4 takeaways from President Biden's State of the Union address
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden, delivering his first State of the Union address, made the case for why the U.S. should play a role in sanctioning Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, for the ongoing attacks against Ukraine, asserting that "when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression they cause more chaos."
While promising not to send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine, the president vowed to continue supporting Ukraine by unleashing additional economic sanctions against Putin and by providing humanitarian assistance to those fleeing the country.
"In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security," Biden said.
The president, speaking in an era in Washington D.C. defined by deep partisanship, also vowed that at home "we will save democracy."
The president’s hourlong speech -- in which he declared the state of the country is "strong" -- also touched on his domestic priorities including reviving legislative proposals to fund universal prekindergarten, addressing the growing number of Americans battling with opioid addictions, and transitioning to a new phase of the pandemic.
"Faced with record low approval ratings going into his first official State of the Union address, Biden struck a traditional, presidential and safe tone that sought to highlight areas of bipartisanship and optimism after two years of pandemic fatigue and now global unrest," said Ashley Koning, director of the Rutgers University Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling
Here are some takeaways from the speech:
Solidarity with Ukraine
Biden, who campaigned on a message of restoring the international alliances once eschewed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, used his address to tout the long-standing NATO alliance and working multilaterally with other countries to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
"He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond, and he thought he could divide us at home, Putin was wrong," Biden said before listing the series of economic sanctions rolled out by the U.S. and other allies aimed at crippling the Russian economy.
Beyond Biden’s words there were multiple displays of support for Ukraine from the lawmakers on hand. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, sat alongside first lady Jill Biden as her guest, and received a standing ovation from the lawmakers on hand, several of whom wore the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
"Biden smartly opened with an adamant defense of Ukraine — a topic that garners large bipartisan support — making sure to highlight the actions his administration has taken to stop Russia, which the public is strongly in favor of according to polls, but has yet to positively impact the president’s ratings," said Koning.
Rebooting Build Back Better
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were looking to Biden’s address to determine his next steps on the $1.75 trillion social infrastructure package known as the Build Back Better Act.
The proposal, focused on education, climate change and child care, was ultimately blocked last year in the Senate by two Democratic holdouts.
Biden, who launched his 2020 presidential campaign with the slogan "Build Back Better," and has used the phrase repeatedly in speeches last year, did not mention the slogan in his speech, signaling a possible rebrand of a key part of his domestic agenda.
Biden used the speech instead to revive support for his agenda by recasting his proposals as a four-point plan aimed at addressing the rising cost of goods.
Biden argued that passing legislation to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, cutting the cost of energy by investing in eco-friendly technology, cutting the cost of child care by making universal prekindergarten available to families, and increasing taxes on the nation’s top earners — all part of the initial Build Back Better Act — will alleviate the economic pressures facing many Americans.
"I call it building a better America," Biden said of his plans.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Va.), whose opposition to the social spending plan ultimately led to its demise in the Senate, told reporters after the speech "nothing’s changed," when it comes to his opposition to the overall plan.
Vanessa Beasley, a professor of communications at Vanderbilt University who specializes in presidential rhetoric, said, "In many ways, Biden’s address tonight had more elements of a campaign speech."
"President Biden repeated the phrase ‘cut the cost’ several times in the middle of the speech, applying it to health care, energy expenses, and child care in particular, and he framed cost-cutting as a plan to stop inflation without lowering wages," Beasley said.
Charting a new path on COVID-19
Biden laid out new steps his administration is taking to respond to COVID-19, including the launch of a "Test to Treat" program that will provide individuals who test positive for the virus to immediately receive antiviral pills at a series of pharmacy chains.
A White House official in a statement said "under this program, people can get tested at local pharmacies and community health centers and receive antiviral pills right on the spot. The administration will be launching these one-stop shops this month, with hundreds of sites opening nationwide including at pharmacy clinics at places like CVS, Walgreens, and Kroger."
The administration also will expand the availability of free testing kits, allowing Americans to register for an additional four tests per household at COVIDTests.gov.
"I cannot promise a new variant won’t come, but I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does," Biden said.
Schools should remain open and offices should reopen to employees, Biden said.
"It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again," Biden said.
A nod to the NYPD and funding the police
Biden paid tribute in his speech to fallen NYPD officers Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera, who were shot and killed in January when they responded to a domestic violence call in Harlem.
"I spoke with their families and told them that we are forever in debt for their sacrifice, and we will carry on their mission to restore the trust and safety every community deserves," Biden said.
The president, looking to distance his administration from the calls to "defund the police" from liberal members of the Democratic Party, instead reiterated his call for increased funding for policing.
"We should all agree, the answer is not to ‘defund the police,’ the answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities," Biden said.