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. 

“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. Earlier this week, the first lady wore a face mask bearing the image of a sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower.

The tireless pandemic and as always, the economy, are also likely to dominate Biden’s first run at this constitutionally mandated address. He had previously addressed a joint session of Congress, but this is his first State of the Union speech.

But the evolving crisis in Ukraine has 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, but he remains undeterred.

In the past week, Biden has repeatedly addressed the escalating crisis in Ukraine. But in his own deeply politically divided nation, he has been met with a frosty reception when talking about what he describes as the greatest threat to global security since World War II.  

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, administration officials say Biden will focus 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.  

In the White House preview of the speech, Biden shares his economic vision for the country. 

“I have a better plan to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And instead of relying on foreign supply chains — let’s make it in America. Economists call it ‘increasing the productive capacity of our economy.’ I call it building a better America.”

This speech is usually a showcase for some pomp and reflection on what it means to be American. This year is no different. The first lady will be 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 include 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 is 13-year-old 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.