President Joe Biden had a difficult task in delivering his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to unfold.
He partly hit the mark of reassuring a nation on edge about world events while also building a case for his agenda to grow the U.S. economy and expand social programs.
As appropriate, Biden devoted the start of his speech to the events in Ukraine, where Russian forces continue to push into the country and where bombings are shattering neighborhoods. Many attendees in the House of Representatives waved or wore Ukrainian flags.
Biden reiterated American support for the people and government of Ukraine, including the country’s ambassador to the United States – Oksana Markarova – who was in the House chamber, and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who, together with his people, has earned respect and praise around the world.
Biden also ticked off the many steps that the U.S. government has taken, including strengthening ties with other countries and building support for toughening economic sanctions.
But, he quickly undercut the message on sanctions by promising that he’d do all he could to hold the line on gas prices in the U.S. This likely isn’t possible. If the United States and its allies hope to pressure Vladimir Putin and the Russian government to stop the Ukraine invasion, these countries must buy less oil and gas from Russia. Oil and gas sales account for about a fifth of the country’s economic activity. Yet, oil and gas exports have so far have not been included in the international sanctions. Such sanctions on Russian energy sales would further cut off Russian monetary supply, but they would also mean energy prices will rise here and around the world.
Americans can’t legitimately say they stand with Ukraine, call for tougher sanctions and then blame the Biden administration for the resulting gas price increases. That, of course, doesn’t mean they won’t.
The president then failed to tie what is happening in Ukraine to other policy initiatives that he ticked off in the remainder of his speech. He also failed to use the unity shown around current world events to build support for his sweeping domestic agenda.
For example, his Build Back Better plan, which he touted although it is considered dead in Congress, calls for big investments in cleaner technologies, emissions reductions and climate change mitigation. Biden urged lawmakers to pass the plan, but he failed to explain how investing in renewable energy in the United States is essential to muting Russian influence around the world in the long term.
Likewise, the president failed to build on the bipartisanship that was shown toward Ukraine and his efforts to stop the Russian invasion to encourage Republican support for the many other agenda items including protecting voting rights, equality and women’s reproductive health that he mentioned in his speech. Many of these appear to be moribund in Congress.
Biden also skipped over the recent U.S. departure from Afghanistan, which was rushed and resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghan people. He should have mentioned these mistakes, honored those servicemembers and pivoted toward his newly announced plans to better care for veterans, including those, like his son Army Maj. Beau Biden who died of brain cancer in 2015, who Biden said were exposed to toxic burn pits at military installations in the U.S. and other countries.
These are unfortunate opportunities to acknowledge mistakes and build consensus that were missed Tuesday night.
None of this, of course, excuses the ill-timed outburst from Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado during his speech.
President Biden gave a decent speech at a difficult time. He rallied and reassured Americans around Ukraine, but he missed some important opportunities to do the same for his domestic agenda.