Biden’s speech was delivered against the backdrop of a pandemic that has ignored borders and touched every corner of the globe for the past two years. It was not the one that the president and his team had planned to give. But with the situation in Ukraine, topics that were once front and center – Covid, inflation and economic recovery – have moved into the background, another reflection of a presidency that has been forced to react to events rather than shape them.
Biden has implicitly argued for the need for alliances, reflecting his belief that the united approach of NATO and European allies – who have sent arms and supplies to Ukraine and triggered rounds of punitive sanctions against Russia – made the Ukrainian resistance possible. He condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and reaffirmed the role of the United States as a moral leader.
“Putin can surround Kiev with tanks, but he will never win the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people,” he said. “He will never quench their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.
Biden has long made central to his presidency the need to present to the world a powerful symbol of an America willing to forcefully follow his ideals. But rarely has his argument been tested so critically on such a massive stage. At times on Tuesday, the president appeared to try to trick the public into believing the campaign he was running would work.
“But I want you to know that everything will be fine,” he said at one point. “We will get out of this.”
The speech was Biden’s biggest step of the past year, a chance to vouch for what his administration has accomplished to a wide audience. It was also a chance to try to overturn his own lackluster polls and reassure jittery Democrats about their party’s midterm chances in 2022.
After spending the last few months on the defensive, Biden tried a new tactic on Tuesday: He made a strong case for his success. Seizing the bullying pulpit of a national primetime address, he praised Ketanji Brown Jackson, his Supreme Court pick, as “one of the finest legal minds in the country.” And he was careful to point out that his administration passed two massive spending bills, including a much-needed bipartisan infrastructure deal to shore up the country’s aging highways, bridges and water supply.
He also called for reviving elements of his Build Back Better program, which crashed on the rocks of his own party’s opposition. While avoiding using the name of the package, the president ticked off items that his aides say have broad support when taken independently: reducing prescription drug costs, making health services keeps more affordable, raises taxes on the rich and helps fight climate change.
Speech occasionally bounced from one agenda item to another, with some receiving more attention than others. Although Biden said defending the franchise was the defining issue of his presidency, it received only passing mention as he denounced Republican efforts to restrict access to the ballot, measures taken on behalf of false election claims by former President Donald Trump. fraud.
“The most fundamental right in America is the right to vote – and to make it count. And he is attacked. State after state, new laws have been passed, not only to suppress voting – we have been there before – but to overturn entire elections,” he said.
He then offered a brief endorsement of federal legislation that is unlikely to succeed, in part due to opposition to the filibuster reform by his fellow Democrats. He did not say Trump’s name, or mention the Jan. 6 uprising in the US Capitol, which was led by Trump supporters.
The president also touted the country’s progress against the Covid-19 pandemic, pointing to his administration’s vaccination program as the main cause of the country’s plummeting case count. The Chamber of the Chamber itself offered visual testimony to the progress made and what remains to be done. A year ago, there were only a few audience members for Biden’s speech to Congress, and they were all wearing masks in a socially distanced room. This year, lawmakers have sat spaced out. All but a few had thrown off their masks. But the halls of Congress were relatively empty compared to years past, and those who showed up had to be tested for Covid beforehand.
The bipartisan standing ovation from Ukrainian lawmakers was not often repeated, as many Republicans — those who showed up, as many stayed home — booed Biden’s mention of his national agenda. And, perhaps in an ominous sign for Democrats, the senator who helped derail parts of Biden’s agenda — Joe Manchin of West Virginia — crossed the aisle to sit among Republicans.
Biden took the stage much weaker politically than he did when he addressed Congress last April. Then his administration had just pushed through a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, unveiled a sweeping reimagining of the social safety net, and was poised to forcefully reclaim its place on the world stage after four Trump’s tumultuous years.
But the war in Eastern Europe provided an ominous backdrop to the annual address at the US Capitol, creating an eerie split screen as Biden devoted the first long section of his speech to Ukraine while social media streams provided ongoing updates on the bombings in Kyiv and Kharkiv. . Biden paid tribute to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose leadership has made him an inspirational figure across the West, while First Lady Jill Biden welcomed the Ukrainian ambassador to her dressing room on the bedroom balcony.
Outgunned and outmanned, Ukrainian forces held off Putin’s war machine for nearly a week, but every hour has seemingly brought more Russian firepower to bear as massive convoys encircle major cities. from Ukraine. Biden outlined a series of sanctions and announced that the United States had closed its airspace to Russian planes, while sending a warning to the oligarchs surrounding Putin: Your wealth is not safe.
“We join our European allies in finding and seizing your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets,” Biden said. “We come for your ill-begotten gains.”
“He has no idea what’s coming,” Biden added of Putin, in an off-the-cuff line.