Playbook: Inside Biden’s high-road SOTU


With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross

DeSANTIS DOWNLOAD — Two new stories offer further evidence that Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS is moving deliberately toward a run for the Republican presidential nomination. Puck’s Peter Hamby reports that two well-regarded GOP consultants, PHIL COX and LIESL HICKEY, have been staffing up for what appears to be a DeSantis-blessed super PAC. And Gary Fineout reports from Tallahassee on how GOP lawmakers there are helping the gov tie up some loose ends, “taking steps to undercut or nix legal challenges against some of DeSantis’ signature programs [and] helping him resolve a year-long feud with Disney.”

CHANGE OF ADDRESS — In his prior trips to the House rostrum, President JOE BIDEN was flanked by symbols of unified Democratic power in Washington: VP KAMALA HARRIS over his right shoulder and then-Speaker NANCY PELOSI over his left.

When Biden arrives tonight for his State of the Union address, things will look different. A newly minted Republican speaker, KEVIN McCARTHY, will look down on Biden in a visual reminder of how power has shifted in Washington — and how Biden’s presidency will have to shift along with it.

Yes, tonight’s address comes just weeks before Biden expected to announce his reelection campaign. Softening inflation, persistent growth and record-low unemployment have given him a strong economic record to sell even as he suddenly finds himself battling Republicans on a new front over his willingness to confront China.

But we’re told not to expect a red-meat, campaign-style speech. Instead, expect a traditional presidential call for unity — and a subtler pitch for steady leadership over partisan chaos as Washington heads into a high-stakes standoff over the debt limit and long-term fiscal planning.

The message was honed over the weekend at Camp David, where Biden refined and practiced the address with senior adviser ANITA DUNN, counselor STEVE RICCHETTI, deputy chief of staff BRUCEREED and chief speechwriter VINAYREDDY.

There will, of course, be a lengthy victory lap touting the administration’s various accomplishments, according to White House officials who previewed the address — with an emphasis, however, on items that took bipartisan support, such as the $1 trillion infrastructure law.

Biden told aides to take out the acronyms and craft a speech that “explains in very plain terms to Americans watching at home exactly what we have gotten done,” according to one person familiar with the prep.

In addition to the encouraging economic indicators, Biden will also tout progress against the Covid-19 pandemic, the West’s success in helping Ukraine beat back the Russian invasion and steps the administration has taken to counter and compete with China. He’ll also make clear that a lot more needs to be done on issues from the economy to criminal justice reform to gun control.

Related read:“Biden’s 2022 State of the Union report card: Where he delivered — and fell flat,” by Myah Ward

What you won’t hear, not directly anyway, are the kinds of attacks on GOP extremism that Democrats used so effectively in last year’s midterms — casting the party of ABRAHAM LINCOLN as having transformed into the party of MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE.

Don’t expect any commentary on “MAGA Republicans” or namechecking of any particular members of the GOP’s rightmost fringe, the person familiar said. That follows an admonition from McCarthy, who told reporters Monday, including our Olivia Beavers, that any such attacks would not be “appropriate.”

“I’ve expressed that to him in private and we’ve had discussions about that,” said McCarthy, who met with Biden last week. We’ll see if the atmosphere of mutual respect lasts through the night.

One encouraging sign:Sarah Ferris and Olivia report that House GOP plans for a sharp-edged, pre-speech messaging vote criticizing Biden for his handling of the Chinese balloon incursion last week have now been scrapped. Instead, lawmakers are exploring a bipartisan vote later this week, aimed at China, not at Biden.

THE SPIN MACHINE — Both parties are already working to shape how the media covers and how America interprets what Biden is going to say tonight at 9 p.m..

— Outgoing National Economic Council director BRIAN DEESE gave a preview of Biden’s economic message yesterday, and today, we’re told, there will be a litany of White House calls to allies and press, along with fact sheets outlining key themes of the speech. Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER will give his own spin at a presser later this morning.

— McCarthy delivered a televised pre-buttal yesterday evening from the Capitol — one heavy on calls for Biden to “get to work” on a deal to address the debt ceiling and federal spending but light on details of what Republicans would put on the table for budget cuts.

— House Republican Conference Chair ELISE STEFANIK organized more than 300 interviews yesterday with House Republicans focusing on local media outlets, Playbook has exclusively learned. Today, the blitz continues with 100 GOP members RSVP’d to blanket national outlets.

— And let’s not forget tonight’s Republican rebuttal starring Arkansas Gov. SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS. A must-read David Siders piece this morning outlines how Sanders’ rise from White House press secretary to potential presidential running mate is proof that DONALD TRUMP’s imprint on the GOP still endures:

“Sanders, daughter of former Arkansas Gov. MIKE HUCKABEE, benefited from a lineage recognizable to conservatives in her home state. And selecting her to respond to Biden on Tuesday may help Republicans to reconnect with suburban women, who fled the GOP in the Trump era,” Siders writes, noting also that freshman Rep. JUAN CISCOMANI (R-Ariz.) has been tapped to deliver a Spanish-language response.

