On Feb. 7, the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives was flooded with members of Congress eager to hear President Joe Biden’s annual State of the Union (SOTU) address. That same night, the basement of Georgetown’s Healy Hall was packed with Hoyas who were just as excited.
And while Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics) was unable to offer an all-access pass to the actual address, they were able to offer what they considered to be the second-best option: a live watch party, off-the-record chats with politicos and, of course, free pizza.
To kick off the evening, students filled the GU Politics “living room” for a pre-address discussion with Michael Ricci, a Spring 2023 Fellow and former communications director for Speaker Paul Ryan, and Pili Tobar, former White House deputy communications director.
IN THE SPEAKER’S OFFICE
Ricci spent more than a decade working in the House of Representatives and knows firsthand what goes into preparing for the State of the Union, having served under a Republican speaker of the House in both the Obama and Trump Administrations.
While the pressure is on to prepare for one of the biggest nights in politics — no matter what party controls the White House — Ricci says “it’s a pretty cool experience,” likening it to the final sprint of a campaign or debate prep.
And despite the intense lead-up to the address and long night for staffers, Ricci noted it is a rare opportunity for Congress to meld together, gathered in the House Chamber to hear the president’s reflection on the state of the nation.
“If you go back and look at the State of the Union, it does tell, in a sense, where the country is at the moment,” says Ricci.
He recalled addresses from previous presidents, such as former President George H.W. Bush, who, in 1991, addressed a New World Order and what was to come in a post-Cold War nation, and President Bill Clinton, who proclaimed the “era of big government is over” at his 1996 address.
ON THE HOUSE FLOOR
Ricci isn’t the only Spring 2023 Fellow to have been on the ground during the address. Former U.S. Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat who represented Virginia’s second congressional district, sat on the floor for three addresses — two from former President Trump and one from President Biden.
As a former Naval commander and vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Luria prioritized veterans and defense issues during her time in Congress — from seeking to repeal tax hikes for families of servicemembers who died in the line of duty to supporting burn pit legislation.
During her freshman year, Luria aimed to make her priorities even more clear by bringing Kristen Fenty, a Gold Star Wife from Virginia Beach who lost her husband in Afghanistan, as her special guest at former President Trump’s 2020 address. She says it was really special to connect with Fenty and bring awareness to problems facing the military community, and that it also ignited the local press to take interest in what she was doing for service members, veterans and their families in her district.
However, despite the good that can come from the SOTU, Luria and Ricci agreed the bigger picture can sometimes get lost in trivial moments.
“I found myself being one of the few Democrats to stand up during one of Trump’s State of the Union addresses and that got mentioned in the press,” says Luria, who added that when the president makes a remark that is considered a win in their agenda, it is common practice for members of their party to stand up and applaud in approval. The opposing party largely sits during the opposing party’s address.
LIVE ON AIR
MJ Lee (C’09), a White House senior correspondent for CNN and Spring 2023 Fellow, knows what it’s like to cover the president’s annual address live on television.
This year was Lee’s first time covering the State of the Union as a White House correspondent. However, she says it’s similar to covering any event related to the White House — you always have to be prepared.
Ahead of the address, the White House hosts a press call, previewing the event so reporters have an idea of what is to come later that evening. “But if you’ve spent any time covering the Biden Administration, then you’ll know what to look for,” says Lee.
If you watched CNN the morning after the address, then you likely saw Lee outside the White House providing an analysis of Biden’s address.
And while there inevitably are the dramatic or memorable moments, Lee says the main point is for the address to be a reflection on the last year.
“It’s like a check in of where the country is at any given moment,” she says.
BACK ON THE HILLTOP
Back in the basement of Healy Hall, Georgetown students across the political spectrum were energized by the evening.
Joseph Massaua (SFS’25), an active member of GU Politics, says Biden underscored a strong economy and push for American investment.
“Ultimately, Biden’s State of the Union address showed a commitment to investing in American people through jobs and targeted community programs,” says Massaua. “As he seemed to predict his campaign for reelection, he says ‘finish the job!’”
Andrea Smith (C’25), a member of Lee’s Student Strategy Team, enjoyed the opportunity to watch the SOTU with GU Politics and says the conversations she had that evening provided nuance to her understanding of the address.
I thought that President Biden did particularly well in achieving his goals of addressing independents and middle America which will be a critical group in the 2024 presidential race,” she says.
This article was written by Lacy Nelson (MPS ’24), a graduate journalism student at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies.