Five takeaways from Biden’s State of the Union address
President Biden traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol Tuesday evening to deliver his first State of the Union address.
The speech came at a precarious moment. The international crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is shifting by the minute. At home, Biden’s political standing has taken a beating.
The positive poll ratings the president enjoyed in his first months in office are a distant memory, sapped by historically high inflation, the prolongation of the COVID-19 pandemic and the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The State of the Union, which draws an audience in the tens of millions, offered Biden an opportunity to try to pull some discontented voters back onto his side — all while giving due gravity to the situation in Eastern Europe.
Here are the main takeaways.
Biden claims Western unity as a victory over Putin
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was always going to loom over everything else on Tuesday.
Biden, trying to find a point of traction in a volatile situation, hammered home that Western unity against Russian President Vladimir Putin can be viewed as a victory in itself.
Raising the specter of what happens “when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression,” Biden emphasized the importance of NATO, and of multilateral action in general.
“It matters. American diplomacy matters,” Biden insisted.
He went on to call Putin’s invasion “premeditated and unprovoked.”
“He thought NATO and the West wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us here at home,” Biden said. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.”
Maintaining Western unity has been Biden’s big success through the crisis so far. It is an achievement that White House aides talk about frequently, and Biden may also be right that it has come as an unpleasant surprise to Putin.
How much the specific issue of building international alliances resonates with American voters is an open question, however.
Biden’s words did, however, draw a clear if implicit contrast with his predecessor.
Former President Trump was no fan of NATO or of diplomacy in any normal sense — and his peculiar attitude toward Putin has come under the spotlight once again in recent days, as he has twice praised the Russian president.
Biden didn’t just offer words against Putin. He announced that American airspace would be closed to Russian flights, “further isolating Russia and adding an additional squeeze on their economy.”
All in all, the passages of his address dealing with the Ukraine crisis were among the most effective of the whole speech.
“I get it” on inflation
“I get it” were the words Biden used to address one of the most pressing challenges he faces: inflation.
The president sought to make sure that voters struggling with surging prices did not believe he was leaving them to their fate.
“My top priority is getting prices under control,” he said.
Biden argued that making more goods in American would help slay the inflation dragon
“Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America,” he said, as some lawmakers erupted into chants of “USA! USA!”
In reality, it’s hard to see how a switch to greater American manufacturing could happen fast enough to tame the current bout of inflation.
But Biden also sought to link the issue to other elements of his agenda such as lowering prescription drug prices or cutting the cost of child care.
He also drew on his own experience as a “single dad,” following the death of his first wife and infant daughter in a car crash, to talk about the burden that many parents bear when it comes to child care. Those remarks were not in the pre-released version of his speech.
None of what Biden said is a panacea for the highest inflation rates in four decades.
But he did at least display his vaunted capacity for empathy on a topic that many Americans feel with a visceral force.
Biden heralds a new COVID-19 dawn, cautiously
The nation is exhausted after almost two years of COVID-19–related lockdowns. The pandemic has become politicized since its earliest days.
“Stop looking at COVID as a partisan dividing line,” Biden beseeched lawmakers. “See it for what it is — a god-awful disease.”
There is no taking politics out of the equation now, for good or for bad, however.
Biden has come under pressure recently as some Democratic-led states have moved to ease restrictions.
In Tuesday’s address, he reminded Americans that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had recently shifted its guidelines so that “most Americans in most of the country can now be mask free.”
The reminder was necessary. The CDC’s shift was a sizable piece of good news for Biden that had got drowned out by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden has had missteps on COVID-19 before. In July, he talked about the nation being on the verge of independence from the pandemic — only for that prediction to come to seem premature.
The president will be hoping that, this time, he’s got it right.
A return to normalcy from COVID-19 still has the capacity to transform the mood of the nation — and transform Biden’s fortunes along with it.
An attempt to defang GOP attacks
There are just eight months left before midterm elections in which Democrats face the very real possibility of losing control of both the House and the Senate.
In addition to Biden’s low approval ratings, Democrats are worried about the power of GOP attacks against them.
Earlier this month, a leaked memo from House Democrats’ campaign arm warned that Republican assaults tying Biden’s party to concepts like “wokenes,” a porous border and the “defund the police” movement were “alarmingly potent.”
Biden worked hard to neutralize those attacks, especially in the later parts of his speech, on Tuesday.
He could hardly have been more direct on one of the most controversial topics of all.
When it came to the knot of problems around violent crime, policing and justice, he said, “The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them with resources and training — resources and training they need to protect their communities.”
He also laid out measures he was taking to secure the border, including setting up joint patrols with Mexico and Guatemala.
More broadly, he sought to push back on the idea that he had somehow surrendered to the left — a notion that is met with bemusement by progressives themselves but which is popular in conservative media.
He noted that he signed 80 bipartisan bills last year. He laid out a “unity agenda” comprising topics where there is some plausible hope of bipartisan action, such as the opioid epidemic and improved provisions for mental health.
Just as revealing were the topics he did not mention, such as student loan relief, and subjects that received only brief attention — the most surprising being a perfunctory mention of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.
In all, it was a speech intended to reintroduce the idea of Biden as a moderate centrist.
As such, it might have some appeal to independent voters, even as it will irk progressives.
High emotions, deep divisions
State of the Union addresses tend to be as memorable for the atmosphere that surrounds them as for what is said.
That was true Tuesday.
Many, predominantly female, lawmakers dressed in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow, rendering the House chamber an emotive sight. The Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, was introduced by Biden to tumultuous applause.
But America’s own divisions were on stark display too. Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) heckled Biden, seemingly trying to get a chant — reportedly of the Trump slogan “Build the Wall!” — started.
Even more fractiously, Boebert drew gasps when she heckled Biden as he talked about the deaths of American troops. It seems likely that Boebert knew the president was right on the cusp of talking about the loss of his own son, Beau Biden, to brain cancer, when she shouted that Biden had been responsible for the death of “13 of them.”
The reference was, presumably, to the deaths of American troops during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But the manner in which the point was made was notably sour and uncivil — proving once again that American politics is in a depressingly polarized state.