DATE NIGHT — How can a lawmaker highlight a topic, issue or policy without having to say a word? Invite a very special guest to the Capitol for the State of the Union.

The White House just announced first lady JILL BIDEN’s guest list. Here are who top congressional leaders are inviting:

  • McCarthy: Former NBA player ENES FREEDOM, who has been sharply critical of the Turkish and Chinese regimes. “Here’s a man who stood up for freedom, lost his right to continue to play basketball, but he continues to fight,” McCarthy told reporters Monday.
  • Schumer: SAVION POLLARD, the first person hired by Micron Technology at a massive new upstate New York factory bolstered by the CHIPS and Science Act.

More related SOTU reads: “What to Watch: New political vibes this State of the Union,” AP … “Biden to push for universal insulin price cap in State of the Union,” POLITICO … “Biden to Urge Quadrupling New 1% Tax on Stock Buybacks,” WSJ

Good Tuesday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. So how long is Biden going to go tonight? Bovada has the over/under at 63 minutes. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.



HOW IT HAPPENED — “U.S. Air Defenses Failed to Spot Earlier Chinese Balloon Intrusions, General Says,” by WSJ’s Vivian Salama, Doug Cameron and Gordon Lubold: “The military command in charge of U.S. air defenses failed to detect suspected Chinese surveillance balloons before the recent intrusion and learned about them later from intelligence agencies, the general overseeing the command said Monday, acknowledging a gap in defenses.”

THE PAST IS PRESENT — “U.S. intel assessment documents Chinese spy balloon incident under Trump,” by CNN’s Zachary Cohen: “The April 2022 report, titled ‘People’s Republic of China High-Altitude Balloon,’ found a Chinese spy balloon ‘circumnavigated the globe’ in 2019 – while Donald Trump was president – at an altitude of roughly 65,000 feet, and ‘drifted past Hawaii and across Florida before continuing its journey,’ the U.S. Air Force document states.

“The Air Force intelligence report is the first indication that the US military was aware of Chinese spy balloons well before the latest incident. However, it is not clear from the documents when U.S. officials first became aware of the Chinese flights or what they assessed regarding their purpose.”

BEIJING BREAKDOWN — “China’s Balloon Dispute Aims Attention at Xi’s Leadership,” by NYT’s David Pierson: “The balloon incident follows other apparent miscalculations, including the haphazard unwinding of his, at times, suffocating ‘zero Covid’ measures following widespread protests, and [Chinese President XI JINPING] agreeing to a ‘no limits’ partnership with Russia only weeks before the invasion of Ukraine.”

JUST POSTED — “China says will ‘safeguard interests’ over balloon shootdown,” per the AP


SETTING THE FIELD — “Education Issues Vault to Top of the G.O.P.’s Presidential Race,” by NYT’s Trip Gabriel: “While some Republicans believe that the issue can win over independents, especially suburban women, the 2022 midterms showed that attacks on school curriculums — specifically on critical race theory and so-called gender ideology — largely were a dud in the general election.”

TRUMP’S SLIPPING GRIP — “Club for Growth Distances Itself Further From Trump,” by NYT’s Michael Bender: “The Club … has invited a half-dozen potential Republican presidential candidates to its annual donor retreat next month — but not Donald J. Trump. In a meeting with reporters on Monday, DAVID McINTOSH, president of the group, said that Republican chances of winning back the White House next year would be diminished if Mr. Trump were once again at the top of the ticket and that he hoped to introduce Republican donors to other possibilities.”

Who got the invite: “Mr. McIntosh said that DeSantis had been invited to his group’s donor retreat, along with the other five non-Trump potential candidates in his group’s poll: former Gov. NIKKI HALEY of South Carolina, former Vice President MIKE PENCE, former Secretary of State MIKE POMPEO, Senator TIM SCOTT of South Carolina and Gov. GLENN YOUNGKIN of Virginia.”

SINEMATOGRAPHY — “Sinema’s split from Democrats shows party discord in Arizona,” by AP’s Jonathan Cooper in Phoenix: “Democrats are already voicing fears that a three-way race with [Sen. KYRSTEN] SINEMA picking up votes from both Democrats and independents could hand the seat to a Republican such as KARI LAKE, the failed gubernatorial candidate and one of the country’s most prominent election deniers.”

