Biden Preps for the State of the Union Speech and Rowdy Republicans

WASHINGTON — Fueled by throat-soothing tea, guided by teleprompters and surrounded by six aides and one historian, President Joe Biden spent hours at Camp David last weekend honing a State of the Union speech that will be watched by one of his biggest audiences before the November election.

So the pressure is on.

Biden, it should be noted, had with him at Camp David a copy of “Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict,” a book by William Ury, an international negotiation expert.

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“You’ll hear me on Thursday,” Biden said when reporters asked Tuesday about his preparations.

White House officials have not said what topics the president will address, or whether he will mention Donald Trump, his likely 2024 challenger, by name. But Biden is almost certain to talk about the war in Ukraine, the war between Israel and Hamas, China, abortion, immigration, trade and other topics in a speech he and his aides have been working on since December.

The final speech, which aides say will be edited up until Biden gives it, will be delivered by a president under pressure to reassure voters that he is not too old for the job and, more than at any point in his tenure, guard against political outbursts that have become commonplace during such speeches. Biden’s aides say he has prepared for Republicans to heckle him, as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene did last year.

Getting the speech into shape played out, in true Biden fashion, inside a circle of aides who have been around the president for years and treat such proceedings like a state secret.

The Camp David weekend group included Bruce Reed, the White House deputy chief of staff, who helped guide policy-related additions to the speech; Mike Donilon, the aide who has the best understanding of Biden’s voice; Anita Dunn, who oversees communications strategy for the White House; and Jeffrey Zients, Biden’s chief of staff. Rounding out the group was Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president and a longtime friend, and Vinay Reddy, Biden’s speechwriter.

Historian Jon Meacham, who is called upon to add historical heft, was also there.

In speech-prep sessions, Biden goes through the material line by line, marking up words and creating breaks to remind himself to navigate around a stutter he has had since childhood. If he lands on a passage that he does not think feels like something he would say, he marks it out. One former speechwriter described this phase as an exercise in trying to capture Biden’s extemporaneous thoughts and put them down on the page.

Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff, said that the president “works hard and rigorously” each year, adding that he knows “it’s his one chance a year to lay out his agenda for progress to the American people directly.”

Aides say that clarity is more important to Biden than almost anything else. The president will scold those who include acronyms or jargon in their drafts. During preparatory sessions, he has reminded staff members that he is the one with the long career in politics, meaning he knows more about Congress than his younger aides describing congressional relationships and legislative dynamics.

When he reviews drafts, he will often ask staff members what the headline will be for the speech and — more specifically — what the spot on news radio would be. One official said this was Biden’s way of ensuring that the speech would be digestible to most Americans, and of getting an idea of how the news media would cover it.

The key to success in a high-pressure setting, Dunn said in a text message, was simple: “Let Joe Biden be Joe Biden.”

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