Biden vows to check Russian aggression, fight inflation in state of the union address

Addressing a concerned nation and anxious world, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed in his first state of the union address Tuesday night to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, tame soaring U.S. inflation and deal with the fading but still dangerous coronavirus pandemic.

‘Putin was wrong,’ Biden says in state of the union

U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine in his first state of the union address, saying Vladimir Putin thought the world could be divided, but the Russian president had been proven wrong. 1:01

Addressing a concerned nation and anxious world, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed in his first state of the union address Tuesday night to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, tame soaring U.S. inflation and deal with the fading but still dangerous coronavirus pandemic.

Biden declared that he and all members of Congress, whatever political differences there may be, were joined “with an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” He asked the lawmakers crowding the House chamber to salute Ukrainians as he began his speech, and they stood and cheered.

It was a notable show of unity after a long year of bitter acrimony between Biden’s Democratic coalition and the Republican opposition.

Biden’s 62-minute speech — split between attention to the war abroad and considerable domestic worries — reflected the same balancing act he now faces in his presidency. He must marshal allied resolve against Russia’s aggression while tending to inflation, COVID-19 fatigue and sagging approval ratings heading into the midterm elections.

Biden highlighted the bravery of Ukrainians and the resolve of a newly reinvigorated Western alliance that has worked to rearm the Ukrainian military and cripple Russia’s economy through sanctions. He said that there would be costs to the American economy as well, but gave the ominous warning that without consequences, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression wouldn’t be contained to Ukraine.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova, left, reacts after U.S. President Joe Biden asked lawmakers to stand and salute Ukrainians fighting against Russia’s invasion. (J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters)

“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson — when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” Biden said. “They keep moving. And, the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising.”

As Biden spoke, Russian forces were escalating their attacks in Ukraine, having bombarded the central square of country’s second-biggest city and Kyiv’s main TV tower, killing at least five people. The Babi Yar Holocaust memorial was also damaged.

Biden announced that the U.S. is following Canada and the European Union in banning Russian planes from its airspace in retaliation for the invasion. He also said the Justice Department was launching a task force to go after the “ill-gotten gains” of Russian oligarchs, including their yachts, luxury apartments and private jets.

“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people,” Biden said. “He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.”

Pandemic, inflation concerns

Even before the Russian invasion sent energy costs skyrocketing, prices for American families had been rising, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hurt the country’s economy.

Biden outlined plans to address inflation by reinvesting in American manufacturing capacity, speeding supply chains and reducing the burden of childcare and eldercare on workers.

“Too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills,” Biden said. “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”

WATCH | Fight inflation by buying American, Biden says: 

Fight inflation by buying American, Biden says

In his state of the union address, U.S. President Joe Biden urged his country’s companies to choose American options instead of foreign ones in order to combat and lower inflation. 0:47

Biden entered the House chamber without a mask, a reflection of the declining coronavirus case counts and new federal guidance meant to nudge the public back to pre-pandemic activities. But the Capitol was newly fenced due to security concerns after last year’s insurrection.

Set against disquiet at home and danger abroad, the White House had conceived Tuesday night’s speech as an opportunity to highlight the improving coronavirus outlook, rebrand Biden’s domestic policy priorities and show a path to lower costs for families grappling with soaring inflation. But it has taken on new significance with last week’s Russian invasion and nuclear sabre-rattling by Putin.

As is customary, Energy Secretary Gina Raimondo was kept in a secure location during the address, ready to take over the government in the event of a catastrophe. The practice, a holdover from the Cold War, took on new significance in light of Putin’s threats.

Biden entered the House chamber without a mask, in a reflection of the declining coronavirus case counts and new federal guidance meant to nudge the public back to pre-pandemic activities. (Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

In an interview with CNN and Reuters, Ukraine President President Volodymyr Zelensky said he urged Biden to deliver a strong and “useful” message about Russia’s invasion. Ahead of the speech, the White House announced that Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, would join first lady Jill Biden in the galleries to watch Biden’s address.

