WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday sought to accomplish two difficult tasks in his first State of the Union address. The first was to rally public support for Ukraine as the longtime U.S. ally fends off a brutal Russian invasion.
The second and arguably more difficult task for Biden was to articulate a fresh vision for a domestic policy agenda that could help his party move beyond the disappointing collapse of its Build Back Better bill.
Speaking before a House chamber that was almost entirely maskless for the first time in years, Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin would pay a heavy price for having miscalculated NATO and the international world order.
“When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger,” he said.
“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,” said Biden, to standing applause from both Republicans and Democrats.
Alongside the rhetoric, Biden also announced that the United States will ban Russian aircraft from flying through American airspace. The announcement came on the heels of similar moves by the European Union and Canada.
It was the latest round of restrictions in a week that has seen NATO and G-7 allies impose some of the harshest sanctions on record against Moscow and its vassal states.
On Tuesday, Biden said the United States had no intention of slowing down the pace of penalties. On the contrary, he said, the United States is in the process of increasing the number of people subject to these restrictions to include some of Russia’s richest oligarchs.
“Tonight I say to the Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime — no more,” said Biden.
He said the Justice Department “will be joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
But it was unclear Wednesday whether any of the international community’s punitive actions would have an impact on Putin’s decision making in Ukraine.
As dawn broke Wednesday in Kyiv, the Russian military seemed poised to send tens of thousands more soldiers into the capital city in a desperate attempt to oust the democratically elected government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
For Biden, however, the desire to unify Americans behind a common purpose Tuesday went beyond Ukraine.
“While it often appears that we never agree, that isn’t true,” he said halfway through the hourlong speech. “I signed 80 bipartisan bills into law last year — from preventing government shutdowns to protecting Asian-Americans from still-too-common hate crimes, to reforming military justice,” he said.
In keeping with these bipartisan, unifying issues, Biden introduced what he called a “Unity Agenda for the Nation” — four policy goals that he said enjoy broad bipartisan support among Republicans and Democrats, centrists and ideologues.
New programs to tackle the opioid epidemic.A plan to address the declining mental health of children “whose lives and education have been turned upside down” by years of the pandemic, said Biden.Increased funding and medical services for veterans. An advanced research project similar to the Defense Department’s top secret DARPA, only this one would seek to end cancer.
“It is important for us to show the nation that we can come together and do big things,” he said.
Whether Biden can turn any of his domestic plans into legislative reality remains to be seen, especially given that 2022 is an election year and polls show Americans are deeply divided along ideological and party lines.
A recent Washington Post-ABC poll taken in late February showed Biden hitting the lowest job approval rating of his entire presidency, a mere 37% approval vs. 55% who disapproved.