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Vulnerable Democrats want Biden's State of the Union to focus on border and economy

Freshman Rep Gabriel Vasquez, D-NM, represents one of the most competitive House districts in the country, and wants the president to address the economy, the border and the situation in the mideast in his State of the Union address.
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Freshman Rep Gabriel Vasquez, D-NM, represents one of the most competitive House districts in the country, and wants the president to address the economy, the border and the situation in the mideast in his State of the Union address.

The political fate of many Democrats on Capitol Hill - especially those in competitive races this fall - could be tied to President Biden's this November.

That's why they want him to use his State of the Union address, when millions will be tuning in, to showcase the economic progress he's made in his first term, and explain how he'll build on it with our more years in the White House.

Rep. Dina Titus told NPR she wants the President to point to specific things he got done.

"Don't talk about infrastructure. Talk about the street in my district," she said. Titus represents a purple Nevada seat and wants the president to remind people that the economy is doing better because of his policies. "Las Vegas is the fastest recovering place in the country and we were the hardest hit. So we need to remind people we're working now . You've got health care. Things are moving - we're getting the speed train to southern California."

Last year Biden energized Democrats by getting into a back and forth with Republicans about protecting Social Security. Pennsylvania Democrat Matt Cartwright represents Scranton, Pennsylvania - where Biden grew up —and hopes he'll go off script again.

"He needs to get his Irish up the way he did last year," Cartwright told NPR. He pushed back at the president's handlers who want to keep him on message and said they shouldn't be worried about any gaffes. "The gaffes are already baked into his numbers, and they have been for decades."

Border and the economy are key issues for purple district Democrats

Cartwright says the economy is improving, and that's proof Biden's policies are working. He thinks that's the reason why voters tell him the border is now their top concern.

"They're starting to realize the economy isn't as bad as it used to be, so there's a there's a new villain to talk about." He expects the president to talk about his recent trip to the southwest border.

Freshman Gabe Vasquez represents a district in southern New Mexico, and is frustrated that House Republicans blocked a bipartisan Senate bill to address the U-S Mexico border. He has some bipartisan proposals of his own, and said, "the president needs to take a stronger and a much stronger leadership role in this conversation nationally."

Sen. Gary Peters, who runs the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, says he expects the president to talk about his role shaping the Senate border deal. "I think the president has to be very clear. We're on the side of to finding a solution. And Republicans have only been throwing rocks and have no interest in actually coming up with a solution," Peters said.

While many Democrats that NPR talked to say the border is certainly a leading issue, they are especially focused on the need for Biden to lay out how he's turned around the economy, but is also focused on following through on more policies that will hit people's pocketbooks.

Vasquez wants Biden to speak to those voters who aren't feeling any benefits from a growing economy yet. "The number one issue I hear about is that their paychecks aren't big enough, that they're one medical emergency away from bankruptcy, and that with the cost of groceries, utilities and everything else going up, they're looking for some relief."

Sen. Jon Tester, the most endangered Senate incumbent running for reelection in deep red Montana, is also urging more action going forward on the economy.

"I think I want to hear about reducing costs, what the administration has in mind. I mean, we did the Inflation Reduction Act, but there's more we can do," Tester told NPR.

He said gas prices are down, but other items are not. "I'm a farmer. Farm equipment is really expensive right now. You know, if he brought up some ideas on what he's going to do in housing, child care and and worker training, that'd be good."

Some swing state Democrats want more details on Mideast policy

Vasquez told NPR he was proud to be the first swing district Democrat to call for a cease fire in the war in Mideast, and says about Biden, "and I think the president should also find it in his heart. The right thing to do is to make sure that no more civilian bloodshed is incurred at the expense of American taxpayer dollars."

Titus, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, says she expects foreign policy to be a key part of the speech, and wants to hear strong support for Ukraine. She notes the president and his administration are pushing for a cease-fire and putting more pressure on Israeli officials to address major humanitarian issues. But she concedes it's hard to put a hard date on a cease-fire when "you're not the main two at the negotiating table" in the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Contrast with Trump and concerns about age

Senator Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., served in the House and ran the Democrat's campaign committee during the 2008 presidential campaign. He says the State of the Union address should hit on the president's accomplishment, but also set up the contrast with his likely opponent, former President Trump. "Talk to the country about the progress that we have made, but also progress still to be made and the dangers of turning back the clock to a poisonous, divisive, chaotic administration of the former president."

Democrats say voter concerns about Biden being too old for another term are out there, but Titus says it's about the experience not the age. She counsels the president to "joke it off," and says about the age issue, "just acknowledge it and move on, no point in trying to hide it. Everybody knows his birthday."

Rep. Tom Suozzi, who just won a special election in New York, says Biden can't change his age, but Thursday's speech is "very, very important" for him at this juncture following Super Tuesday and the beginning of the campaign against Trump. "I think that people are looking to see, oh, look, how is this guy going to do in his performance? And I believe he's going to exceed expectations."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is a congressional correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk.