The Philadelphia Inquirer: Philly is center stage for President Joe Biden’s high-stakes State of the Union address

Hours after leaving the podium, Biden will travel to the Philadelphia suburbs, a key region for his reelection prospects.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden during their visit at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell in January.
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden during their visit at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell in January.
Jose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

President Joe Biden’s speech will be in Washington but there will be signs of Philadelphia all around.

When Biden delivers his State of the Union address Thursday night, Mayor Cherelle L. Parker will be in attendance. And Philadelphia City Councilmember Nicholas O’Rourke will give a progressive rebuttal for the Working Families Party.

And hours after leaving the podium, Biden will travel Friday to the Philadelphia suburbs, a key region for his reelection prospects.

Parker is attending the annual address as the guest of U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.).

She has quickly developed a national profile since becoming the city’s 100th mayor and its first female leader. Parker is poised to be a key surrogate for Biden and other Pennsylvania Democrats in this election. The mayor joined Biden at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service event during her first weeks in office and touted funding for broadband alongside Biden officials at an event last week.

When Biden’s address concludes, O’Rourke’s response is expected to praise Biden on some economic policy, but is likely to criticize the president over his support for Israel in its ongoing war in Gaza. The conflict in the Middle East has become a vulnerability for Biden in his reelection bid, as many in the president’s party have threatened to sit out the election if the war continues on its current trajectory.

The parents of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who live in Fishtown, will also attend. Gershkovich has been detained in Russia since last March. His parents, Ella Milman and Mikhail Gershkovich, will be the guests of House Speaker Mike Johnson (R., La.).

Biden will hold a campaign rally Friday at Strath Haven Middle School in Delaware County. The stop marks the president’s fourth trip to the state just this year.

A high-stakes address

Thursday’s speech will be one of the biggest of Biden’s presidency and Democrats in Pennsylvania are bracing for how he uses the stage to kick off another chapter in his reelection campaign.

While he’ll be addressing a joint session of Congress, the real audience will be voters in swing states like Pennsylvania who are tuning into a race that is now coming into focus with former President Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee following Super Tuesday.

“With Trump locking down the nomination and Biden making his State of the Union, the campaign begins,” Philadelphia-based public affairs consultant Larry Ceisler said.

“I think what Biden needs to do is No. 1 he has to make it very clear, he is going to be the Democratic nominee for president and the convention fantasies and the replacement theories are just hogwash. It’s not something he says but it’s about demeanor.”

Biden, who is 81 and faces ongoing concerns about his age, will be under a spotlight for how he handles the hourlong address. “He has to give a very strong and clear performance, get your lines right, have a strong voice, and if you’re gonna go off script, go off script with something good,” Ceisler said.

Trump, who is known to counter-program, posted on Truth Social that his campaign would do a live “play by play of Crooked Joe Biden’s State of the Union.” Sen. Katie Britt (R., Ala.) will deliver the Republican Party’s official rebuttal.

Biden was praised last year for how he dealt with outbursts from Republicans during his State of the Union address and with a similarly divided body, he could face unexpected interjections again. He’s expected to draw a contrast with what he’s delivered for Americans with freedoms Republicans aim to take away.

“Both candidates are old,” Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro said in a recent interview about a Biden-Trump matchup in Pennsylvania. “Only one of them is an agent of chaos and extremist who really wants to do harm to this commonwealth and this country and that’s Donald Trump.”

Biden is expected to lay out how his policies have helped people, from job growth, to pandemic recovery and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.

“I want to hear him flex his muscles on what his administration has done,” said Kimberly S. Adams, a Pennsylvania-based political consultant and board member of the National Organization for Women.

She specifically noted the five-year infrastructure package Biden signed into law in 2021.“Anywhere you go in Pennsylvania right now you see scaffolding, construction, it’s impacting people’s lives so I want him to talk about all these victories,” Adams said.

With immigration becoming a larger issue, he’s also expected to tackle the border in front of an audience that includes Republicans who tanked a recent border security and immigration reform deal.

“This is an opportunity to cut through the noise, lay out his record and lay blame for the lack of progress where that blame belongs,” State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia) said.

It’s also an opportunity to reach Republicans who may not be enamored with Trump but find themselves without an alternative after former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley suspended her campaign on Wednesday.

“We need someone to make the case for them. Joe Biden has to do that,” Adams said. “He has to say, this is our democracy and we need to maintain it, together.”