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Biden's first State of the Union address has perfect timing

The state of our union is not strong — and Democrats have a daunting midterms ahead.

It’s been an intense week for President Joe Biden. In the days ahead of his first State of the Union address to Congress, he’s facing down an international crisis and a stalled domestic agenda at home, not to mention needing to confirm a historic Supreme Court nominee.

Presidents are all too often forced to focus on the tactical issues directly in front of them at any given moment. The State of the Union is the rare chance to step back and frame their policies from a strategic point of view. It’s an opportunity that couldn’t come sooner. Everyone in the room Tuesday night will be all too aware that the window may be closing on Biden’s chance to leave his mark on America’s future.

This is the time for Biden to lay out just where he hopes to take his presidency in Year Two.

I’m not here to say that this is speech will be the defining moment of the Biden administration’s second year. That kind of annual hyperbole makes the constitutionally mandated recap sound like the closest thing to a Super Bowl that Washington has seen since 1991. But it’s a framing that rarely pans out in terms of either polling after the fact or policy recommendations passing through Congress.

While Tuesday's speech has been retooled in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, this is the time for Biden to lay out just where he hopes to take his presidency in Year Two. He can do so near the beginning of his address, in a way that only Biden — with his promise to give it to Americans straight — can do. But it would require taking a major risk.

Things have been hard over the last year; Biden can’t, and shouldn’t, downplay that. Instead, he should offer up a simple admission of fact, one that has never been uttered during a State of the Union: “The state of our union — thanks to pandemic and insurrection, fear and anger — is not strong.” The immediate follow-up: “But working together and by the grace of God, it can be once again.”

That message needs to be heard both by the lawmakers in the room and the party members around the country who are faced with a daunting challenge over the next few months. Namely: How do you sell the idea that Democrats in Congress deserve another two years of unified control of Washington when the results so far have been, well, lacking?

As things stand, the bill that was meant to be the centerpiece of Biden’s presidency is, at best, comatose in the ICU. The Build Back Better Act was meant to be a nearly $4 trillion investment in America and its people, fulfilling long-standing promises to raise taxes on the wealthy, tackle climate change and make life just a bit easier for the middle and working classes. It was also meant to be a tangible achievement for lawmakers to highlight as Democrats’ pitch to voters in the midterms.

Another major risk Biden could take that might move the needle: He could come out swinging against Republicans.

But after months of wrangling within the caucus, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., critically wounded the bill in December. Nobody has been fully willing to pull the plug, so to speak, on the policies the legislation aimed to enact, but there’s been no movement on Build Back Better for months. Reeling congressional Democrats first shifted to focus on shoring up voting rights — which also went nowhere — before they began focusing on passing lower-stakes, bipartisan bills.

Biden could use Tuesday’s speech to highlight the parts of the bill that are most popular, urging its piecemeal passage through the Senate. Or he could outline a framework that fits with Manchin’s last offer before talks collapsed, possibly even calling him out by name to try to regain his support. Either way, there are too many elements within the Build Back Better framework that American families are still counting on for all of them to go completely unrealized.

There is another major risk Biden could take that might move the needle: He could come out swinging against Republicans. The State of the Union address has typically been almost aggressively nonpartisan, even as the listening members of Congress sit in stony silence or leap up in rapturous applause depending on their side of the aisle. Even former President Donald Trump used his State of the Union addresses to at least pay lip service to bipartisanship. And Biden may well choose to also highlight areas that the GOP and Democrats should, at least in theory, be able to cooperate on.

But we’re in a very strange time, politically and practically. There’s no chance of bipartisan compromise waiting with a potential Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., should the GOP regain control of the House. The filibuster won’t inspire bipartisan legislation in the Senate during the last two years of Biden’s term. There’s no chance that, should Roe vs. Wade fall in the Supreme Court, a Republican Congress wouldn’t pounce to pass new laws restricting abortion nationwide. And democracy wouldn’t survive another go-round with Trump in the White House.

Biden should make all of these things abundantly clear to viewers at home and show the Democrats whose names will be on the ballot this fall that he’s willing to lead the charge as they try to defy history. Because if history is any indicator, the odds of Democrats’ holding on to their trifecta were already slim. The current spate of anti-democratic officials running for office, new election laws in GOP-controlled states and the ongoing redistricting process mean that the odds have only gotten worse for them in this and future elections. Add in Biden's lackluster poll numbers and the situation doesn't exactly look primed for Democratic victories.

This may be Biden’s only chance to deliver a State of the Union address with a Democratic speaker seated behind him. It may be the last chance he has to offer up a vision that can become more than just ephemeral words on paper. Democrats have eight months until Election Day. They have 10 months until the 118th Congress begins. Now is the time for them to make our union strong again.