At State of the Union, Biden gets chance to tell Black America how he’s had their backs

President Joe Biden will deliver what will likely be the most important and watched speech of his political career on Thursday evening as he gives his third and final State of the Union address of his first presidential term. 

In the backdrop of his televised primetime remarks, Biden, 81, is seeking reelection as he stares down a likely competitive rematch against former President Donald Trump, 77, in November. 

Black voters, who played an outsized role in the Biden-Harris administration’s historic 2020 victory, will undoubtedly be watching and listening to hear from the president about how he has had their backs, as he promised he would when delivering his victory speech nearly four years ago after thanking them for their support. 

As polls and anecdotal reporting suggest, some Black voters are disillusioned with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and feel their administration hasn’t sufficiently delivered on the promises made in 2020. To combat that, Biden, Harris, and cabinet officials have zigzagged across the country to share what they see as the “good news” of what has been done to improve the economic and social conditions for Black communities. The White House hopes the president’s address will also penetrate the American public, particularly Black Americans.

“It’s a beautiful story. We’re talking about an economy that’s created almost 15 million new jobs,” said Stephen Benjamin, a White House senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement.

“We’ve seen significant investments in HBCUs,” noted Benjamin, who said there will be new announcements “coming out” on the already record $7 billion invested in historically Black colleges and universities.

While listing a number of the president’s achievements, the White House official continued, “We’ve seen record African-American business startups … the lowest African-American unemployment ever recorded in history.” He said Biden has made “strategic” investments in housing, businesses, and financial institutions that are servicing Black and brown communities. 

White House senior adviser Stephen Benjamin (right) said the Biden administration’s achievements tell “a beautiful story.” Above, he takes part in an August 2023 news briefing with press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

While White House officials have been reluctant to preview precisely what Biden will say in his State of the Union address, they have made clear that he will tell the story of what he has achieved for Black Americans and all of America. 

“This is why the State of the Union is going to be so critical,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre when asked about the SOTU being an opportunity for Biden to tell Black Americans what he’s done for them since taking office. She told theGrio, “He did make a promise, and he has done everything he can to keep that promise.”

Some of Biden’s promises to Black voters were halted due to a divided Congress or court rulings, most notably the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the president’s broad-based student loan debt relief program, which would have eliminated $430 billion for millions of Americans. Jean-Pierre said that despite those setbacks, Biden took action with his limited executive powers as president. He unilaterally canceled more than $130 billion in federal student loan debt. Currently, his administration is formulating a new plan to provide widespread student debt relief for borrowers who have faced financial hardship.

“When you think about voting rights, the first couple of days of this administration, he put forward an executive action to do everything that he could on the federal level …  to deal with that issue,” Jean-Pierre said. “He took executive action when Congress could not move on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”

The president’s address happens to fall on the 59th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, also known as Bloody Sunday. Protesters, including civil rights icons like John R. Lewis, were nearly beaten to death by police officers while marching for the right to vote.

While it is not confirmed, the president is expected to acknowledge the significance of the date and what he has done to protect voting rights despite Congress’ failure to pass federal protections after key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were clawed back by the Supreme Court.

“There has not been a Democratic president to deliver for the Black community like this president has since Lyndon Johnson,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a confidant of the president whose endorsement notably saved Biden’s 2020 campaign. He told theGrio, “People can misrepresent all they want to, but the facts are very clear.”

Clyburn, 83, expressed incredible frustration with the media, accusing the press of not reporting about the Biden-Harris administration’s key achievements like improving access to benefits for Black veterans, expanding health care through former President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, and reducing the cost of drugs for Medicare recipients. 

(Left to right) Rep. Jim Clyburn said President Joe Biden has delivered for Black Americans. Above, the two attend a January campaign event in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

“The media are being very unfair to Joe Biden … and nobody wants to admit it,” he said.

Clyburn told theGrio that if he were writing the president’s speech, he would address actions taken by Republican governors and local school boards to censor Black history and ban books about race. 

“I would go directly after what they’re doing in Florida. I would go directly at Moms For Liberty and what they’re doing in South Carolina and Georgia,” he explained. 

Benjamin, meanwhile, when asked about the mood of the White House as Biden and his staff work on tonight’s address, told theGrio, “The energy is high.” He explained, “There’s a whole bunch of ideation, looking at different ways to innovate how you share the message,” Benjamin added. “It’s been enjoyable because it gives you a chance — not in 120 characters or 30 seconds or less — to really be able to tell a story on a day in which most people are watching or paying attention.”

As director of the Office of Public Engagement, Benjamin has facilitated hundreds of meetings at the White House, including with civil rights organizations and Black leaders about various policy issues. The former mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, said Biden’s speech and the coming days and months will be about articulating a “very clear vision of what finishing the job means as it relates to our collective future.”

He added, “As we approach the summer and certainly as the fall kicks off, post-Labor Day, we’re going to have an opportunity to aggressively tell the story.”

Standing at the White House press briefing podium on Wednesday, Jean-Pierre said when it comes to the contrast between what some Black Americans feel Biden has done or not done, it’s “complicated” in terms of “what the American people have gone through the last few years,” given the challenges of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There was an economy that was in a tailspin,” she recalled. “Some Americans are trying to still figure out where we are, and what’s going on and what this administration has done.” 

“It’s gonna take some time for everyone to see … what this president has been able to do,” Jean-Pierre added. “The State of the Union is a perfect opportunity … to lay that out.”

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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President Joe Biden is preparing to deliver his third and final State of the Union address, which is expected to be a key moment in his reelection campaign. Black voters, who were crucial to his victory in 2020, are looking for reassurance that he has delivered on his promises to support their community. The White House is highlighting achievements such as job creation, investments in HBCUs, and record-low African-American unemployment to appeal to Black Americans. Despite facing setbacks in Congress and the courts, Biden has taken executive actions to address issues like student debt relief and voting rights. The speech coincides with the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march, highlighting the ongoing battle for voting rights. White House officials are emphasizing the importance of Biden’s message to Black Americans and the broader American public. Rep. Jim Clyburn praised Biden’s efforts for Black communities, criticizing the media for not covering his achievements. The administration is working to communicate its vision for the future and gain support from all Americans.

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