Biden to give high-stakes address as Trump rematch looms

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

The annual presidential 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.

Biden was to announce during the speech that he’s ordered the US military to set up a port on Gaza’s coast to bring in more aid, reflecting the acute political pressure from many in his own party over his support for Israel’s war on Hamas.

“We’re not waiting on the Israelis. This is a moment for American leadership,” a senior US administration official told reporters ahead of the speech, set for 9:00 pm (0100 GMT Friday) and expected to last around an hour.

The address at the US Capitol is Biden’s best chance before November to trumpet the achievements of his first term and make the case for four more years.

However 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.

Republican former president Trump, 77, who is seeking a historic White House comeback, continually mocks Biden’s health and mental acuity, despite his own repeated verbal slips.

Trailing Trump in recent polls, Biden said 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.

The White House also released a light-hearted video showing Biden talking to Hollywood stars who have previously played US presidents, including Geena Davis, Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman.

– ‘You’re fired’ –

Trump vowed to conduct a “rapid response” to Biden during the speech.

“It’s time to tell Crooked Joe Biden — you’re fired,” Trump said in a video “prebuttal”, making a well-worn reference to the catchphrase of his former TV reality show “The Apprentice”.

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.

The speech comes two days after 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 is set to paint the election as an existential clash, warning that US democracy and its global standing would be at risk from a second Trump term.

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 still commands a base of largely working-class, white voters.

Last year Biden successfully parried heckling by Trump allies during his speech, but observers will be on the lookout for signs of frailty this time around.

“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.


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