Biden Uses State of the Union to Define US Values at Home, Abroad

President Joe Biden came to his first State of the Union address Tuesday night with tough words for his autocratic adversaries and a balm for his beleaguered population, battered by a grueling pandemic, rising prices and bitter political divides.  

Biden strode into a full chamber of Congress, to applause and – incongruously after two years of the pandemic – nary a face mask in sight. 

“Last year, COVID kept us apart,” Biden said. “This year we’re finally together again.” 

Members of Congress waved small blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, and Biden wasted no time in addressing the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, announcing that he was immediately closing U.S. airspace to Russian flights. He stuck to the topic for the next 10 minutes. 

“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways,” he said, to what appeared to be widespread applause from the crowd of both Democrats and Republicans. “But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.” 

As if to underscore that point, Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, joined first lady Jill Biden in her viewing box, and was greeted by a standing ovation. The White House said that the first lady had a small embroidered applique of a sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower, sewn onto the wrist of her dark blue dress for the speech.

The coronavirus pandemic and as always, the economy, also featured prominently in Biden’s address. He had previously addressed a joint session of Congress, but this is his first State of the Union speech.

On the pandemic, he said: “Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”

But the evolving crisis in Ukraine overshadowed much of the speech preparations, with Biden being compelled to deliver three speeches on the U.S. reaction to the conflict. The U.S. and NATO allies have leveled several rounds of bruising sanctions at Russia and at Putin personally.

In the past week, Biden has repeatedly addressed the escalating crisis in Ukraine.

Biden’s fiercest American critics have also spared no words in lobbing critiques at him, with former President Donald Trump on Tuesday saying that “there should be no war waging now in Ukraine, and it is terrible for humanity that Biden, NATO and the West have failed so terribly in allowing it to start.”

Biden’s speech will be followed by the Republican Party’s response, delivered by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.   

‘Building a better America’

On the economy, Biden focused on four steps he plans to take: increasing manufacturing in the U.S. and strengthening supply chains; working to bring down prices of goods; promoting fair competition in order to protect small businesses; and eliminating barriers to well-paying jobs.

His economic pronouncements showed some of the deep divides in Congress, with members at one point booing at his mention of a pandemic relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan.

“I think I have a better idea to fight inflation: lower your cost, not your wages,” he said. “Make more cars and semiconductors in America or infrastructure and innovation in America or goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America instead of relying on foreign supply chains. Let’s make it in America.”

This speech is usually a showcase for some pomp and reflection on what it means to be American. This year was no different. The first lady was joined in her box by eight guests who the White House says were selected “because they represent policies or themes to be addressed by the president in his speech.”

They included Americans who represent union labor, parents attending college, the health care workforce, technological innovators, military families, Indigenous Americans, and the future of America.

The youngest among them was seventh-grader Joshua Davis of Midlothian, Virginia, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a baby. At age 4, he advocated for the Virginia General Assembly to pass a bill making school safer for children with Type 1 diabetes.

As is customary in a State of the Union speech, Biden exercised his presidential prerogative to make an announcement: He told the chamber that just a day earlier, Joshua turned 13.

“Happy birthday, buddy, by the way,” Biden said. 

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