Joe Biden hit the road to put his domestic agenda back in the spotlight on Wednesday following a state of the union address that assailed the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and drew mixed reviews.
The US president traveled to the battleground state of Wisconsin to highlight his bipartisan infrastructure law but faced questions from reporters about Ukraine as he departed the White House.
Asked if President Volodymyr Zelenskiy should leave the country or stay put, Biden said: “I think it’s his judgment to make and we’re doing everything we can.” Asked whether he is considering banning Russian oil imports, he replied: “Nothing is off the table.”
The uneasy balancing act between domestic and foreign priorities was reflected in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Ukraine was inevitably the opening topic, drawing rare bipartisan support, but ultimately made up less than a fifth of Biden’s remarks about it.
At the heart of the 62-minute primetime speech were the economy, voting rights, the coronavirus pandemic and the president’s ailing social spending and climate agenda, drawing criticism from Republicans.
Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia welcomed Biden’s plan to ban Russian flights from US airspace and reinforce Nato partnerships but added: “The president immediately followed this by going through his laundry list of partisan priorities.
“The Biden administration’s policies have led to record inflation, an ongoing crisis at the southern border, a disastrous and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan, skyrocketing gas, energy, and grocery costs, and increased instability abroad.”
Few presidents in American history have had so many urgent national and international crises bearing down on them so early in their first term in office, and few have faced a nation so divided on multiple issues.
Less than half of Americans approve of Biden, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. The national opinion poll, conducted from 28 February to 1 March, found that 43% of adults approve of Biden’s performance in office while 54% disapprove and the rest were not sure.
Against this inauspicious backdrop, his state of the union addressed gained a symbolic boost as members of Congress did not wear face masks because of falling Covid case rates (although five members had tested positive before the speech). History was made as two women – Vice-President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – sat behind the president.
But a speech normally aimed at an American audience also had to speak to an anxious global audience in what one senator, Marco Rubio, have described as “the most dangerous moment in 60 years” given Putin’s potential humiliation and nuclear capability.
Biden, who has framed his presidency around a defining struggle between democracies and autocracies, sought to rally allies, stating: “Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked. I have rejected repeated efforts at diplomacy.
“I thought the west and Nato wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber, in this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united. And that’s what we did: we stayed united.”
He vowed: “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.”
Biden earned more applause from both Democrats and Republicans for warning Russian oligarchs that a new task force would help “find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets. We’re coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
He also outlined the sanctions that have isolated Putin with remarkable speed and, in an ad lib not in his prepared remarks, warned: “He has no idea what’s coming.”
Among the most emotional moments of the night was a standing ovation or Ukrainian ambassador Oksana Markarova sitting in the gallery. Some members of both parties wore yellow and blue outfits, pinned ribbons to their lapels or held miniature flags to show their support for Ukraine.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said in a speech on Wednesday: “When the president called on the chamber to stand up and applaud Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador, the feeling in the room reminded me of the unity we all felt after 9 /eleven.”
On Wednesday, a member of the Ukrainian parliament Oleksandra Ustinova described the speech as a “total disappointment”, saying without the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which the US said it would not help to enforce, “people will literally die ”.
During the address, Biden made no mention of last year’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan, a move that ended America’s longest war but descended into chaos and rattled allies.
At one point in the address, Biden made reference to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits returning in flag-draped coffins. Lauren Boebert, a far right Republican congresswoman, heckled: “You put them in: 13 of them!” – a reference to 13 service personnel killed during the Afghan evacuation.
Later Kim Reynolds, the governor of Iowa, giving the official Republican response to the state of the union address, said he had failed to make America respected around the world again. “The disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal did more than cost American lives; it betrayed our allies and emboldened our enemies.”
The bipartisan community also unraveled as soon as Biden’s devoted the lion’s share of his speech to domestic concerns. He has pointed to progress against the pandemic since last year, with a dramatic reduction in cases, readily available vaccines and tests, and new therapeutics soon becoming more accessible.
“Tonight, I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines. It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again. Let’s use this moment to reset.”
But he did not use the words “Build Back Better”, the name of his stalled legislative agenda, instead talking about “building a better America”. He insisted he would confront inflation, promising that he has a “better plan” to reduce cost increases than Republicans.
Biden repeated his call to pass voting rights legislation but, a year after his first speech to a joint session of Congress surprised many with its progressive ambitions, tried to push Democrats towards center ground by rejecting calls to “defund the police” and pledging: “ We need to secure the border and fix the immigration system.”
Republicans, however, made clear that unity remains the exception, not the norm, and suggested that address will do little to change political dynamics ahead of November’s midterm elections.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas told the Hugh Hewitt Show: “It was not a great speech, and I think, unfortunately, it was a rehash of a lot of his failed domestic policies… He really didn’t offer any solutions. I’m afraid that he realizes this is going to be a disastrous midterm election, and he just doesn’t know how to turn the ship around.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.