The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Quick! Rewrite the State of the Union.

President Biden announces his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Feb. 25 in the White House. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
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I don’t envy the White House speechwriters. They no doubt spent weeks preparing for a State of the Union address touting the economic recovery, the prospect of a post-pandemic return to normal and the administration’s inflation-fighting plans. Then the world changed.

Ukraine has captured the imagination and hearts of free people around the globe. Thanks to months of planning and careful diplomacy, President Biden put together the most impressive and unified alliance since World War II to oppose Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. With the sanctions that Putin has invited, the Russian economy is in free fall. We and our allies are amply arming Ukraine. Russia is bogged down in an unwinnable war and turning into a pariah state.

Biden needs a very different State of the Union. Instead of defending remarkable domestic progress, with foreign policy relegated to the back end of the speech, he needs to flip the order and build the speech around a historic moment when the United States is leading a worldwide coalition in defense of freedom. This is a time for public education.

Complaints from critics of the response to Putin, ranging from disingenuous to churlish, have distracted and confused the public in large part because many Americans do not appreciate what we’ve already done. Republican talking points get regurgitated in media coverage.

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The obsession with fully cutting off Russia from SWIFT international bank communications is a case in point. Critics are whining about unplugging the fax machine while we’ve already cratered the Russian economy. “Too slow!” “Not enough!” “The U.S. is trailing the E.U.!" Really? In a week, we hit Russia with heavy economic sanctions, commanded the moral high ground, changed the national security outlook of Europe and provided (along with allies, reluctant in the past) weapons for Ukraine. By cajoling European boldness, we ensure unity and avoid finding ourselves out on our own.

Follow along with Post columnists as they watch Biden’s State of the Union address

Biden can clear up a lot of misunderstanding by answering some basic questions.

What have we done? We set up a perfectly unified alliance with the singular goal of making Putin pay a crushing economic price and inducing him to abandon his fixation on rebuilding the Russian empire. Our diplomatic work created unprecedented collaboration in the West, collectively imposing formidable sanctions. We overcame the European Union’s usual political timidity and economic self-interest. We used intelligence to show the public how Putin was going to mount his unjustified war. Short of going to war with a nuclear-armed state headed by a deranged dictator, it is hard to think what else we could have done. This is the most effective response to Russian aggression since the Berlin Airlift. Biden should take credit.

Was our timing right? Denying the grievance-filled, unhinged Russian president a provocation by refusing to enact preemptive sanctions was wise. Instead, we effectively used the time to deploy intelligence, gaining a commanding position to shape world opinion. The madman in Moscow was not deterrable because he never imagined Ukraine would fight and the world would unite. By holding our fire and letting the world see Putin’s monstrous aims, we were able to summon economic sanctions that otherwise would have been unimaginable.

Why is this a big deal? An inflection point has arrived for the United States and for democracy. The United States is leading the world because we remain the only superpower — and are a democratic superpower. Biden is demonstrating that if we can cultivate democratic alliances to check illiberal aggressors, we take the moral high ground, engage world opinion and stiffen our allies’ resolve. The result will be a more prosperous world with stable borders. Democracies do not attack neighbors; they keep the peace. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, thanks to the Biden alliance, democratic nations are coming to grips with their own obligations and strengths. The tide is turning against illiberal regimes in the existential battle between free and unfree nations.

What does this have to do with the economy and our agenda at home? When we undermine the results of elections, when we impede voting (the cornerstone of democracy) and when we disparage the rule of law, we lose the moral capital to construct alliances of the type Biden has put together. When we fortify democracy and defend our principles, we can lead a worldwide alliance. Democracy makes us free and makes us strong; it provides an anchor for international partners and economic prosperity.

When we move to green energy, we sap the strength of commodities-based despotic regimes and enhance our own economic potential. When we produce results such as the infrastructure legislation and create an unprecedented coronavirus vaccine program and new antibody treatments (and share these with the world), we show the superiority of free societies. When we rescue our own economy and prepare for a new economy, we show that our ability to grow, innovate and provide opportunity dwarfs that of closed societies.

Biden should highlight his accomplishments and show that democracy can produce results, overcome partisan sniping and dampen the impulse to obstruct. We’ve begun the long haul to recovery, Biden needs to argue, and we need to sustain our momentum.

In sum, the president should forget his old speech, embrace the moment and be flexible enough to frame these historic events in ways that bolster the United States and his own presidency.