President Joe Biden won standing ovation upon standing ovation Tuesday in a rousing State of the Union speech seeking to transform bipartisan support for confronting Russia into momentum for broader unity as the United States finally emerges from the Covid pandemic.
The entire first section of Biden’s one hour speech to the joint session of Congress was devoted to the bloody Russian invasion of pro-Western Ukraine.
As Biden branded President Vladimir Putin “a Russian dictator,” pledged to help Ukraine’s fighters, and vowed to confiscate Russian oligarchs’ “ill-begotten” yachts, members of both parties stood to applaud — a sight so rare in today’s Congress that it is all but forgotten.
After working for weeks to unite Western allies behind unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia and torrents of military aid to non-NATO Ukraine, Biden painted the picture of what he said was revived global US leadership.
“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment,” he said. With many in Congress wearing yellow and blue in tribute to the Ukrainian flag, this was the easy part of the speech for Biden.
But the 79-year-old, who faces rock bottom approval ratings and bitter opposition from Republicans still in thrall to Donald Trump, also hoped to try and ride the positive wave into trickier domestic territory.
- Acknowledging inflation pain –
One year into his presidency, the Democrat faces an increasingly disappointed and often outright angry electorate, largely due to the highest inflation in four decades.
Things are set to get even harder for his administration with polls pointing to Republican victory in November’s midterm congressional elections. This time next year, the chances are high that a Republican majority will face him when he takes the podium for the State of the Union.
“It feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time to the late 70s and early 80s, when runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing our cities, and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map,” said Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in the official rebuttal from the Republicans.
But after months of trying to persuade Americans that inflation is on the verge of receding, Biden this time reached out, stressing that he understands voters’ pain.
“Too many families are struggling to keep up with their bills,” Biden said. “That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control,” he said.
To do this, Biden relaunched his idea for a “make it in America” policy that he said would resolve global supply chain issues driving up prices, while restoring US manufacturing power. This is the kind of centrist thinking that Biden emphasized during his successful battle to defeat populist rightwinger Trump in the 2020 election.
He was back at it in another section of the speech where he shot down leftists of his own party, saying that the solution to police violence is “not to defund the police.”
“It’s to fund the police,” Biden said in a message clearly aimed at middle-of-the-road voters alarmed at soaring violent crime rates across American cities.
Then, in a nod to the left’s criticism of racism and abuse among the ranks, Biden said the secret was better training and tactics to “restore trust.”
- Winning against Covid –
Although embattled as he enters his second year in the White House, Biden did come to the State of the Union with two strong cards.
Last Friday he nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first African American woman in history to sit on the Supreme Court. And amid plummeting infection rates, Biden was able to use his speech to try and pivot the country to a more optimistic, post-pandemic future.
Just days after the Centers for Disease Control finally eased mask recommendations for most Americans, Biden said the long nightmare was just about over.
“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, Covid-19 need no longer control our lives,” he said to a chamber that was not only packed but all but entirely unmasked. The United States will “never just accept living with Covid,” Biden said.
As he left the chamber, the veteran former senator embraced that post-Covid reality with one of his favorite activities — extended and energetic handshaking and chatting with massed politicians.