FOR YOUR RADAR — “Zeldin dumps campaign treasurer he shared with Santos,” by Zachary Schermele and Anna Gronewold


HOW FAR WILL SHE GO? — “Klobuchar rising: Leadership path opens for Minnesota Dem,” by Burgess Everett: Sen. AMYKLOBUCHAR (D-Minn.) chairs the Senate Rules Committee and holds the No. 4 Democratic leadership post. And, with No. 3 leader DEBBIE STABENOW (D-Mich.) retiring, she “could keep testing how big her internal clout can get within the Democratic caucus. Or she could once again test the national stage as a relatively centrist problem-solver in a progressive-heavy field in four years, and vie to succeed Biden as the party’s national standard-bearer.”

THE TALENTED MR. SANTOS — The House Ethics Committee has “begun questioning staffers for Rep. GEORGE SANTOS, per a senior GOP source,” CNN’s Mel Zanona reports, “a sign that the committee is looking into some of the allegations against Santos, though it doesn’t necessarily mean a formal investigation has been launched yet.”

ONE IN THE CHAMBER — “McCarthy, Scalise go to war with U.S. Chamber after group backed some Democrats in 2020 and 2022 elections,” by CNBC’s Brian Schwartz: “Republican House lawmakers are drafting questions to send to the Chamber in the coming weeks, asking about its stance on ESG issues as well as questioning some of the group’s own conduct, including reportedly allowing former Chamber CEO THOMAS DONOHUE to use the organization’s corporate jet for personal trips, according to lawmakers and advisors aiming to probe the organization.”

CAMERA OBSCURA — “C-SPAN’s Access Is Once Again Limited In Kevin McCarthy’s House. Will That Change?” by Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein


ABORTION FALLOUT — “Federal judge says constitutional right to abortion may still exist, despite Dobbs,” by Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein: “A federal judge in Washington, D.C., suggested Monday that there may be a constitutional right to abortion baked into the 13th Amendment — an area she said went unexplored by the Supreme Court in its momentous decision last year overturning Roe v. Wade.”

IMMIGRATION IMPACT — “What the end of the public health emergency means for Title 42,” by Myah Ward


EARTHQUAKE AFTERMATH — “Quake deaths pass 5,000 as Turkey, Syria seek survivors,” AP … “Earthquake brings new devastation to war-ravaged Syria,” by NBC’s Raf Sanchez and Aina Khan … “Why the Turkey earthquake was so deadly, according to science,” by WaPo’s Carolyn Johnson

SEVENTEEN DAYS AWAY — “Russian forces keep up pressure as Ukraine anniversary nears,” by AP’s Susie Blann

Related Read: “Zelensky could make his second known trip abroad since Russia’s invasion last year,” per NYT

INTERESTING ANGLE — “Hollywood’s China Predicament: New Law Restricts U.S. Cooperation On Projects Modified To Appease Beijing,” by Deadline’s Ted Johnson: “While the number of U.S. releases in China has been falling in recent years, and the actual number of movies that seek Department of Defense cooperation is small, there are studio concerns that the [NDAA] provision will only lead to a further reduction of exports.”


IMMIGRATION FILES — “Immigration Rebound Eases Shortage of Workers, Up to a Point,” by NYT’s Lydia DePillis: “Despite the resurgence … there are bottlenecks. Legal immigration remains below pre-Trump levels. Hundreds of thousands of people await interviews with U.S. consular officials to obtain immigrant visas. Millions of asylum cases are pending, and getting work authorization for those already here can take years.”

POCKETBOOK UPDATE — “Households Burn Through What’s Left of Their Pandemic Savings,” by WSJ’s Joe Pinsker

POLICING IN AMERICA — “Amid Criticism, Elite Crime Teams Dwindled. Then Cities Brought Them Back,” by NYT’s Tim Arango and Ellen Gabler


NEW KID ON THE BLOCK — “Ex-People Magazine Boss Set to Run New ‘WaPo-Daily Mail Hybrid,’” by the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Cartwright and Justin Baragona: “DAN WAKEFORD, the former editor-in-chief of People magazine, will sit atop the masthead of the digital outlet, which was originally named The New Statement but will instead be called The Messenger — a change confirmed by a new trademark application.”

MUSK READS — “Musk Pledged to Cleanse Twitter of Child Abuse Content. It’s Been Rough Going,” by NYT’s Michael Keller and Kate Conger

PENSKE’S PLAY — “Vox Media Is Raising $100 Million From Penske Media,” by NYT’s Benjamin Mullin and Katherine Rosman

BY HOOK OR BY CROOK — “Crooked Media Staff Unionize With Writers Guild East,” by The Hollywood Reporter’s J. Clara Chan

TVs in some of the House common areas have been switched from CNN to Fox News.

Mike Pence canceled an event in South Carolina after his daughter went into labor.

