption. Biden has been shadowed around the country by protests over his support for Israel’s war in Gaza. Activists have also planned a demonstration in Lafayette Square near the White House before the speech.

In addition, Republicans have earned a reputation for interruptions. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado heckled Biden during his State of the Union in 2022. Then in 2023, some Republicans shouted at Biden when he accused them of trying to cut Social Security and Medicare. “I enjoy conversation,” Biden said as he urged Congress to unite behind protecting the safety net programs.

Johnson is trying to tamp down on outbursts from his caucus. He encouraged House Republicans to show “decorum” during the speech, according to a person familiar with his remarks at a private meeting on Wednesday.

Protests can come in other forms too. Pelosi theatrically ripped up a copy of Trump’s speech after the State of the Union in 2020.

Republican response

If you’re not tired of politics when the State of the Union is over, stay tuned for more. The opposing party traditionally stages its own response to the speech. This year, Republicans chose Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama. At 41 years old, she’s the youngest female senator and some party leaders hope she could be a rising star.

But whatever she says, many will be waiting to see Trump’s own response. In a post on his Truth Social account, Trump promised to provide “LIVE, Play by Play” commentary on Biden’s speech. As Trump cruises toward the Republican presidential nomination, his remarks will help frame the stakes of the election.