From SOTU To Stump: Biden Heads To Wisconsin and Florida : The NPR Politics Podcast President Biden is in Wisconsin Wednesday, touting the same broadly popular priorities he emphasized during Tuesday's State of the Union address. The president is positioning himself to run for reelection as a political pragmatist focused on the business of governing, as Republicans double-down on the culture wars.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, White House correspondent Scott Detrow, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

This episode was produced by Elena Moore and Casey Morell. It was edited by Eric McDaniel. Our executive producer is Muthoni Muturi. Research and fact-checking by Devin Speak.

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From SOTU To Stump: Biden Heads To Wisconsin and Florida

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KATE: Hi. This is Kate (ph) in Arvada, Colo., and I just finished a run that brings my cumulative total to 2,620 miles, the equivalent of 100 marathons. This podcast was recorded at...


12:13 p.m. on Wednesday, the 8 of February.

KATE: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. OK. Here's the show.


DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: That's amazing. I wonder over what time period that was because that's a significant amount. That's, like, seven miles a day if it was a year.

KEITH: It's a lot of miles.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: It was over a two-week timespan, I believe.

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

KEITH: Oh, really?


KEITH: No (laughter). Oh, God. I'm so punchy from, like, not enough sleep that I did not get your bad math joke.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: President Biden is traveling to Wisconsin today, Florida tomorrow. It is traditional for a president to hit the road after delivering his State of the Union address to drive home his message. But this comes as Biden and his team have made it very clear that he is laying the groundwork for a reelection campaign. And I think it's fair to say that last night's speech gave us a pretty good preview of the pitch that he will make to voters and also how he plans to deal with Republicans in Congress, which is what we are going to talk about on today's podcast.

Scott, is it safe to say that President Biden found his foil last night?

DETROW: Yes. And she was dressed - I'm not sure whether it's more accurate to say - like someone from a Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond movie. I'm referring to Marjorie Taylor Greene and her white parka. But she is just one example of many House Republicans who aggressively heckled Biden throughout the speech last night and allowed him to paint a picture of himself as somebody who is reaching out across the aisle but, at the same time, willing to draw very firm contrast.

And I think we're going to talk a lot about his exchange with her and others when it came to Social Security and Medicare. That was a contrast that President Biden really seemed to love getting into. He seemed to enjoy himself going back-and-forth with them. He continued to draw out that moment of basically arguing with them in real time and doing it with a smile. But I think it was all the more effective because he had spent the first half hour of - so of the speech saying over and over again, I worked with Republicans on the infrastructure law. I worked with Republicans on burn pits. In fact, I signed 300 laws that had Republicans voting for them. I am here, ready to work, on the middle of the aisle. And if you're yelling at me and cursing at me - folks, what can I do about it except for, I guess, run for reelection as a moderate centrist?

KEITH: The White House, today, is - seems very happy with how it all turned out and quite pleased to be able to draw that contrast. Domenico, you know, as Scott said, the president focused on a lot of issues that have a huge amount of bipartisan support, things like making health care more affordable, bringing down the price of insulin, increasing access to education. He even went after so-called junk fees. I mean, there was this line about resort fees, and it was just, like, hilarious, but also utterly relatable.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to ban surprise resort fees that hotels charging on your bill. Those fees can cost you up to $90 a night at hotels that aren't even resorts.

DETROW: Is that the best use of the Biden whisper yet?


MONTANARO: Probably. We all get hit with those kinds of fees, and it's totally relatable. It's a kind of thing that he wants to throw out there to say, I'm a commonsense guy. Definitely a lot of middle-of-the-road sort of poll-tested issue is set here, and that was obviously by design because he's up for reelection next year. And the other thing, I think, that we can't overlook is anytime you make a speech, the first thing someone will say about public speaking is know your audience, right? And the audience - I'm not talking about the audience that's in Congress, but the audience at home. And the people who usually tune into State of the Union addresses are people who are inclined to vote for that president or who, you know, don't necessarily hate that person and maybe might think about voting for them. So we're talking about Democrats and some center-left independents here.

And Biden has really struggled with a level of intensity with Democrats who, you know, have been telling pollsters that they'd rather have someone else run in 2024, mostly because of Biden's age, although they don't have, really, an alternative that people have coalesced around. And I think that this speech last night - given how Biden was able to spar with Republicans, show some facility in a really off-the-cuff way - was able to, I think, reassure and make a lot more Democrats more comfortable with the idea of him being a standard-bearer again in 2024.

KEITH: So, Scott, is this the contrast that we're going to be covering for the next two years as the presidential campaign kicks into gear?

DETROW: I mean, I think that's a fair guess, assuming - assuming - the president runs for reelection, which I think we can almost 100% say he is given the way that he has carried himself lately and given the themes of this speech, which, before we get to back to the main point, is worth pointing out it wasn't always a given. He's 80 years old, and he had dropped a lot of hints early on, running for president, that that might not be something he's going to do. But it's clear he is willing to make that contrast. And I think that's a reason why Biden and his team feel so confident about that prospect even though he's 10 points under water in polls, even though two-thirds of the country thinks the country is going in the wrong direction, which are pretty bad things to have going on if you're thinking about running for a second term, but they feel like there is a real contrast here.

And Biden is playing to the middle. He is playing to moderates. Importantly, he is playing to the type of voter that over the last 20 years or so has really pulled itself away from the Democratic Party. But Biden was able to win just enough of them back three years ago and is going to try to do so again, that if the Republican Party is being pulled in a Trumpist (ph) direction, they feel like they can make a pitch. And I think Sarah Huckabee Sanders' speech last night was an indication that there's going to be a lot of Trumpism in the Republican Party, whether or not he's the nominee.

