Addressing a concerned nation and anxious world, President Joe Biden vowed in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night to check Russian aggression in Ukraine, tame soaring US inflation and deal with the fading but still dangerous coronavirus.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and the surprising unity that US and European allies have shown in response — gave the president a chance to speak about the issue in a visceral way to a global audience.
“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” Biden said “This is a real test. It’s going to take time. So let us continue to draw inspiration from the iron will of the Ukrainian people."
The president declared that he and all members of Congress, whatever their political differences, are joined “with an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny”. He asked lawmakers crowding the House chamber to stand and salute the Ukrainians as he began his speech. They stood and cheered.
It was a notable show of unity after a long year of bitter acrimony between Biden’s Democratic coalition and the Republican opposition.
Biden’s 62-minute speech, which was split between attention to war abroad and worries at home — reflected the same balancing act he now faces in his presidency. He must marshal allied resolve against Russia’s aggression while tending to inflation, COVID-19 fatigue and sagging approval ratings heading into the midterm elections.
Biden highlighted the bravery of Ukrainian defenders and a newly reinvigorated Western alliance that has worked to rearm the Ukrainian military and cripple Russia’s economy through sanctions. He acknowledged costs to the American economy, as well, but warned ominously that without consequences, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression wouldn’t be contained to Ukraine.
“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 and threats to America and the world keep rising.”
As Biden spoke, Russian forces were escalating their attacks in Ukraine, having bombarded the central square of country’s second-biggest city and Kyiv’s main TV tower, killing at least five people. The Babi Yar Holocaust memorial was also damaged.
Biden announced that the US is following Canada and the European Union in banning Russian planes from its airspace in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine.
"Tonight I'm announcing that we will join our allies in closing off American airspace to all Russian flights, further isolating Russia, and adding addition, squeeze on their economy," the US president said.
He added that the Justice Department was launching a task force to go after Russian oligarchs, whom he called “corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime.”
“We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” Biden said, pledging that the US and European allies were after their yachts, luxury apartments and private jets.
The State of the Union is typically an address targeted to a national audience, but this year's had the world watching. In an interview with CNN and Reuters, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Biden to deliver a strong and “useful” message about Russia’s invasion. In a show of unity, Ukrainian Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova joined first lady Jill Biden in the House gallery for the speech.
While the crisis in Eastern Europe may have helped to cool partisan tensions in Washington, it didn't erase the political and cultural discord that is casting doubt on Biden’s ability to deliver.
A February AP-NORC poll found that more people disapproved than approved of how Biden is handling his job, 55% to 44%. That's down from a 60% favourable rating last July.