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Is he running? 5 big questions Joe Biden will answer in the State of the Union

It's not just another speech.

The State of the Union address President Joe Biden is slated to deliver Tuesday night is likely to draw his biggest audience of the year and provide a blueprint for the rest of his presidency – from his stance toward the Republicans who have taken control of the House to the political question looming over his future.

Is he running for reelection?

He's not likely to directly answer that, of course. A formal announcement of his intentions isn't expected until later this month or next. But the balance he strikes between seeking common ground with the GOP and promoting Democratic causes that have limited prospects of passage will be a clue.

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Does he sound like a president pushing against the odds to negotiate whatever legislation he can get done during the next two years? Or a candidate rallying partisan troops for the next Election Day in hopes of improving the landscape down the road? A compromiser, or a crusader?

That's one question that may be answered when he climbs the House dais to address the Congress and the country.

Here are four more.

What are his opening words to Speaker McCarthy?

Biden faces the same unhappy situation as his four most recent predecessors. His party's unified control of Capitol Hill was lost in a midterm election, meaning the friendly audience at last year's State of the Union has been replaced by a more skeptical one.

How will he deal with this new reality?

President George W. Bush – who saw his fellow Republicans lose both chambers of Congress in the 2006 midterms, during his second term – was especially gracious in acknowledging a new speaker of the House. "And tonight, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own, as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker," he declared in 2007.

The chamber erupted in applause for the nation's first female speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, although that cordial opening didn't lessen their clashes that followed over the Iraq War.

In 2019, though, President Donald Trump skipped any pleasantries when he delivered the address after Democrats had regained control of the House and Pelosi was once again speaker. He launched into his remarks without giving her a chance to deliver the traditional welcome. In his speech, he warned Democrats against pursuing "ridiculous, partisan investigations" of him; they investigated him anyway.

This year, the election of the new speaker, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, wasn't itself historic except that it took 15 ballots – a modern record, albeit presumably not a distinction he is eager to revisit.

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US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) applaud US President Joe Biden as he delivers his first State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 1, 2022.
US Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) applaud US President Joe Biden as he delivers his first State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 1, 2022.

Given today's polarized politics and Biden's often-stated commitment to bipartisanship, he may choose to do what Bush did: Acknowledge the other side in a way that signals at least the possibility of working together.

"Let's just sort of, kind of, join hands again a little bit," Biden told the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, the morning after his first White House meeting with McCarthy as speaker. The president said their meeting had gone well, but in a sign of the times, he felt compelled to add, "Not a joke."

Are happy days here again?

He faces a conundrum. The president wants to claim credit for near-record low unemployment and continued economic growth, but he risks looking out of touch unless he also acknowledges the continued bite of inflation and the real prospect of a recession this year. In 2021, his failure to take the threat of inflation more seriously, and sooner, cost him standing on his handling the economy.

"He needs to continue to prove to the vast majority of Americans that his economic prescriptions are the right direction and are working," said Faiz Shakir, a progressive strategist and manager of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in 2020. "He needs to weave a story about why he does these things."

Asked for Biden's big task in the speech, Matt Bennett of the moderate Democratic group Third Way responded simply: "To sell optimism."

President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) ORG XMIT: OTK
President Joe Biden speaks at the Democratic National Committee Winter Meeting, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) ORG XMIT: OTK

Americans aren't yet convinced. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll at the end of last year found 45% of registered voters said the country was already in a recession. Another 15% said it was in a depression; 20% saw stagnation. Just 15% said an economic recovery was underway.

The survey of 1,000 registered voters, taken by landline and cellphone Dec. 7-11, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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Biden wants to lift the country's confidence in the economic course he has set while also cautioning that the positive trends could be upended if Congress doesn't agree to raise the debt ceiling this spring. At the moment, he says he'll insist on a "clean" debt ceiling bill. House Republicans are demanding a deal that would include deep spending cuts, although they haven't specified what those would be.

Is the U.S. commitment to Ukraine beginning to wane?

Last year, Russia invaded Ukraine five days before Biden's first official State of the Union. His speech was revamped to begin with a declaration of America's commitment to lead an international coalition against it.

"We, the United States of America, stand with the Ukrainian people," he said to applause from both sides of the aisle. "We are ready. We are united."

In the year that followed, Congress approved nearly $50 billion in direct humanitarian, financial and military assistance to Ukraine. The Biden administration agreed to provide Kyiv with air-to-ground missiles, explosive drones, coastal defense ships, advanced surveillance and radar systems – and, just two weeks ago, sophisticated M1 Abrams tanks.

But some of the Republican lawmakers who have taken power have questioned the cost. "I think people are going to be sitting in a recession, and they're not going to write a blank check to Ukraine," McCarthy said in the final days before November's election. Public support also has eroded. In a Pew Research Center survey, one in four Americans now say the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine, 19 points higher than last March.

Does the president reiterate the same full-throated commitment he declared last year?

Does he tackle the intractable?

Biden mentioned his support for some police reform measures last year, including banning chokeholds and requiring body cameras, but he spent more words and more energy decrying the "defund the police" movement backed by some of the most liberal voices in his party. "We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police," he said then. "It's to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them."

Now, his speech follows outrage over the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols last month after he was brutally beaten by Memphis police. Nichols' parents will watch Biden from the gallery. They have accepted the invitation of Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Neb.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to be his guests.

Black lawmakers are urging Biden to focus on the need for police reform, but they acknowledge that Congress was unable to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act even when Democrats controlled both chambers.

As with other explosive issues facing the nation – gun violence and immigration among them – political leaders in Washington have struggled to act.

Does the president offer fresh approaches that might break the stalemate?

Tune in Tuesday for an answer to that, and more.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden's State of the Union address will answer five big questions