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Biden’s State of the Union applauds unity against Russia, seeks more unity at home

At a moment of global chaos, Biden cites Americans’ broad agreement on the Russia-Ukraine war to urge similar unity on domestic issues

President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on March 1. (Video: The Washington Post)
12 min

President Biden sought to rally the country against war, inflation and the pandemic during his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, using one of the biggest moments of his presidency to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and pitching a diminished agenda he hopes can win bipartisan support.

The speech unfolded against a brutal backdrop as fighting intensified in what has become the biggest European land war since World War II. In the opening moments of his address, Biden noted the rejection of Russia and embrace of Ukraine by Americans of all stripes as evidence of the country’s underlying commonality,

“We fought for freedom, expanded liberty, defeated totalitarianism and terror. We built the strongest, freest and most prosperous nation the world has ever known,” Biden said toward the end of his address. “Now is the hour. Our moment of responsibility. Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself,” he said, adding “I know this nation will meet the test. To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity. We will save democracy."

The lawmakers in the chamber displayed unity as Biden spoke about Ukraine, as some waved small Ukrainian flags and Republicans joined Democrats in applauding his condemnations of Russia. But that unity evaporated the moment Biden turned to domestic policy.

When he turned to immigration, Republicans began chanting, “Build the wall! Build the wall!”

Biden also vowed to keep fighting inflation, calling it his "top priority. He declared a “new moment” in the fight against the pandemic, saying, “We are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”

And pushing back against a slogan adopted by some activists, he proclaimed, “The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training."

President Biden during his State of the Union address on March 1 said that Congress should not “defund” the police but rather “fund the police.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

But about the first third of the roughly hour-long address focused on Ukraine. “Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson — when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” said Biden. “They keep moving. And, the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising.”

And while he underlined that the United States will not send troops to help defend Ukraine, he reiterated that he would defend any NATO country that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be eyeing next. “I have made crystal clear the United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO that is NATO territory with the full force of our collective power. Every single inch,” Biden said to resounding bipartisan applause.

Biden also announced that the United States has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft, a move that came two days after Canada and the European Union issued similar restrictions.

As the president entered the House chamber unmasked and wearing a blue tie just after 9 p.m., he was greeted by lawmakers from both parties, many of whom wore bright blue or yellow blazers or scarves, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

One of first lady Jill Biden’s guests at the event was Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States. Before taking her seat, the first lady embraced Markarova.

Still, the speech came at a perilous moment in Biden’s presidency, as his approval ratings have plummeted and many of his priorities remain unrealized.

Initially, the White House hoped the speech would function largely as a reset of his domestic agenda.

The State of the Union according to Biden's worried supporters

But in recent days, it was revised to focus more on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The general revulsion over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has offered a rare area where Americans are demonstrating some unity, with a recent Post-ABC News poll showing that 80 percent view Russia negatively. But it’s unclear if Biden can stretch this sense of commonality beyond foreign affairs to domestic issues.

In Biden’s first year, he has often embraced the sweeping language and agenda of the liberal faction of his party, and the “unity” message could signal a new strategy of emphasizing victories that are bipartisan but limited.

The president appeared to concede that his initial, sweeping Build Back Better proposal would shrink to a few major elements, including lowering prescription drug costs, adopting climate measures and bolstering child care. And he outlined a “unity agenda” that would consist of fighting cancer and the opioid epidemic while bolstering mental health and veterans’ health initiatives.

Biden revises speech to address Ukraine crisis

Biden’s most immediate political problem may be persistent inflation, and Biden focused a good deal of his address on it.

“Too many families are struggling to keep up with their bills,” Biden allowed during the speech. “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they thought otherwise they would be able to feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”

Biden said that he hoped to drive down costs by making more goods in America and revitalizing the country’s manufacturing sector.

“Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America,” he said. “More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America.”

A boom in domestic manufacturing, the president contends, would have the added benefit of reducing the country’s reliance on foreign supplies. “Economists call this ‘increasing the productive capacity of our economy.’ I call it 'building a better America,” Biden said. “My plan to fight inflation will lower your costs and lower the deficit.”

Presidents have long promised to rebuild domestic manufacturing, to little effect. And it’s unclear whether those policies would have any immediate impact on the higher prices that polls show most Americans enduring.

White House aides have said they believe inflation will be lower by next year, but their previous predictions that inflation was “transitory” over the summer proved premature.

Hours before the speech, the Biden administration said it would release 30 million barrels of oil from the country’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve — part of a 60 million-barrel coordinated release by several allies. The aim is to reduce prices that have soared to more than $100 a barrel amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It’s the second release in about four months: In late November, as gas prices rose, Biden released 60 million barrels of oil from the U.S. reserve. The current average price at the pump for regular gas was $3.62, up nearly a dollar a gallon from last year, according to figures kept by AAA.

After touting his bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden sought to reframe the remaining part of his economic agenda, which has stalled in Congress. The president notably did not use the phrase “Build Back Better,” the original name for the intensive social spending legislation Biden had proposed.

Biden’s allies have urged the president to break the slimmed-down package into “chunks” to ease their passage.