The late Harry Whittingtonwouldn’t tell a reporter if Dick Cheney had ever apologized for shooting him.

George H.W. Bush sent out a bulletin on his dog’s weight loss program 30 years ago.

Dan Snyder’s Potomac mansion is listed on Zillow for $49 million.

OUT AND ABOUT — SPOTTED at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s 2023 Mid-Atlantic Regional Summit yesterday at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Del.: Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Jake Sullivan, Rob Portman, Kenyan President William Ruto, Delaware Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, Judd Devermont, Atul Gawande, Teresa Christopher, Donna Patterson, Kris Vaddi, Matt Meyer, Kasie Hunt and Liz Schrayer.

The Beer Institute and the National Barley Growers Association hosted their annual Barley, Brews & Boots reception for congressional staff at Hawk ‘n’ Dove yesterday evening. SPOTTED: Reps. Max Miller (R-Ohio), Richard McCormick (R-Ga.) and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), Del. James Moylan (R-Guam), North Dakota state Sen. Greg Kessel, Tom Hance, David Morgenstern, Will Kinzel, Nell Reilly, Richard Crawford, Kevin Kincheloe, Katie Marisic, Natalie Yezbick, Stacey Daniels,Kaily Grabemann, Brian Crawford, Susan Haney, Alex Davidson,Annie Starke Lange, Bill Young and Jeff Guittard.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — “The Circus: Inside The Greatest Political Show On Earth,” a political docu-series on Showtime gave us an exclusive look at the newest trailer for the show’s upcoming season. Hosts John Heilemann, Mark McKinnon, and Jennifer Palmieri lift the lid on an “extraordinarily fractured and volatile moment for American democracy.”’ Watch the exclusive trailer

TRANSITIONS — Jason Fishkin and Declan Hahn have started a new Democratic fundraising firm, FH Strategies. Fishkin was most recently gubernatorial finance director for Tom Suozzi and Hahn is a former DCCC adviser and finance director on multiple congressional campaigns. … Sydney Levin-Epstein is now director of development at Arena. She previously was a candidate for state Senate in Western Massachusetts in the 2022 election cycle, and is a Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff alum. … Tim Baker is joining the Ervin Graves Strategy Group as director of operations. He is a founding partner of Ascendant Political and is a Rick Allen, Max Burns and Tom Graves alum. …

… Michael Joyce, Sophia Sirianni, Max Docksey and Alexis Valdez Darnell are joining the Republican State Leadership Committee. Joyce will be comms director and previously was deputy director of regional comms at the RNC. Sirianni will be digital director and previously was deputy digital fundraising director at the NRCC. Docksey will be political director and previously was a regional political director at the RNC. Valdez Darnell will be a senior adviser for recruitment and training and previously was a managing director at FP1 Strategies.

ENGAGED — Aaron Germany, a CPA, proposed to Ashley Killough, a senior producer with CNN, on Thursday. He took her on her favorite hike to see the Delicate Arch in Arches National Park and he proposed underneath the arch. The couple hiked for a few more days in the area, then came home to celebrate with their families and their dog, Jolene. The couple met in the fall of 2020. PicAnother pic

Jahan Wilcox, a GOP communications operative who runs JRW Strategies, and Morgan Pearson, ADP’s human resources manager for Indiana, got engaged in the Bahamas. The couple met while Jahan was in Indianapolis working on Sen. Todd Young’s re-election campaign. Pic

Alexandra Robinson, a speechwriter at DOL, and Max Marcilla, a reporter for DC News Now, got engaged on Saturday. The couple met in journalism school at the University of Maryland. PicAnother pic

WEDDING — Preston Hill, a senior policy adviser to Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Emma Rindels, federal policy manager at Lyft got married on Jan. 21 at Flora Farms in San José del Cabo, Mexico. The couple met while working together. Pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) … Gay Talese (91) … Dave Levinthal … former Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) … State’s Monica Medina … POLITICO’s Patricia Iscaro … PBS’ Laura Barrón-López Beth Frerking … IMF’s Jeff Kearns … former Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.), Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) … John Criscuolo of Squire Patton Boggs … Emily HampstenPatrick Ferrise … Judge James Gilbert of the U.S. Postal Service … Carleton Bryant … Community Change’s Jasmine NazarettJessica KershawMiguel L’Heureux Christine Grimaldi Jeff Marschner … Invariant’s Mary Beth Stanton Rebecca Holdenried Justin Papp

Send Playbookers tips to [email protected] or text us at 202-556-3307. Playbook couldn’t happen without our editor Mike DeBonis, deputy editor Zack Stanton and producers Setota Hailemariam and Bethany Irvine.

Correction: An earlier version of this newsletter mistakenly named a previous year’s invitee as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s State of the Union guest on Tuesday.


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