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How former presidents have tried to use the State of the Union address in their favor

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden delivers the annual State of the Union speech tomorrow night to a divided Congress as Republicans narrowly control the House. That new reality will shape his speech, the months that follow and also his widely expected bid for a second term. Here's NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: This speech is usually a president's largest TV audience of the year. It's his chance to talk directly to both the politicians in the room and the public at home. And for Biden this year, there is a heavy subtext. He's expected to announce his bid for a second term in the near future.

CAROLYN CURIEL: This is a preview of his reelection argument. It's going to form the meat of it.

KHALID: That's Carolyn Curiel. She worked as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton.

CURIEL: And this is the same thing that Clinton had to do. You have to do your greatest hits. And it also plants a seed of imagine what else we could do if we had control again?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: That's my agenda for America's future - expanding opportunity, not bureaucracy, enhancing security at home and abroad.

KHALID: But former Clinton speechwriters say a speech ahead of a possible reelection is not just about substance; it's about style.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: And let the final test of everything we do be a simple one - is it good for the American people?

(APPLAUSE)

KHALID: It was 1995, and Clinton was facing a Republican Congress after the GOP took control of the House for the first time in 40 years. It was known as the Republican revolution. Michael Waldman was in the Clinton White House at this time.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: Clinton used the State of the Union addresses when he was in political peril, when he had lost control of the House and Senate, and it really was a rebuke of him, and when people thought he was politically a goner. But he drew the contrasts with the Republicans. He reminded people of what they liked about his policies and about him.

KHALID: Waldman says a president can use the State of the Union to answer lingering questions. So, for example, after that big midterm shellacking, he says people wanted to see that Clinton was still standing, still had a good sense of humor. For Biden, the lingering question is age. He would be 86 at the end of his second term. That's a point that speechwriters who worked for three different presidents, both Republican and Democrat, brought up, including Clinton speechwriter Michael Waldman.

WALDMAN: He will want to use this as a forum to show that he's vigorous, that he's commanding.

KHALID: The other main thing this speech needs to do is articulate a vision. Peter Wehner wrote speeches in the George H.W. Bush White House.

PETER WEHNER: State of the Unions is a chance for a president to lay out his agenda going forward and to do it in a positive way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE H W BUSH: Our job is to make life better for our fellow Americans and to help them build a future of hope and opportunity. And this is the business before us tonight.

KHALID: But highlighting your own agenda often means painting the other side in a less flattering light.

WEHNER: It's tricky to do precisely because you're speaking to an audience that includes the opposition party as well as your own. And you don't want to, as a president, come across as petty or divisive.

KHALID: But some Democrats say Biden needs to spell out a Democratic agenda that draws battle lines with Republicans. And one big fight already brewing is around raising the debt ceiling. Biden insists this is an obligation, not a negotiation. And Cody Keenan, who wrote speeches for former President Barack Obama, says there is value in doing this for a big audience.

CODY KEENAN: I think another thing he's going to have to do is lay down a marker on the debt ceiling. That'll probably be the biggest battle of the year.

KHALID: The president is expected to tout his legislative accomplishments and economic progress. He's also expected to update Americans on the yearlong war in Ukraine. And he'll do something that presidents of both parties always do - convey optimism and unity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

BUSH: Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we're willing to cross that aisle.

DONALD TRUMP: Not as two parties but as one nation.

BARACK OBAMA: Not by whether we can sit together tonight but whether we can work together tomorrow.

KHALID: Biden is not the first president to appeal to a bitterly divided Congress to deliver a State of the Union after losing control of a congressional chamber in the midterms. And he likely will not be the last. The question is whether Biden, like some of his predecessors, can turn this speech into a political opportunity.

Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.