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State of the Union: What to watch as Biden addresses the nation

WASHINGTON — The State of the Union address is one of the biggest pieces of political theater every year. It is rooted in a simple requirement in the U.S. Constitution that directs the president to “give to the Congress information of the state of the Union, and to recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall deem necessary and expedient.” But in modern times, it’s a televised extravaganza with every detail carefully scrutinized.

Here’s how to watch and what to look for during Thursday’s speech by President Joe Biden.

You can find the State of the Union on all major networks, which will air it live. The broadcast will also be streamed online by the White House and The Associated Press. The speech begins at 9:00 PM ET.

You might see a new face behind Biden as he begins his speech. Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana became speaker of the House of Representatives in October after unhappy Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. Representative Nancy Pelosi held the job before McCarthy, but lost it when Democrats failed to retain the majority in the 2022 midterm elections.

That makes Johnson the third House speaker to sit behind Biden during a State of the Union address, reflecting political instability in Washington and a challenging shift for Biden. The leadership of the House of Representatives has fallen further under the sway of the House’s right flank, making it more difficult for the president to strike deals with the opposing party.

No president gets a free pass on the world’s biggest stage, but Biden will be watched more carefully than most because of his age. At 81, he is the oldest commander-in-chief in history, and would be 86 at the end of a possible second term.

Donald Trump, Biden’s Republican predecessor and likely opponent in this year’s elections, is 77 years old. A majority of American adults doubt whether any of them have the mental capacity to serve as president, according to a new survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The State of the Union address is a chance for Biden to dispel doubts about whether he is ready for the job at an age when most Americans have retired. Any verbal slip-up or apparent confusion would provide fodder for his opponents.

Keep your ears open for any new policy proposals. The State of the Union is an opportunity for presidents to lay out their goals and rally Americans to support their plans. For example, Biden used an earlier speech to discuss his “unity agenda,” which included expanded health care benefits for veterans.

The White House has not announced specific proposals that will appear in this year’s speech. But he could point to unfinished business from his first term, and he is likely to push for military aid to Ukraine to strengthen U.S. leadership abroad.

More than just lawmakers and top officials are in the House for the speech. Politicians bring guests to the gallery to put a face to the issue they want to highlight.

The most high-profile guests are invited by the White House, and are often recognized during the president’s speech. So far, the White House has announced only one: Kate Cox, a Texas woman who couldn’t get an abortion in her home state even though her health was in danger and her fetus had a fatal condition. Democrats are eager to demonstrate how the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade limits reproductive rights.

Lawmakers will also have their own guests. Johnson and two New York representatives are bringing police officers whose fight with migrants in Times Square caused a political uproar among Republicans who blamed Biden for loose border security. Representative Elise Stefanik, another New York Republican, invited a Border Patrol officer who also serves as a union official.

During the State of the Union, television cameras rotate around the room, so you can clearly see everyone in the audience. This is an opportunity for lawmakers and guests to send their own message with their clothing.

Democratic women wore white, the color of the women’s suffrage movement, during Trump’s State of the Union address in 2019. In 2022, some lawmakers wore blue and yellow ribbons to show their support for Ukraine. (The country’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, was also a guest.)

You might think that everything about the State of the Union is scripted, but that’s not the case. Even in a tightly controlled environment, it is still possible for someone to fake an interruption. Biden has been overshadowed by protests across the country over his support for Israel’s war in Gaza. There are always opportunities for demonstrations elsewhere on Capitol Hill or also in Washington.

Moreover, Republicans have developed a reputation for interruptions. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado heckled Biden during his 2022 State of the Union address. In 2023, some Republicans shouted at Biden when he accused them of trying to cut Social Security and Medicare. “I enjoy a conversation,” Biden said as he urged Congress to unite behind protecting safety net programs.

Protests can also occur in other forms. Pelosi theatrically tore up a copy of Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address.

If you’re not tired of politics when the State of the Union is over, stay tuned for more. The opposing party traditionally stages its own response to the speech. This year, Republicans chose Senator Katie Britt of Alabama. At 41, she is the youngest female senator and some party leaders hope she can become a rising star.

But whatever she says, everyone will wait to see if Trump has a response of his own. As Trump heads toward his party’s presidential nomination, his comments could help determine the stakes of the election.