Deliver a punch, Joe: Don’t let Putin upstage your State of the Union speech

When I agreed to write this column, I assumed the State of the Union would be delivered to a Congress so divided and choked with partisanship that we couldn’t get 65 percent of either the House or Senate to agree that Christmas falls on Dec. 25. My advice to Joe Biden would have been, “Let ’er rip, Joe. Talk about the things you achieved — the passing of the American Rescue Plan, and record-shattering investment in our infrastructure passed by Congress, along with rapid, competent stewardship that helped to vaccinate a significant portion of the country in a relatively short time.”  

But, alas, enter stage right: that outrageous champion of oppressed people, Vladimir Putin. Less than a week ago, the Russian president claimed that Ukrainian troops were attacking Russian-born citizens living in Ukraine and that he was sending “peacekeepers” in to protect them. This lame excuse fell on deaf ears because the Biden administration did a good job predicting the steps that Putin would take. In the days that followed, Putin ratcheted up the rhetoric and threats, and then Russia’s bombings and drone attacks hit Ukraine. Russian tanks and ground soldiers stormed into the country, with a focus on the capital of Kyiv.   

This changed everything. From a political standpoint, the change was both good and bad for the Biden administration — good because the administration handled the run-up to the invasion well. Biden pulled NATO together and got member nations to condemn Putin’s actions. Every time our country has gone to war, Americans have rallied around the flag and our president’s leadership. I think the boost will be even more significant this time because some Republicans made a serious error by praising Putin’s strength and intelligence and criticizing Biden. Who led this effort? Former President Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). Biden should acknowledge that most Republicans did the right thing in condemning Russia, but he shouldn’t be reluctant to call out those who made inappropriate, unpatriotic remarks.   

The Russian invasion must be a centerpiece of Biden’s speech. That’s not bad for the president, because at least one-third of Americans agree with the administration’s approach, and many Americans are rallying in support for Ukraine. But it has a downside as well. It will suck a lot of air out of the room and seriously reduce the time the president has to lay out, once and for all, the things that were accomplished with the American Rescue Plan Act; to explain the key components of the infrastructure bill; and to reaffirm programs that could be accomplished by Build Back Better, if Congress were to pass Biden’s proposal. 

For some reason, the administration did a poor job in putting its brand on the infrastructure legislation — an overwhelmingly popular bill that wasn’t really linked to the Biden administration. Republicans who voted against its passage have shown up at groundbreakings or news conferences announcing infrastructure funding. It reminded me of the Obama stimulus package, signed in February 2009, which allocated nearly $800 billion, including a $357 billion tax cut that gave a break to every American couple making less than $200,000 a year. As you will recall, when President Trump pushed through a tax cut, he insisted that letters detailing the tax relief went out under his signature with the checks. President Obama decided the tax cut would come out of the bi-monthly Social Security tax withholding. Virtually no one realized that Obama was responsible for a tax cut. In fact, some Republicans said the overall stimulus plan should have included money for tax cuts.

I was president of the National Governors Association at the time and I begged the new president and vice president to have former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner send each family a letter telling them that they got a $1,000 tax cut because of Obama’s stimulus plan, and asking them to spend the money on something their family really needed, because that would help jumpstart the economy. The administration didn’t follow my advice and did so little to link the president to the tax cut that by the time Election Day rolled around in 2012, few voters knew the tax cut was Obama’s idea. 

Without Putin’s interference half a world away, Biden would have had more than enough time to explain that the programs funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act came from his administration, and that they will bring about positive change for transportation, climate protection and economic competitiveness. 

Even better, he would have had ample time to outline what was in the Build Back Better Act and why it is so important to America’s families that Congress vote it into law. The president should make it clear that the child tax credit; the extended earned income tax credit; Medicare improvements giving seniors the ability to afford prescription drugs; universal child care and pre-K access; money to increase the supply of affordable housing; incentives to utilities to use renewable energy; incentives to stimulate purchases of electric vehicles; a minimum 15 percent corporate tax rate; and a higher tax rate on those earning over $10 million annually were all part of Build Back Better. The president should remind Americans who voted against these proposals.

Sure, Biden will have time to discuss his domestic agenda, but not as much time as is needed to explain all the components that would bring economic advantages to American families. And the next day, every newspaper, TV, radio station and blog reporting on the president’s speech will talk about the war in Ukraine and our plan to deal with the invasion. Most will not mention the good things that Biden has accomplished and the need for his proposals to become law. But every Democrat can make it their business to let their constituents know about programs that have passed and how important Build Back Better would be to improving life for every American family.   

So, use your time wisely, Joe. Don’t be afraid to get in some good shots. Striving for bipartisanship is a good thing to do, but it should be clear by now that virtually everything is contentious in Washington these days and every challenge facing the country will produce a political battle. Only one person gets to deliver a State of the Union address that millions of Americans will watch. It’s a great time to show them the Joe Biden who wants to bring us together to face our challenges as one nation, but be sure to also show us that you are still that tough, Irish kid who grew up poor in a typical, mid-sized American city. To succeed in Scranton, Pa., you have to know how to take a punch — and how to deliver a good one as well. 

Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.

Tags 2022 State of the Union American Rescue Plan Act Barack Obama Donald Trump Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Joe Biden Josh Hawley Mike Pompeo Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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