US President Joe Biden addresses the nation as Russia continues its attack on Ukraine. Video / CNBC Television
Addressing a concerned nation and anxious world, US President Joe Biden vowed in his first State of the Union address Tuesday night local time to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, tame soaring US inflation and deal with the fading but still dangerous coronavirus.
Biden declared that he and all members of Congress, whatever their political differences, are joined “with an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny”. He asked the lawmakers crowding the House chamber to stand and salute the Ukrainians as he began his speech. 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 speech — split between attention to 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 Ukrainian defenders and the commitment of a newly reinvigorated Western alliance that has worked to rearm the Ukrainian military and cripple Russia’s economy through sanctions. He warned of costs to the American economy, as well, but warned ominously that without consequences, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression wouldn’t be contained to Ukraine.
“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 the 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 US is following Canada and the European Union in banning Russian planes from its airspace in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine. He also said the Justice Department was launching a task force to go after crimes of Russian oligarchs, whom he called “corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime”.
“We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he said, pledging that the US and European allies were coming after 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.”
Even before the Russian invasion sent energy costs skyrocketing, prices for American families had been rising, and the Covid-19 pandemic continues to hurt families and 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.”
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. 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 of Ukraine and nuclear sabre-rattling by Putin.
As is customary, one Cabinet secretary, in this case Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, was kept in a secure location during the address, ready to take over the government in the event of a catastrophe — a holdover from the Cold War that took on new significance in light of Putin’s threats.
In an interview with CNN and Reuters, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he urged Biden to deliver a strong and “useful” message about Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova joined first lady Jill Biden in the gallery.
Rising energy prices as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine risk exacerbating inflation in the US, 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.
Biden spoke to an American public that is frustrated with his performance. A February AP-NORC poll found that more people disapproved than approved of how Biden is handling his job, 55 per cent to 44 per cent. That’s down from a 60 per cent favourable rating last July.
Ahead of the speech, White House officials acknowledged the mood of the country is “sour”, citing the lingering pandemic and inflation. Biden used his remarks to highlight the progress from a year ago — with the majority of the US population now vaccinated and millions more people at work — but also acknowledged that the job is not yet done, a recognition of American discontent.
“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.”
Before Biden spoke, House Republicans said the word “crisis” describes the state of the union under Biden and Democrats — from an energy policy that lets Russia sell oil abroad to challenges at home over jobs and immigration.
“We’re going to push the president to do the right thing,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
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, D-Calif, 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. He announced that people will be able to order another round of free tests from the government and that his administration was launching a “test to treat” initiative to provide free antiviral pills at pharmacies to those who test positive for the virus.
Where his speech to Congress last year saw the rollout of a massive social spending package, Biden this year largely repackaged past proposals in search of achievable measures he hopes can win bipartisan support in a bitterly divided Congress before the elections.
The president also highlighted investments in everything from internet broadband access to bridge construction from November’s US$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 revitalise high-tech American manufacturing and supply chains in the face of growing geopolitical threats from China.
“Instead of relying on foreign supply chains – let’s make it in America,” Biden said.
As part of his pitch to voters, 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 called for lowering healthcare costs, pitching his plan to authorise 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 where 14.5 million people get coverage.
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, and discussed new ways to improve access to health benefits for veterans sickened by exposure to the burning of waste during their service, officials said.
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. He called to “fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities”.
In addition, the president pushed the Senate to confirm federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first black woman on the Supreme Court. He nominated her last week.