In a rare discordant moment, Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado yelled out that Biden was to blame for the deaths of the 13 service members killed during last August’s chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“You put them in. Thirteen of them,” she yelled as Biden mentioned his late son, Beau, a veteran who died of brain cancer and served near toxic military burn pits, used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Biden is pursuing legislation to help veterans suffering exposure and other injuries. 

Rising energy prices as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine risk exacerbating inflation in the U.S., which is already at the highest level in 40 years, eating into people’s earnings and threatening the economic recovery from the pandemic.

And while the geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe may have helped to cool partisan tensions in Washington, it didn’t erase the political and cultural discord that is casting doubt on Biden’s ability to deliver on his pledge to promote national unity.

‘Sour’ mood in U.S.

A February AP-NORC poll found that more people disapproved than approved of how Biden is handling his job, 55 to 44 per cent. That’s down from a 60 per cent favourable rating last July.

Ahead of the speech, White House officials acknowledge the mood of the country is “sour,” citing the lingering pandemic and inflation. 

“I have come to report on the state of the union,” Biden said. “And my report is this: The state of the union is strong — because you, the American people, are strong. We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today.”

WATCH | ‘COVID-19 no longer need control our lives’: 

‘Covid-19 no longer need control our lives,’ says Biden

In his state of the union address, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke of four ‘common sense steps’ people can remember while living alongside COVID-19. 4:33

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, selected to give the Republican response, said Biden’s address came as a blast from the past with rising inflation, rising crime and a resurgent Russia making it feel more like the 1980s than today.

“Even before taking the oath of office, the president said that he wanted to quote, ‘make America respected around the world again, and to unite us here.’ He’s failed on both fronts,” she said.

At least a half dozen lawmakers, including Reps. Jamie Raskin and Pete Aguilar, both members of the committee investigating last year’s Capitol riot, and Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, had tested positive for COVID-19 and were not expected at the Capitol for the speech.

“Tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines,” Biden said, outlining his administration’s plans to continue to combat COVID-19. “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again.”

He announced that people will be able to order another round of free tests and that his administration was launching a “test to treat” initiative to provide free antiviral pills to those who test positive. 

Focus on infrastructure, health care

Where his speech to Congress last year saw the roll out of a massive social spending package, Biden plans this year to repackage past proposals in search of achievable measures he hopes can win bipartisan support in a bitterly divided Congress before the elections.

The president was to highlight investments in everything from internet broadband access to bridge construction from November’s $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure law as an example of government reaching consensus and delivering change for the nation.

He also appealed to lawmakers to compromise on rival competitiveness bills that have passed the House and Senate, both meant to revitalize high-tech American manufacturing and supply chains in the face of growing geopolitical threats from China.

We need to level the playing field with China and other competitors. That’s why it’s so important to pass the Bipartisan Innovation Act. It will make record investments in emerging technologies, American manufacturing, and innovation.

Send it to my desk. I’ll sign it.

@POTUS

“Instead of relying on foreign supply chains — let’s make it in America,” Biden said.

As part of his pitch to voters, he also put a new emphasis on how proposals like extending the child tax credit and bringing down child-care costs could bring relief to families as prices rise. He said his climate change proposals would cut costs for lower- and middle-income families and create new jobs.

Biden also called for lowering health-care costs, pitching his plan to authorize Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, as well as an extension of more generous health insurance subsidies now temporarily available through the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.

Let’s cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month so every family can afford it.

@POTUS

He proposed new initiatives on mental health that dovetail with growing bipartisan interest in Congress amid evidence that the pandemic has damaged the national psyche. 

Biden also appealed for action on voting rights, which has failed to win GOP support. And as gun violence rises, he returned to calls to ban assault weapons, a blunt request he hadn’t made in months.

In addition, Biden led Congress in a bipartisan tribute to retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and highlighted the biography of his would-be replacement, federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s nominee to be the first Black woman on the high court. 

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