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Biden's State of the Union address is set to kick off his reelection campaign

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Tuesday, President Biden delivers the State of the Union address. And what can we expect? Likely something on the debt limit, the Russian war in Ukraine and the economy, maybe something about that Chinese balloon the U.S. shot down yesterday off the Carolina coast and certainly sharp distinctions between his vision and that of Republicans, since Tuesday may mark the unofficial start of Biden's 2024 campaign. We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So let's start with the balloon. What has the White House had to say about it?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Biden told reporters that he wanted the balloon shot down on Wednesday, but his military advisers asked him to wait until it was in a safer area. That happened yesterday, as you noted, after it made its way into the waters outside South Carolina. And having covered Asia, Ayesha, you know this. It's just all added to already tough tensions with China. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken actually called off a big trip to Beijing that was partially intended to help better those relations.

RASCOE: So moving on to Tuesday, what's at the top of your list of things you're going to be listening for - and I know you're going to be listening closely - during that State of the Union?

ORDOÑEZ: Man, there's going to be a lot going on. You know, President Biden has, though, been traveling a lot, you know, testing out some of the themes we expect him to highlight. You know, he's going to talk about his accomplishments, the accomplishments of the administration, like all the bridges and tunnels being built by the infrastructure bill. But, Ayesha, I am particularly interested in how he's going to approach two issues that he's been facing some pushback on. One is support for Ukraine, and two is immigration. You'll remember last year, he had rousing bipartisan ovations when he called for support for Ukraine.

But it's been a year, you know, since the invasion. And there is a growing number of Republicans who have been speaking out more about the levels of money and aid leaving the U.S. for Ukraine. And it's having an impact on some voters. You know, Biden's going to make a case that it's in the U.S. interest to keep supporting Ukraine. And then on immigration, I really don't expect him to say too much. But the border is an issue for him. And he recognized that challenge with his trip last month to the border. And Republican strategists tell me that ignoring the issue of the border in his speech is only going to give more ammunition to his political opponents. So he's going have to deal with that.

RASCOE: So what about 2024? Like, how much does the potential for reelection play into this speech?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, a lot. And this is probably going to be the part that I'm going to be listening to most. Biden has not officially declared he's running again, of course, but it's increasingly looking that way. The State of the Union is not your typical campaign speech, but with 40-plus million viewers, it's very much a political speech. Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist, told me that you can bet that Biden will begin to lay the groundwork for reelection by showing two visions for America, his own and that of Republicans.

IAN RUSSELL: The State of the Union typically is not an elbow-throwing political event. You tend to have higher-minded rhetoric. You're appealing to a broad segment of the American electorate. So I don't think he'll bring the sharpest contrast, but I still think you'll see it there.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but Biden also has to be really careful in this area, as he's promised to find ways to work with Republicans. You know, at a recent fundraiser, for example, Biden actually called House Speaker Kevin McCarthy a decent man. As you know, that's basically high praise considering some of the political battles the two have had. But they also have to find ways to work together on things like the debt limit and other issues.

RASCOE: And so finally, what do we know about the president's guests for the State of the Union? And why is it important?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, the White House is keeping a pretty close hold on Biden's guests so far, but you can be sure that those invited will reflect the issues that he wants to highlight, as he did last year when he recognized the Ukraine ambassador. But I can also tell you that the parents of Tyre Nichols will be there. Nichols was the African American man who died after being beaten by a group of Memphis, Tenn., police officers. He'll be the guest of Representative Steve Horsford, the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been pressing Biden to take up police reform. It's actually the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that lawmakers are allowed to bring guests. There are no more social distancing requirements anymore. It's going to be more crowded. So there's going to be some energy in that gallery that we have not seen in several years.

RASCOE: And you'll be on the air Tuesday, covering the address in Spanish, right?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's pretty exciting. I mean, it's the first time. It's a bit of an experiment. It won't be all in Spanish. We'll sprinkle in some English. The idea is this is supposed to be for folks who are comfortable living in both languages. And it's just really neat because, you know, we have so many Latinos at NPR now. You know, we're really situated for this, as well. I'm at the White House. Claudia Grisales is covering Congress. And that's not all. It's going to be fun.

RASCOE: Yes, that is awesome. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you so much, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.