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Biden to give high-stakes address as Trump rematch looms

By AFP - Mar 08,2024 - Last updated at Mar 08,2024

Former US president and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump attends a Super Tuesday election night watch party at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Tuesday (AFP photo)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden faces one of the most critical moments of his political career on Thursday, with a State of the Union speech aimed at convincing sceptical voters the 81-year-old is fit to beat Donald Trump in November’s election.

The annual address to a joint session of Congress is often a largely ceremonial affair, but in 2024 the stakes are huge as Democrat Biden seeks to overcome doubts about his age, the economy and wars in Gaza and Ukraine.

Crucially, the millions of Americans tuning in to the primetime spectacle will be also be watching not just what the oldest president in US history says but how he says it, with Republican Trump, 77, continually mocking Biden’s health and mental acuity — despite his own repeated verbal slips.

Set for 9:00 pm (1:00 GMT Friday) and expected to last round an hour, the speech at the US Capitol is possibly Biden’s best chance before November to trumpet his achievements and set out what he would do in a second term.

Biden said on the eve of the address that he had done “more over three years than most presidents have in eight”, and he is prepared to announce plans for tax cuts for working families and cheaper prescription drugs.

“You hired me to get the job done, build an economy that works for working people, and make life better for families,” Biden wrote on X. “I’ll update you on our progress and lay out the path ahead.”

In line with tradition, First Lady Jill Biden will host a number of guests chosen to highlight the White House’s priorities.

This year they include Texan woman forced to leave the state for an abortion, auto workers leader Shawn Fain, whose union recently backed Biden, and the prime minister of Sweden, which becomes a NATO member on Thursday.

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska and the widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny were both invited but were unable to attend, the White House said.

 

‘Stumbling’ 

 

Trump and Biden nailed down a repeat of the 2020 election with their sweeping wins in this week’s “Super Tuesday” primaries — but it is a rematch that polls show many US voters do not actually want.

Biden, who trails Trump in recent polls, is set to paint the election as an existential clash, warning that US democracy and its global standing would be at risk if the Republican makes a sensational comeback to the White House.

Found liable for sexual assault and business fraud, and facing multiple criminal indictments ‚ including for trying to overturn his election loss four years ago — Trump has again appeared to defy the laws of political gravity thanks to his base of working-class, white voters.

For three days over the weekend, Biden huddled with aides at the Camp David retreat crafting the speech, and he plans to “continue to fine tune” it on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Last year Biden successfully parried heckling by hardline Trump allies during his State of the Union speech and he is ready again this time around, the White House added.

But that is not the only risk. Observers will also be on the lookout for signs of frailty after Biden suffered a series of trips and verbal slips in recent years.

“For every president, whether or not Biden, stumbling in some way, not necessarily physically, but over their words, that can often have an impact overshadowing what the president is saying,” Sarada Peri, a former speechwriter for Barack Obama, told AFP.

The world will also be watching as wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine.

Biden is expected to urge Republicans in Congress to stop blocking vital aid for Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s brutal invasion, along with funding for the US-Mexico border and Israel’s war against Hamas.

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