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A preview of the State of the Union address

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Tonight, President Biden delivers his first State of the Union address in just over 10 minutes. Many NPR stations will have live special coverage. And for the next few minutes, we're going to discuss some of the major themes that are likely to come up tonight. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has threatened the world order. Domestically, inflation keeps straining Americans' pocketbooks, and the pandemic feels like it is at a turning point.

To talk about what we're expecting to hear tonight, we have a few of NPR's finest - NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid, national security correspondent Greg Myre, national political correspondent Mara Liasson and congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Good to have you all here.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Thank you for having us.

SHAPIRO: Sue, let me start with you because you are in the House chamber where the president will speak in just a few minutes. What are you seeing?

DAVIS: Well, you know, the president tonight is expected to talk about the path forward in the pandemic. There's already been some changes up here on Capitol Hill. They rolled back the mask mandate just one day before the speech, so lawmakers, for the most part, are no longer wearing masks in the chamber.

SHAPIRO: Although it sounds like you have one on, if I'm not mistaken.

DAVIS: I am personally still wearing an N95 mask in the chamber, as all parents who have children under 5 right now, as the pandemic is still very much part of our lives. But here in the chamber, the pandemic is also still very present. It is - no lawmakers were allowed to invite guests. They are still socially distanced. It's a far less robust crowd and room than we're used to seeing at a State of the Union address.

So I think, visually, it's going to be a reminder to the nation that the pandemic is still very much a part of at least Washington decision-making. And I think there's a lot of eagerness among the country to hear what the president has to say on that front.

SHAPIRO: Asma, I understand you have learned more about what the president intends to say on the Ukraine front. What are we going to hear tonight?

KHALID: That's right. Well, he's going to talk about the strength of global alliances, the importance of NATO, American diplomacy on the scene. And really, you know, Ari, he sees this moment as a battle between autocracies and democracies. It's been a key way, I would say - a key point of vision for how he thinks about foreign policy.

In terms of specifics, just a bit ago, a source familiar with the speech and the president's plans told me that the president is set to announce that the U.S. will ban Russian aircraft from U.S. airspace. This move follows a similar measure that was taken by the European Union and Canada recently. And so we can expect to hear that.

We'll likely also hear him talk about sanctions. And, you know, I am very curious to hear how the president tries to address some of the concerns that Americans here have about possible economic fallout from the sanctions here at home. And, you know, you mentioned inflation. That has been an ongoing concern - I would say the top concern for many American voters.

SHAPIRO: Greg, what is the state of the Russian invasion right now? It's been a heavy day of bombing in Ukraine.

MYRE: That's right, Ari. The heavy fighting continues, but it also seems we may be approaching a new phase. The Russians hit the TV tower in the capital, Kyiv. They hit a big government building in Kharkiv, another city that's under attack. So it seems like we might be entering this phase of a sort of battle for the cities, and the biggest prize of all, of course, is the capital Kyiv.

And the president, Zelenskyy, is in the capital. He gave interviews today, you know, in an underground bunker. He spoke with President Biden, so we might expect President Biden to say a few words about the conversation he had with the Ukrainian president today.

And the one thing we're watching very, very closely is this huge Russian military convoy. It stretches for 40 miles. It's about 15 miles or so north of the capital. It's sort of been almost like a parking lot. It's sort of been in neutral for the past couple days. The Pentagon was saying today that the Russians appear a little short on food and fuel, and it may also be partly an intentional pause as they plan their next move.

SHAPIRO: Yeah - almost perhaps stalled out. I want to bring in NPR's Mara Liasson here because there are always high domestic stakes for any State of the Union address. It feels like tonight, there is more on the line geopolitically.

LIASSON: Yeah, there's more on the line geopolitically. I think Ukraine is something that, maybe a couple weeks ago, the White House didn't think it was going to be front and center in a State of the Union address, but it is. And the president is going to try to convince Americans that they should understand why defending Ukraine, helping Ukraine defend itself, is important to America's national security interests, why stability in Europe is important to America's national security interests.

And I also think he's going to go out of his way to tell them that he's going to do everything he can to soften any blowback from the sanctions, which are mostly supported by the public. But if they result in higher gas prices at the pump, he's going to have some specific plans for how to mitigate those price rises.

SHAPIRO: Now there's always a bit of stagecraft in these speeches. Sue, can you tell us something about what the White House has planned tonight? Special guests, for example?

DAVIS: Well, the special guest is - again, it's different this year. The only people bringing in special guests is the tradition of the first lady's box. Most importantly, the Ukrainian ambassador is here this evening, and there's a huge show of support within the room for Ukraine itself. Many lawmakers across party lines are wearing yellow and blue, the color of the Ukrainian flag. There was a bipartisan photo-op outside the U.S. Capitol today of lawmakers to show support for Ukraine.

So it's clear that that is - certainly in this room, for this audience, they want to hear from the president on his next steps about foreign policy and the situation in Ukraine. There's certainly support in this room for more money and even support for tougher sanctions and more aggressive action on behalf of the United States.

SHAPIRO: All right. We've talked a little bit about Ukraine, about inflation. We have not talked about the Supreme Court vacancy and the nominee that the president has put forward to fill that vacancy. Asma, what do we expect to hear on that tonight?

KHALID: You know, this is Ketanji Brown Jackson, who he mentioned, I would say, recently, as the nominee. You know, I am very curious to hear - this is something that the president promised. It was a campaign pledge of his.

And one of the things, actually, that we've seen in some of our own recent NPR polling is that voters feel very dissatisfied with Biden's administration to date. They don't feel that he has fulfilled campaign promises, campaign pledges, but this is something the president can point to and say that he said he would do, and he has committed to doing it.

SHAPIRO: Almost as if on cue, we see the Supreme Court justices walking in, including three justices who were nominated - who were confirmed, nominated by President Trump. And the question is whether President Biden will have an opportunity to nominate and confirm any more than one.

Mara, let's come back to the big picture here. What does President Biden need to do tonight when his approval rating is low and the midterms are later this year?

LIASSON: Yeah, this is a really tough job for presidents. They have often used the State of the Union address to reset their presidency when they're in trouble. But one speech, historically, doesn't turn around the president's approval ratings, but he can kind of lay out the roadmap or the message for his party going into the midterms.

This is something that Democrats complain about bitterly, that there's no message coming from the White House, that people don't know what the Democrats have passed. People don't know that they got $1,400 checks from the COVID relief bill, which not a single Republican voted for.

The polling is really, really brutal. It's not just the low 40s, high 30s approval rating for the president, but it's that half of the voters in a recent USA Today poll believe that the United States is in a recession, even though GDP grew by 5.7% last year. Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans believe the economy is creating any jobs, even though we've had record job growth. So it's been really hard for the White House to convince people that the economy is good, mostly because inflation, the No. 1 indicator that is really bad right now, affects people more than any other.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Mara Liasson, Greg Myre, Asma Khalid and Susan Davis. We have much more to come. Many NPR stations will carry live coverage of the State of the Union in just a few minutes. Thanks for listening, and thank you all for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.