President Joe Biden departs after delivering his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, March 1, 2022. Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times)
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden vowed Tuesday to make President Vladimir Putin of Russia “pay a price” for invading Ukraine, seeking to rally the world as Moscow’s forces rained down missiles on Ukrainian cities and prepared to lay siege to the capital of Kyiv.
Appearing before a joint session of Congress at a fraught moment in modern history, Biden called for a united resistance to defend the international order endangered by Russian aggression and warned the oligarchs who bolster Putin’s regime that he would seize their luxury yachts and private jets.
“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin
sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways,” Biden said. “But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.”
Hailing the heroism of the Ukrainian resistance, Biden introduced Oksana Markarova, Ukraine
’s ambassador to the United States, who joined Jill Biden in the first lady’s box holding a small blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag. In a show of bipartisan solidarity, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, some of them wearing blue and yellow and many of them waving Ukrainian flags, leaped to their feet in an ovation to her and her country.
While the guns of Europe overshadowed the political disputes at home that have weighed down his presidency, Biden
sought to use his first formal State of the Union address to convince glum Americans that the country is making impressive progress containing the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy.
He made a fresh pitch for the social spending programs that have been logjammed in Congress, including expanded child care, elder care, prekindergarten education, climate change initiatives and prescription drug price cuts, without explaining how he planned to overcome the opposition. And he vowed to take action to curb inflation, saying “my top priority is getting prices under control.”
Two years after the pandemic transformed American life, Biden declared that “we’ve reached a new moment in the fight against COVID-19,” and he generated bipartisan applause by calling for schools to remain open. “Our kids need to be in school,” he said. Yet he warned against complacency and called on lawmakers who have demonstrated unity over Ukraine to put aside their differences at home.
“Let’s use this moment to reset,” he said in the hourlong speech. “So stop looking at COVID as a partisan dividing line. See it for what it is: a god-awful disease. Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies. Let’s start seeing each other for who we are: fellow Americans.”
But the discord of today’s politics erupted in the House chamber in ways that would have once been unthinkable. When Biden talked about immigration reform, Rep. Lauren Boebert, a far-right Republican from Colorado given to angry spectacle and conspiracies, tried to start a “build the wall” chant but was joined only by a like-minded colleague, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.
Later in the speech, when Biden was paying tribute to U.S. troops in flag-draped coffins, Boebert interrupted again. “You put them in — 13 of them!” she shouted, referring to service members killed during the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Biden did not respond but went on to cite his son, Beau, who served in Iraq and later died of brain cancer.
Biden, who has teamed up with European leaders to impose sanctions not just on Russian institutions but on Putin personally, highlighted the unified response to Russia’s invasion
. “Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked,” he said. “He rejected repeated, repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home in this chamber and this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united.”
He said Putin and his cronies should not go unpunished. “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, the threats to America, and America to the world, keeps rising.”
Biden directly threatened the moneyed moguls who prop up Putin while keeping their money and enjoying life in the West. “Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: No more,” he said, adding, “We’re joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets.”
The speech, an annual rite of passage for any commander in chief, was originally envisioned as an opportunity for Biden to rejuvenate his presidency with new energy after months of political and economic travails at home, and the White House was loath to let the foreign crisis completely overwhelm his domestic agenda.
In a sign of the times, the speech took place in a Capitol once again ringed by security fences and National Guard troops, almost 14 months after the building was stormed by a violent mob egged on by President Donald Trump in an effort to stop the counting of Electoral College votes sealing Biden’s victory.
But in a more hopeful indicator, all members of Congress were invited and the chamber was fuller than last year, when the audience was limited to a fraction of its usual size out of concern over COVID-19. While testing was required and every other seat was supposed to be left vacant to encourage social distancing, masks were optional and only a few lawmakers covered their faces.
For only the second time in history, two women stood behind a president on the rostrum, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Biden hailed his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Biden spoke in a strong voice but stumbled occasionally over his words. At different points, he said “Iranian” when he meant “Ukrainian,” “America” when he meant “Delaware” and “profits” when he meant “prices.” But he appeared energized by the crowd and lingered afterward to chat with lawmakers.
The speech came at a politically shaky moment for him and for the country. After two years of struggling with the pandemic and related economic troubles, the state of the union is sour. Fully 70% of Americans surveyed by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research said the nation was heading in the wrong direction, the kind of number that typically spells trouble in a midterm election year for the party in power.
While some have pressed him to be even tougher and criticized him for not taking action sooner, Biden has generally enjoyed bipartisan backing from lawmakers as he imposes economic sanctions on Russia and sends U.S. troops to NATO allies near Ukraine to reassure them. His comments castigating Moscow prompted that rarest of scenes during a State of the Union: both sides of the aisle rising to applaud.
“I think there’s broad support for the president in what he’s doing now,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, told reporters before the speech. “Our biggest complaint is, what took him so long?”
Yet talks over a $6.4 billion security and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine stalled in the Senate over whether the money should come out of the same total military spending allocation previously agreed to or be considered emergency money on top of that. “We’ve hit a snag,” McConnell reported.
Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, who delivered the official Republican response after the speech, more aggressively laid the blame for Russia’s invasion at Biden’s feet. “Weakness on the world stage has a cost, and the president’s approach to foreign policy has consistently been too little, too late,” she said.
To make the case for lowering the price of prescription drugs, he singled out Joshua Davis, a Virginia boy who has diabetes and needs daily insulin that costs his family considerably. Joshua, who just turned 13, smiled from the first lady’s box as Biden wished him a happy birthday.
Biden presented an upbeat assessment of the country, talking about “the rebirth of pride” and “the revitalization of American manufacturing.” He sought to reassure Americans feeling the pain of rising inflation, which has taken a toll on his political standing as well, vowing to bring down prices by driving up production.
“Lower your cost, not your wages,” he said. “That means 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. Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America.”
But even as he promoted an agenda appealing to progressives, Biden appeared intent on reminding voters of his centrist pedigree, too. Citing protests against law enforcement abuse of people of color, Biden said that “the answer is not to defund the police” but to reform their practices.
Biden unveiled few concrete new domestic initiatives other than promising to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate fraud involving pandemic relief funds. But he emphasized that while there may be new variants, “COVID-19 no longer need control our lives.”
The average number of new coronavirus cases has fallen more than 90% since its January peak, and deaths have come down 23% in the past two weeks. Even so, more than 1,800 people are still dying from COVID-19 every day in the United States on average, and Biden tried to be careful not to sound too rosy.
“I know some are talking about living with COVID-19,” he said. “But tonight I say that we never will just accept living with COVID-19. We’ll continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases.”
©2019 New York Times News Service