MONTANARO: You know, and it is really notable that I think Biden is laying out a vision for his, quote-unquote, "average Joe America" is what it sort of sounded like to me. And, you know, he had this one quote that could have been said by another president.


BIDEN: My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten.

MONTANARO: Gee, sounds an awful lot like Trump, right? And that is the kind of thing that we're going to see. Those are the voters I think Scott's talking about there in the middle who Trump was able to win over in 2016. Biden was able to win back some of those in 2020. And we are so locked in in our partisanship that that's the really small slice of persuadables (ph) and certainly showing that the Biden White House and potential Biden campaign doesn't subscribe to this theory of growing magical voters who are far more progressive, who will come out of the woodwork and vote for him if he gives them something bold to believe in.

KEITH: Well, and as Biden offered his assessment of the message of the midterms as part of this State of the Union address, it definitely seemed like he was making an appeal to team normal.


BIDEN: You all are as informed as I am, but I think the people sent us a clear message - fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere. That's always been my vision of our country, and I know it's many of yours.

KEITH: And he wants that to be true.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I think, look, clearly normalcy is what Biden ran on to an extent in 2020, and it's what he's going to argue for for 2024. And common sense is always a thing that presidents like to say that they're the ones who are the commonsense candidate. And we're going to see that fight take place in 2024, especially since if Trump is the standard bearer, he's been somebody who has appealed to the more extreme portions of his base and may have cost Republicans during the 2022 midterms.

KEITH: All right. We're going to take a quick break. And when we get back, the relationship between President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

And we're back. And right near the top of his speech, President Biden spoke directly to the man standing behind him - that is, the new speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.


BIDEN: Speaker, I don't want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you.


KEITH: Now, Scott, that is a total Bidenism (ph). But one way or another, Kevin McCarthy and President Biden are going to have to work together to raise the debt ceiling and fund the federal government. And as you've reported recently, they have worked together before.

DETROW: Well, the interesting thing is they worked together a little bit when Biden was vice president and McCarthy was in House leadership, but they really didn't work together at all the last two years. And early on, in the days after it was clear that Republicans were going to regain the House, both of them were pretty muted and chilly when asked about their relationship with the other person. McCarthy said, haven't really seen him the last couple years. Biden said something to the same effect - I haven't talked to him too much. And I thought that was really notable given that both of them are political lifers, back slappers. I think we were all noting that Biden spent, like, an hour in the chamber after the speech was done just saying hi to people. McCarthy is very much the same way. They both like to be able to cut deals, sometimes to the frustration of their own party. So the fact that both of them were saying they didn't really have any relationship at all was pretty - I don't know if startling - but it was pretty notable. Since then, they've talked together more. McCarthy and Biden met in the Oval Office for more than an hour last week. And you saw at least at first, before all the stuff we had - we talked about Biden and House Republicans, a little bit more warmness with each other. And that's not to say they need to be best friends, but they need to have a working relationship with each other - and both of them get to governing deals through those relationships.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And McCarthy has sort of said here that he wants his party to appear to be the party of normal - speaking of normal that we talked about earlier. The problem is, you know, when Joe Biden has made deals with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, they both trusted that each other knew what they could do with the other's base. You know, he - Biden would trust that McConnell could deliver votes and knew whether he could or not. And, you know, McConnell trusted Biden that he could rally Democrats or not. That's just not the case with McCarthy. And it was very clear last night that he can't keep his conference in line - at least elements of his conference in line - because he had admonished them beforehand to, you know, be respectful and not shout and not call out. And he visibly had to shush them last night. And it's exactly the scene that the White House wanted to play out. And they took the bait, and the White House is totally pleased with that.

KEITH: Scott, when they worked together in the past, President Biden was vice president, but he was the guy charged with making the deals. McCarthy was part of a larger Republican majority in the House. Now, it's so narrow. The circumstances just seem to be very different.

DETROW: Yeah. And I think - I don't really think that there is a specific deal or big piece of legislation that McCarthy and Biden hashed out together, which is a big contrast to Mitch McConnell, who - three different times when Biden was vice president and McConnell was, you know, in his current position of leading Senate Republicans - hashed out major agreements at deadlines, including, pretty relevantly, a 2011 agreement to avert a financial calamity in the U.S. defaulting on its debt. Biden and McConnell trust each other. They can work together even if they disagree on a lot. And I think a little more sincerely, Biden was trotting out that, I don't want to ruin your reputation, line when he and Mitch McConnell were holding a political event together celebrating the infrastructure law at the very moment that Kevin McCarthy was failing over and over again to get the votes he needed to become speaker of the House.

KEITH: And yet, Kevin McCarthy holds the keys.

MONTANARO: No. It's true. And they're going to have to figure out how to work together in particular on the debt ceiling, which is the biggest issue that, you know, Biden really tried to make an appeal on and tried to, you know, guilt them into, you know, with saying that, you know, they had raised it three times during the Trump administration. And he was able to kind of take what might be the kind of talking point that he uses against former President Trump - seemed like he wanted to sort of try that out last night in talking about the debt and raising the debt ceiling.

DETROW: To me, the big question is less whether Biden and McCarthy can get to a deal at some point and more so any deal that Joe Biden and Kevin McCarthy are agreeing on, is that the kind of deal that McCarthy will be able to get through the House...


DETROW: ...And still keep his speakership, given the way he won it and given the incredible amount of power he has given to the extreme right of his caucus, who's made it clear they're not too into big bipartisan deals like that?

KEITH: Whoo (ph). Well, that drama will be coming, but that's all for this podcast for today. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I also cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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