The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden wanted to use the State of the Union for his agenda. Then Russia started a land war.

His team has adjusted the address to spotlight the global battle between democracy and autocracy

Security fences surround the Capitol in preparation for the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
10 min

President Biden’s team has revised his first State of the Union address to portray Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine as a major crisis facing the West, according to a person familiar with the text, shifting the tenor of a speech that his team had long hoped would launch a reset of his administration.

While not a wholesale rewrite of the address, which will be delivered at 9 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday from the U.S. Capitol, the new version will reflect the way the crisis has added urgency to Biden’s running theme of defending democracies, according to one adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private talks.

This new heavy dose of foreign policy is one of several ways the speech will depart from the typical State of the Union address, which modern presidents usually use to sell domestic ideas and exhibit sunny optimism. This year, Biden must also contend with a 40-year record in the pace of inflation, which he plans to address under the rubric of “lowering costs,” according to one person briefed on the address, along with voter angst driven by high crime and lingering coronavirus restrictions.

“This is a dicey one,” Christopher Dodd, former senator from Connecticut and a close Biden friend, said of the address. “He’ll appreciate that this is not the moment, given the events of the last few days alone, forget about covid and everything else, to go in and try ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ It would be a huge mistake.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that the speech will tick through ways that Biden has tried to rally the world against the Russian government. She said Biden will discuss “the importance of the United States as a leader in the world” in this moment and its role to stand up for values and “global norms.”

Top White House aides, briefing reporters on the speech Monday afternoon on the condition of anonymity, said Biden will tout the things he accomplished in the past year despite “deep challenges,” as an aide put it, and outline his aspirations for the next year. “He’ll remind the country that our best days lie ahead,” said another aide.

The speech will include a section on the president’s economic plans, including calling on Congress to send him legislation designed to make the United States more competitive with China. The White House aides offered a blizzard of statistics that will be used to sell the roughly $2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan passed into law last year. The funds will be used, they said, to improve 65,000 miles of roads, repair 1,500 bridges, do work on 600 airports and help purchase more than 1,500 new buses, ferries and subway cars.

Biden will also call on Congress to increase the maximum Pell Grant award by $2,000, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and create a national paid family leave program, according to aides. On climate change, he’ll push for clean energy tax credits that were part of his stalled legislative agenda, according to a White House fact sheet sent out late Monday.

Biden aides said he will also address how any new plans should be paid for. “The president will outline proposals to make sure that corporations and the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share,” an aide said Monday.

Some specific programs have been floated in drafts, including a possible new push for sweeping legislation that would provide relief for military veterans suffering illnesses from burn pits, according to a person briefed on the speech last week who was not authorized to talk about it. It’s an issue deeply personal to Biden because his son Beau died of brain cancer after being housed near burn pits when he served in the military.

One early draft of the speech also included support for an effort to restrict members of Congress from trading individual stocks, according to a different person briefed on that part of speech. White House officials cautioned late Sunday that the speech was still in flux and noted that elements and even major themes sometimes get dropped from the final version.

But on Monday, aides said the economic portion of the address will include making more goods in America, reducing consumer costs, promoting fair competition and eliminating barriers to jobs.

During Biden’s first speech to a joint session of Congress a year ago, which was not an official State of the Union address, lawmakers were prohibited from bringing guests because of the pandemic, a restriction that will be in force again on Tuesday. Still, the audience will be significantly larger than the 200 allowed last time in the House chamber.

Attendees are expected to include six of the nine Supreme Court justices, after only one was invited to attend last year’s speech. And about 20 Cabinet officials are scheduled to attend, according to a person involved with the planning who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the guest list. First lady Jill Biden’s box could include up to eight guests, the person said.

Under new guidance from Congress’s Office of the Attending Physician sent out Sunday, lawmakers and other attendees will not have to wear masks. That office had said earlier in February that masks would be required, but since then the Biden administration shifted health guidance to say face coverings are not needed in Washington.

