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Week in politics: Biden's partisan State of the Union address, RNC's Trump takeover

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And that announcement about the temporary pier in Gaza was just one part of President Biden's 68-minute-long State of the Union address Thursday. Speaking politically, which is not hard to do in an election year, the speech was an opportunity to confront questions about his age.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I know it may not look like it, but I've been around a while.

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: When you get to be my age, certain things become clearer than ever.

SIMON: And to make things clearer yet, NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: What did you make of the president's performance?

ELVING: There was general consensus that Biden tackled the age issue head on and handled it as well as possible, better than many had expected. There were shaky moments, but generally, he had the energy and focus he needed and more passion than most people would have predicted. The coverage featured lots of words like fiery and feisty. He broke with tradition with his frequent references to Trump - not by name, of course, but as my predecessor - and not once, not twice but more than a dozen times. Some are saying that was less than presidential and that this was not a traditional State of the Union. But, Scott, what counts as traditional or presidential has changed a great deal in recent years and not because of Joe Biden.

SIMON: Third-party group No Labels announced it's going to put forward its own presidential candidate. They don't know who yet. How could that change the campaign ahead?

ELVING: It's not clear, but it has a lot of Democrats worried. It also has a lot of people confused. On Friday, the group held a virtual conference with a reported 800 delegates around the country. But there's no public listing of the delegates. The group has raised tens of millions of dollars, but it does not disclose its donors.

At this point, group leaders acknowledge they don't have a candidate. They say they're talking to prospects they won't identify. Nikki Haley and Senator Joe Manchin have disavowed interest. The group says it has ballot access in 16 states so far. That's nowhere near enough to earn the Electoral College votes a nominee would need to actually be elected. But for now, the group says it will continue its efforts and tell us more this coming week. Democrats' concern is that No Labels could tilt the election outcome by taking more votes from Biden than from Trump in key states. And Trump's grip on his party and his voters - that's looking pretty tight right now.

SIMON: Well, he managed to get two key supporters into leadership positions at the Republican National Committee, including his daughter-in-law. What's the strategy there?

ELVING: The previous leadership had been quite responsive to Trump, but they displeased him by having those candidate debates last year and by not raising as much money as the Democrats did over the winter. And now Trump has his handpicked chairman in Michael Whatley of North Carolina, a man who echoes Trump's claims about election fraud in 2020. And Trump has also installed his own daughter-in-law, as you say, Lara Trump, as co-chair. So one big question now is, what happens to the money that the RNC has raised? One assumes it would be available for Trump's campaign, but would it also be available to him in his criminal and civil court cases? We shall see.

SIMON: Past week, voters in San Francisco voted to make drug treatment mandatory for adult welfare recipients if they use illicit substances. Governor Hochul of New York sent the National Guard into the New York City subways following a string of violent crimes. Washington, D.C., city council passed a crime omnibus bill. Now, these are Democratic strongholds that seemed to be reversing course from just a few years ago, when the watchwords were no cash bail and even defund the police. What do you think is happening?

ELVING: Defund the police was a slogan for some progressive activists a few years ago, and while it faded pretty quickly, it's been a gift that kept on giving to Republicans, who have pinned it on Democrats ever since. Some of the policies and laws you refer to were adopted in the wake of police killings, principally George Floyd in 2020 but others, as well. That was a moment when concern about police violence and historically high rates of incarceration were front and center for progressives. The pendulum has been swinging back ever since. The data say violent crime has been reduced in the U.S. over the past few years. But the truth is, people don't respond to crime statistics the way they respond to specific crimes and horror stories.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.

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