Pandemic, war and a rocky economy loom large over Biden’s first state of the union
By Lauren Gambino
Joe Biden will deliver his first State of the Union address on Tuesday before a bitterly divided Congress, seeking to inspire a pandemic-weary nation deeply unhappy with its leaders and government, while projecting strength to the world after Russia unleashed the largest land war in Europe since the second world war.
The prime-time address comes at a precarious moment for Biden and the world. Speaking in the House chamber, Biden will interrupt harrowing coverage of combat in a European capital, as evidence builds that Russian attacks are striking civilian areas and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, threatens nuclear war.
It is a starkly different backdrop than White House officials had anticipated when they began drafting the speech, which typically draws millions of viewers.
“There’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago,” White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters on Monday.
Finalized between situation room meetings and calls with allies, Biden will attempt to deliver an address that balances the crisis with domestic challenges that polling shows are most important to American voters, such as the economy, inflation and a stalled domestic agenda. He has already warned that sanctions on Russia could cause oil prices to rise further. US inflation is already at its highest in decades.
The president, Psaki said, would use the opportunity to emphasize American leadership and to lay out his efforts to “rally the world to stand up for democracy and against Russian aggression.”
The speech, and all the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it, arrives as Biden’s approval rating falls to new lows, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Just 37% said they approved of the job he was doing, with a majority of independents rating him negatively. Underscoring the headwinds facing Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, 50% of Americans said they wanted Republicans in charge of Congress. Just 40% preferred Democrats to remain in control.
In a preview of the speech, White House officials said Biden would tout his administration’s progress on the pandemic, the economic recovery and a pair of early legislative successes: a $1.9tn stimulus package and the bipartisan infrastructure law.
They said Biden would acknowledge the financial hardships facing many American families, while attempting to shift the narrative around the country’s economic trajectory from one of pessimism to progress.
Pointing to low unemployment and job growth, Biden will credit his economic policies with helping to usher in a rapid recovery, while calling for Congress to enact new measures designed to lower the costs of child care, healthcare and prescription drugs. The ideas represent some of the most popular parts of Biden’s sweeping domestic policy bill, known as Build Back Better, that is languishing before the Senate.
“The president is proud of the administration’s progress to date,” a senior administration official told reporters in a preview of his remarks. “We all look forward to building on this progress by easing price pressures and extending the historic labor market recovery in the months ahead.”
He is expected to directly address rising inflation, which is increasingly a top priority for voters and one of Republicans’ most potent attacks on Democrats.
Biden will also take the opportunity to tout his nominee for the supreme court, Ketanji Brown Jackson. If confirmed by the evenly-divided Senate, she will be the first Black woman on the court, fulfilling a pledge Biden made during the most difficult days of his campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Security is always high during the State of the Union, which brings political leaders under one roof. Capitol police have installed an “inner-perimeter fence”, evoking the tense days following the January 6 assault. For a three-hour window, flights will be restricted around Washington.
The Iowa governor, Kim Reynolds, was chosen to deliver the Republican rebuttal to Biden, an opportunity often awarded to a rising star. The first woman to govern Iowa, Reynolds gained national attention for bucking Covid-19 policies championed by Biden.
The Michigan congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat, will also offer a response on behalf of the progressive Working Families Party. She is expected to call on Democrats to restart negotiations over Biden’s domestic spending bill, which includes poverty-reducing, economic and climate policies that are a priority for many progressives.
All 535 members of Congress were invited to attend the speech and will be seated on the floor and in the gallery. Guests are not allowed and full vaccination is “strongly recommended” but not required.
Ahead of the speech, the Congress physician announced that masks were now optional in the Capitol, including in the House chamber during the State of the Union. The decision will help underscore the message Biden hopes to deliver: that the US is moving beyond the pandemic.
The rule-change may also have averted a possible showdown with Republican lawmakers who have refused to comply with a mask mandate, incurring tens of thousands of dollars in fines. Still, the address comes as relations between parties have become increasingly toxic.
And the crisis in Ukraine has done little to ease the seething partisanship at home. Republicans have hammered the president over his handling of the pandemic and the economy as well as his response to Ukraine, which some have argued as too little too late.
Yet their criticism of Biden’s foreign policy leadership is complicated by the party’s embrace of Trump, who praised and flattered Putin even after Russia’s invasion.