Nyet to Putin, no to masks: 5 takeaways from Biden’s first State of the Union address
Just a little over a year after taking office, President Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. It was a speech delivered at a time of both foreign conflict and domestic turmoil, with Eastern Europe embroiled in a war and the coronavirus continuing to sharply divide Americans.
The president’s popularity, meanwhile, has been plunging, and congressional Democrats are increasingly alarmed about their party’s prospects in next fall’s midterm elections. They want to move beyond the pandemic, leaving aside the caution that has marked their party for two years; to blunt the rise in violent crime, only without resorting to the policing excesses of the 1990s; and to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia while avoiding yet another international conflict.
Biden won the presidency by pitching himself as political balm after the divisions of the Trump administration. Tuesday night was an effort to remind Americans of that promise, while also making a renewed effort to court moderates who have soured on Democrats’ progressive drift.
Here are the five top takeaways from his speech.
No to masks
Since he was sworn in as president, Biden had assiduously worn masks whenever appearing at public events, and so had most Democrats in Congress. But when he walked into the House Chamber to deliver his address, Biden was maskless, beaming his signature smile. Given that Dr. Brian P. Monahan, the attending congressional physician, announced Sunday that masks would not be required for those attending the speech; virtually all of the legislators present, Democrats and Republicans alike, followed suit.
A coronavirus diagnostic test was required to attend the State of the Union, but the symbolism of maskless lawmakers gathered in the House of Representatives chamber was significant all the same. With polls consistently showing that Americans are ready to move beyond the pandemic, Biden and congressional Democrats sought to show that they understood that pandemic restrictions could exact a high political price come November.
More broadly, Biden outlined a plan to live with the pandemic — although he did so without declaring victory as he did, prematurely, on July 4. “Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, COVID-19 need no longer control our lives,” the president said.
The most significant of Biden’s pandemic-related announcements was a program called “Test to Stay,” which would allow a person to receive a diagnostic test at a pharmacy and, if the test returned a positive result, to immediately receive antiviral treatments that are exceptionally effective at preventing severe and critical disease.
Nyet to Putin
Biden began his speech by striking out against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who invaded neighboring Ukraine last week. New polling from Yahoo News and YouGov shows Americans united in their disapproval of Russia’s aggression, making the issue as bipartisan as any touched on in Biden’s speech.
“He has no idea what’s coming,” Biden warned, announcing that Russian airlines would be prohibited from U.S. airspace. Ukraine’s national colors prevailed in the House Chamber, and Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, was a guest of first lady Jill Biden.
But even as Biden spoke, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continued. Aid has flowed to the embattled nation from Washington and European capitals, but in the very starkest terms, Ukraine remains on its own as it tries to fend off one of the most powerful military forces — and nuclear powers — on Earth.
“Let me be clear,” Biden said, “our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.”
Instead, the president is betting that sanctions and unrelenting international criticism will force Putin to back down, especially if the oligarchs who sustain and benefit from his rule start to feel the constraints. “We are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine,” he said. “Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever.”
Biden noted that Russia’s currency, the ruble, had already lost nearly a third of its value since sanctions were first levied. He also said that the Department of Justice would pursue more aggressive investigations of Russian oligarchs’ financial crimes.
Still, the war in Ukraine looks increasingly as if it will become a protracted conflict. “This is a real test,” Biden said, in seeming recognition of that reality. “It’s going to take time.”
Return to normal
Like every president before him, Biden works from home. But on Tuesday, he showed an awareness that remote work was hurting cities and small businesses in downtown districts in particular. The issue has been divisive for months, with corporations delaying reopenings in the face of new coronavirus variants and employee resistance.
“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” Biden said. “People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.”
Democratic mayors, including London Breed of San Francisco and Eric Adams of New York, have both pushed for an end to remote work. Biden had said little on the matter, even as the blocks around the White House have remained hauntingly empty.
That would change, too, the president vowed on Tuesday evening. “The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person,” he said.
Fund the police
Biden’s words on Ukraine received bipartisan applause. So did what he said about the need to better fund police departments in order to improve hiring and training practices.
“I’ve worked on these issues a long time,” Biden said of public safety, apparently a reminder that he was a principal supporter of the 1994 crime bill, which criminal justice reformers have said is responsible for the mass incarceration of African-American men, as well as the militarization of police departments.
“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
Republicans have long tried to paint Biden as a supporter of the “Defund the police” movement, which seeks to emphasize social programs at the expense of sufficiently funding law enforcement. Biden has repeatedly said he rejects the movement’s proposals, but that has made little difference to his opponents.
The persistence of high rates of violent crime in most American cities, combined with high-profile hate attacks and looting incidents, have turned public safety into a challenging issue for Biden and Democrats.
As when he discussed the coronavirus, Biden seemed on Tuesday to recognize that the Democratic Party is increasingly out of step with average Americans.
What was said – and left unsaid
The pro-Trump riot on Jan. 6, 2021, did not merit a single mention from the president, a striking departure from the inaugural address he delivered just days after that attack.
Voting rights received only a passing reference, even though only weeks ago, Biden delivered a fiery speech in which he compared Republicans resistant to passing new protections to some of the most notorious segregationists in the nation’s history.
Climate change was mentioned twice, and also briefly.
Those choices appeared to reflect a recognition that while both of those issues motivate progressives, they are of less concern to many other Americans.
Of high concern, on the other hand, is inflation, with Americans seeing the effects of supply chain disruptions and other forces at supermarkets, gas stations and elsewhere.
“My top priority is getting prices under control,” Biden said. He announced that he would release 30 million barrels from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in anticipation that sanctions on Russia would cause a spike in energy prices. And he called for returning manufacturing to the United States. “Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America,” the president said.