WASHINGTON — President Biden will take the most prominent stage in American politics on Tuesday night at a fraught moment at home and abroad as he seeks to rally the nation behind his battered domestic agenda and his geopolitical confrontation with Russia.
Lagging in the polls eight months before critical midterm elections, Mr. Biden hopes to use his first formal State of the Union address to persuade Americans that he has made considerable progress containing the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy even as he tries to salvage remnants of his stalled social spending program.
But what was originally envisioned as a chance to reset his presidency and celebrate his nomination of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court will be overshadowed by the escalating war in Europe as Russian forces pound Ukrainian cities and Moscow rattles its nuclear saber. Mr. Biden faces the challenge of explaining why a far-off war matters to Americans while preparing them for resulting hardships like higher gasoline prices when inflation has already hit hard.
The speech, slated to start just after 9 p.m. in Washington, will take place in the middle of the night in Ukraine at a time when some of the most devastating Russian attacks have taken place, raising the prospect of a split-screen moment juxtaposing images of missiles and gunfire against the president in the rostrum of the Capitol.
While some have pressed him to be even tougher, Mr. Biden has had bipartisan support among lawmakers as he imposes economic sanctions on Russia and sends American troops to NATO allies near Ukraine to reassure them. Any comments castigating Moscow could prompt that rarest of scenes during a State of the Union: Both sides of the aisle rising to applaud.
But otherwise, Mr. Biden will face a divided chamber of Democrats anxious for him to regain political traction before they head to the polls this fall and Republicans eager to translate public discontent into control of one or both houses of Congress. In a sign of the complicated political landscape, Mr. Biden will be followed not just by the traditional Republican response, to be delivered by Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, but by a separate response by the progressives of his own Democratic Party, to be delivered by Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
“I know progress can be slow and frustrating,” Mr. Biden told an audience celebrating Black History Month at the White House on Monday, referring to stalemated voting rights legislation while reflecting broader frustrations in his party. “But I also know it’s possible if we work together, if we keep the faith, if we remember the changes and the charges that have passed down to us from all those who came before us.”
In a sign of the times, the speech will take place in a Capitol once again ringed by security fences and National Guard troops, just 14 months after the building was stormed by a violent mob egged on by President Donald J. Trump in an effort to stop the counting of Electoral College votes sealing Mr. Biden’s victory.
But in a more hopeful indicator, the chamber will once again be full as all members of the House and Senate will be invited, rather than limited to a fraction of the usual audience as it was last year out of concern over Covid-19. And while testing will still be required, masks will be optional.
The speech comes at a politically shaky moment for Mr. Biden and the country. After two years of coping with the pandemic and related economic troubles, the state of the union is sour. Fully 70 percent of Americans surveyed by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research said the nation was heading in the wrong direction, the kind of number that typically spells trouble in an election year for the party in power.
Mr. Biden has lost the confidence of many Americans in the year since taking office. His approval rating in recent days has been measured anywhere from 44 percent by The A.P. and NORC to as low as 37 percent by The Washington Post and ABC News. Judging by Gallup’s numbers, no elected president in modern times has been as low at this point in his tenure other than Mr. Trump.
Moreover, the tradition of rallying around the president during a crisis has long since faded and many Americans are viewing the conflict with Russia through a partisan lens. Just 3 percent of voters who supported Mr. Trump in 2020 say Mr. Biden is doing a better job leading his country than President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is in leading his own, according to a poll by Yahoo News and YouGov, while 47 percent believe the Russian leader is doing better than their own president.
While Mr. Biden addressed a joint session of Congress last year shortly after taking office, this is his first official State of the Union as president. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the largest land war in Europe since World War II, forced White House aides to rewrite the speech to focus more on the crisis and America’s place in defending the world order.
The platform will allow him to talk about how he has bolstered the NATO alliance after ties frayed under attacks by Mr. Trump and unified much of the world to stand against the aggression by Mr. Putin.
In recent days, Mr. Biden and leaders in Europe, Canada and Japan have imposed measures that have squeezed Russia’s economy, crashing its ruble, shuttering its stock market and largely cutting it off from the international banking system. Mr. Putin has twice cited Russia’s nuclear arsenal in response, raising fears of escalation.
Many will be watching to see what Mr. Biden will say about what comes next. While he has ruled out sending American troops to Ukraine, he has bolstered forces in NATO allies in Eastern Europe and increased arms shipments to Ukraine.
“I think people can expect to hear him position that as the importance of the United States as a leader in the world, of standing up for values, standing up for global norms,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday, previewing the speech.
On the domestic front, Mr. Biden returns to the same chamber where he unveiled his ambitious $1.8 trillion social spending package to great fanfare a year ago only to watch it go nowhere amid lock step Republican opposition and the defection of two Democratic senators. Having given up on the full panoply of initiatives he advocated last year, he plans to push Congress to adopt pieces of the original program, including policies to lower the costs of child care, elder care and prescription drugs.
Mr. Biden also intends to unveil a plan to address what the White House called “an unprecedented mental health crisis among people of all ages” following two years of pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. Among other things, it would expand coverage of mental health visits and access to tele-health appointments, upgrade a new 988 national suicide hotline scheduled to open this year and institute stronger online protections to guard young people from unhealthy social media.
Despite his setbacks on his legislative priorities from last year, Mr. Biden plans to highlight his success in passing a $1 trillion plan with Republican support to rebuild and expand the nation’s highways, bridges, airports, rail, internet broadband and other infrastructure.
He plans to talk about the progress in combating Covid as the Omicron wave recedes and governments ratchet back pandemic restrictions, claiming credit for partially or fully vaccinating about three-quarters of the population while cautioning that future variants could still threaten Americans.
The average number of new coronavirus cases has fallen more than 90 percent since its January peak and deaths have come down 23 percent in past two weeks. But even so, more than 1,800 people are still dying on average from Covid every day in the United States and Mr. Biden wants to be careful not to sound too rosy as many believe he did last summer.
One of Mr. Biden’s challenges on Tuesday night will be convincing Americans that the economy is actually doing better than polls show they think it is. The economy grew 5.7 percent last year, the largest boom since 1984, and added 6.7 million jobs while unemployment fell to 4 percent. But inflation hit 7.5 percent, the highest in four decades, and has dominated the national conversation.
“The president will absolutely use the word ‘inflation’ tomorrow, and he will talk about inflation in his speech,” Ms. Psaki said on Monday. “Of course, that is a huge issue on the minds of Americans.”
She said he would argue that his plans to help families pay for prescription drugs, child care and other items would help bring down costs and that he would urge confirmation of his nominees to the Federal Reserve, which is charged with fighting inflation.
Mr. Biden will also use the address to highlight his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to the Supreme Court, fulfilling his campaign promise to name the first Black woman in the country’s history.
The Senate confirmed Judge Jackson to the appeals court just last year with unanimous Democratic support and the votes of three Republicans, and Mr. Biden hopes to repeat that in short order, giving him a much-needed political win. But because Judge Jackson would be filling the seat of Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is retiring, it would not shift the ideological balance on the court because it would replace one liberal with another.