Meanwhile, a temporary fence was erected over the weekend around the Capitol to provide an additional layer of protection against any incursions during the address. Conservative activists are also planning protests against coronavirus restrictions in Washington in coming days.

Despite the drumbeat of bad news facing Biden, he will contend that Americans broadly are better off now than they were when he took office, given omicron’s retreat and the economy’s recovery, according to two people familiar with drafts of the speech. But Biden also plans to speak to the pain Americans are still feeling from the pandemic and higher prices, according to one of the people.

The president also may note the broad opposition to Russia’s invasion among Americans of both parties to argue that the country is not as fractured as it sometimes appears, the adviser said. Either way, the threat to the international order posed by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor will be a defining element.

“The magnitude of the visceral reaction to what’s going on there is so significant that it’s just hard for me to imagine him just relegating it to point number five,” said Michael Waldman, who helped write four of President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union addresses and is now president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Biden needs to rally the democrats — with a small ‘d’ — against the autocrats worldwide, and he cares a lot about that.”

Work on the speech has been underway for months inside the White House. Bruce Reed, Biden’s deputy chief of staff, has been coordinating policy initiatives to be highlighted in the address, while Biden aide Mike Donilon and chief speechwriter, Vinay Reddy, have taken the lead on writing and framing it.

One person familiar with the address said the speech appeared designed to appeal to three groups of voters whose support Biden needs: moderate Democrats, independents and “Never Trump” Republicans. His approval rating has hit the lowest point of his presidency, with only 37 percent of Americans saying they approve of the job he is doing, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday.

Biden is particularly weak with independents, and 61 percent of them disapprove of his performance, according to the poll, while 59 percent said they do not believe the president, who is 79, has the “mental sharpness” to do his job effectively.

As the White House seeks to strike the right tone between touting accomplishments and acknowledging pain, there has been no shortage of outside advice. A guest essay published in the New York Times by David Axelrod, for instance, urges Biden to adopt a humble tone during the address.

“Recognize that we are still in the grips of a national trauma,” advised Axelrod, who was President Barack Obama’s chief political strategist. The essay was circulated among Biden allies, though it’s not clear top White House aides agree with the advice, according to a person familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private dynamics.

Despite the wartime emphasis, some parts of the speech will be more traditional. The White House has signaled to activists, for instance, that Biden will use the address to sell the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package he signed into law in November. He will travel to Wisconsin soon after the speech to highlight how funds from the package can be used to repair local roads and bridges.

Biden said in January that he hoped to travel around the country more in 2022, but his events outside of Washington have not noticeably increased, as the White House has been consumed with the Ukraine crisis, selecting a Supreme Court nominee and other priorities. Aides now say more travel will come after the State of the Union address.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain briefed senior aides in Congress on the speech last week, telling them Biden will talk about his plans to reduce inflation, The Washington Post previously reported. Klain made only passing reference to the president’s “Build Back Better” agenda, which features new social spending and initiatives to fight climate change, according to two Democrats on the call, leading some to believe the full program will not be a major focus of the speech.

Biden aides briefing reporters on the speech Monday afternoon would not say whether Biden would mention his onetime signature legislation by name. “It’s not about the name of the bill. It’s about the ideas,” said one top Biden aide.

Russia’s invasion complicates Biden’s message in some ways, activists said. Climate activists have been pushing the White House to use the speech to elevate the need for clean energy incentives and renew his call for electrifying the country’s transportation system. But some said they acknowledge that Biden will also need to address the urgent spike in gas prices resulting from the war, which could require an increase in gas supply in the immediate future.

“He’ll put the near-term energy supply first, but I do think he may pivot, saying that current high oil prices demonstrate exactly why we need to move to an electrification of our transportation systems,” said Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser to the Progressive Policy Institute who was part of Clinton’s climate team.

As a combination of a wartime speech and a more traditional talk, the address risks running long, as many have in the past. Dodd, who watched many of them during his years in Congress from 1975 to 2011, warned against that tendency, saying, “Sometimes the length of the thing can obliterate the core message.”

Jeff Stein and Anna Phillips contributed to this report.