As expected, President Joe Biden began his first official State of the Union Address by discussing the Russian aggression in Ukraine, devoting the first 13 minutes of his speech to the subject. Biden played it very straight. Despite the sub-strain of Republican admiration and even empathy for Vladimir Putin (exemplified by Biden’s predecessor), the president chose to depict Americans as completely united. “[Putin] thought he could divide us at home in this chamber and this nation and he thought he could divide us in Europe as well, but Putin was wrong,” Biden said. “We are ready. We are united and that is what we did. We stayed united.”
Biden projected calm resolution and even reassurance for nervous Americans, who have been hearing about possible nuclear war and absorbing frightful images of fighting and destruction in Ukraine. “I know news about what’s happening can seem alarming to all Americans. But I want you to know, we’re going to be okay. We’re going to be okay. 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.”
From a policy point of view, Biden was predictable enough, but he has positioned himself on very high ground in terms of public opinion, which favors strong action against Putin without troop deployments, and strong U.S.-led diplomacy based on red lines in Europe the Russians will not be alloyed to cross:
The contrast with the erratic, blustering Donald Trump was implicit rather than explicit. But Biden subtly undermined Republican claims that his administration’s weakness somehow drew Putin into aggression. Meanwhile the alliance Biden now leads — including even Switzerland — provides a clear alternative to Trump’s unilateralist hostility to NATO and lone-ranger approach to diplomacy.
His unity pitch also denied Republicans much of an opportunity to take issue with his remarks without looking churlish (as extremist congresswoman Lauren Boebert later did by shouting about casualties in Afghanistan when Biden was about to mention his late son, Beau). He was well into the domestic section of the speech before Republicans in the room could do anything other than dutifully, if reluctantly, standing and applauding his words. The impression that Joe Biden is a flailing president at the mercy of an emboldened opposition faded significantly during this address.
Will Biden’s remarks on Ukraine help him pivot to a more effective and popular presidency? It’s too early to tell for sure, but the signs are positive. His support has been flagging among Democrats lately. The stirring international section of the speech is bound to rally Democrats to his banner, and the rest of it was candy to them. For bipartisanship-craving swing voters, the unity pitch on Ukraine should resonate, and Biden cleverly laid out a “unity agenda” later on composed of four specific things the two parties might be able to do together. It was the sort of speech that played to his strengths as a president and as a politician. But he needs to keep the momentum up now that he has struck a new tone for his presidency.
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