White House aides and Democrats in Congress are hopeful the party will be able to pass the social spending package in the coming months, but concerns from Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have hobbled efforts to revive the legislation.

Biden also unveiled a new message on the country’s fight against covid on Tuesday night, saying the virus “no longer need control our lives.”

President Biden during his State of the Union address on March 1 said that the country is “moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Steering clear of declaring victory over the virus that has killed roughly 950,000 Americans, the president emphasized the tools the country now has to protect Americans. He signaled he would be requesting more money from Congress to ensure the country has a robust stockpile of tests, masks and therapeutics.

“We’ll continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases, and because this is virus mutates and spreads, we have to stay on guard,” Biden said.

At the same time, the president attempted to usher Americans back to their normal lives. He said the vast majority of federal employees will be returning to work in person, and urged schools to stay open.

“Let’s use this moment to reset,” the president said. “So stop looking at covid-19 as a partisan dividing line. See it for what it is — a God-awful disease.”

Last week the administration significantly loosened its recommendations on masks and social distancing, an effort to offer a fresh path to normalcy. Under the new guidelines about 70 percent of the country does not need to wear masks, Biden health officials said. Those rules came after most U.S. states had already dropped most restrictions.

The White House covid team planned to release a “new road map” for the next phase of the pandemic after Biden’s speech.

Still, the country continues to feel the impact of the pandemic, with a seven-day average of more 2,000 deaths a day. But infections have fallen significantly since January, when the omicron variant was spreading rapidly.

Progress against the pandemic was even apparent from the crowd in the chamber. Unlike during Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress last April, this time all members of Congress were invited.

But some pandemic restrictions remained: Lawmakers were not allowed to bring guests, and each had to take a coronavirus test before attending. But a rule that they had to wear masks was lifted days before the speech.

One person who didn’t attend: Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. By tradition, one member of the Cabinet stays away from the event to ensure continuity of government in case of an attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Last year, roughly 200 officials were invited to be in the audience that was usually closer to 1,500. All were asked to wear masks.

Biden called on Congress to pass gun control legislation, including universal background checks and an assault weapons bans, an unlikely goal with the slim Democratic majority in the Senate.

The president also renewed his push for Congress to pass legislation to protect voting rights, warning they are “under assault.” Earlier this year, Biden made an aggressive push for Congress to pass voting legislation, even calling for the first time for the Senate to eliminate the filibuster to do so.

But that effort floundered amid Republican opposition and resistance from Manchin and Sinema to changing the Senate rules.

Reaching for aims that appear more achievable, the president hopes his “unity agenda” will garner bipartisan support.

That includes a new push on expanding access to mental health and urging Congress to crack down on social media companies, blaming them for creating a toxic environment that’s particularly hard for young people. “We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” Biden said.

Under this same agenda, Biden asked Congress to back a legislative effort to expand health care benefits to veterans suffering because of exposure to burn pits and other toxins.

The issue is personal to the president. Biden referenced that his son Beau by name, saying that died of brain cancer that the president, along with some experts, have connected to his military service near pits that were used to burn waste.

The change would not impact Biden or his family, but would aim to ensure that others who may have been sickened the same way would receive more care.

Biden believes burn pits may have killed his son. Activists want him to do more.

Another initiative would boost nursing home staffing and oversight, which the White House has said is needed in response to the roughly 200,000 covid deaths at such facilities. It would require new minimum staffing levels, reducing the use of shared rooms and crack down on the poorest-performing nursing homes.

In the hours before Biden’s speech, the White House sent out several fact sheets, highlighting various parts of Biden’s agenda and how they would benefit different communities, including Black Americans, rural communities, seniors and people with disabilities.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union, said Biden has set America back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period characterized by “runaway inflation,” “a violent crime wave” and the Soviet Union “trying to redraw the world map.”

In Republicans’ response to President Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds blamed Democrats for rising prices. (Video: The Washington Post)

She also assailed Democrats for keeping schools closed for too long, touting her home state of Iowa for being the first to require schools open their doors and highlighting the latest culture wars over school curricula.

“Keeping schools open is only the start of the pro-parent, pro-family revolution that Republicans are leading in Iowa and states across this country," Reynolds said. "Republicans believe that parents matter. It was true before the pandemic and has never been more important to say out loud: Parents matter. They have a right to know, and to have a say in, what their kids are being taught.”

The opposition party typically does offer a rebuttal to the president’s address, but in a bit of departure from established norms, on Tuesday night several factions of the Democratic Party delivered responses, a development that may complicate Biden’s unity theme.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) delivered a respond to Biden’s speech on behalf of the Working Families Party, a progressive group. Tlaib called on Democrats to move forward on passing Biden’s expansive social spending agenda, formerly known as the Build Back Better plan.

Tlaib argued that Republicans, along with some “corporate-backed Democratic obstructionists,” are standing in the way of Biden’s agenda, but did not call out any members of Congress by name.

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) gave remarks on behalf of the Congressional Black Caucus, which was supportive of the speech and what they see as the Biden agenda’s positive impact for Black Americans.

And Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) delivered a response on behalf of Democratic centrists, who have sometimes clashed with the other two groups.

Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.