Last night was President Joe Biden’s first official State of the Union, and what the Administration hopes will be a major reset, given the president’s low polling numbers in recent months. As expected, his speech mostly focused on the Ukrainian crisis, COVID-19, and rising inflation, all while the president attempted to simultaneously promote his bipartisan accomplishments and progressive credentials – no small task, given the contradictions implicit in doing so.
Prime’s subject matter experts have broken down the Ukrainian portion of Biden’s speech and what it means for the United States, and our own Andrew Terp and Emily Katz have taken time to reflect and offer their analyses on his full State of the Union remarks through their professional Republican and Democratic lenses.
Like much of the free world, President Biden’s attention first turned to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, and, as a result, the primary focus of this speech was clearly much different than it would have been even a week ago. The president emphasized the unity of the Western world in fighting to preserve democracy in Ukraine; the strength of the Ukrainian people and their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy; and the serious miscalculation that Vladimir Putin had made in thinking he could divide the West. Instead, the president reiterated, his actions had unified and strengthened these ties and left Russia weaker and more isolated. Repudiation of Putin’s aggression – and the attendance of the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States at the State of the Union – received sustained, bipartisan applause.
There were several newsworthy announcements – though they were not wholly unexpected. President Biden announced that the U.S. and its allies are releasing 60 million barrels of oil from reserves, including 30 million from the domestic Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to help protect American businesses and consumers from rising prices and instability caused by the conflict. The president also announced that the U.S. would ban Russian aircraft from flying through American airspace – joining allies in both Europe and Canada. The ban will impact not only large passenger and cargo flights, but also private planes that are owned, chartered, or for the benefit of Russian citizens – DOT and FAA are set to publish rules on this today.
Finally, President Biden announced that the Department of Justice would be assembling a task force dedicated to targeting “the crimes of Russian oligarchs” and promised that the U.S. would “find and seize yachts, luxury apartments, private jets… [and their] ill-begotten gains.” More details of this task force will be forthcoming, though it seems likely they will be working with the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to enforce already announced sanctions and potentially levy additional ones. As the speech detailed, the U.S. has already created a significant sanctions regime, including targeting Russian financial institutions. While the funding focus has necessarily been on supplying arms and other DOD support, as well as aiding humanitarian efforts, it is likely that OFAC and others will need increased funding, along with more employees, to ensure that these and future sanctions are enforced.
Biden’s approval ratings have not rebounded yet – though they are still above where Trump was 406 days into his term – but, let’s face it, the domestic sections of the State of the Union were unlikely to move the needle, as that task was given to foreign policy and Biden’s leadership on Ukraine. Biden’s domestic sections of the speech had several realistic goals:
First, appeal to the Democratic base (pre-K, minimum wage, protecting Roe v. Wade, the fact that women have had to leave the workforce), give independents reassurance on the economy (inflation and the future of workforce valuing apprenticeships as well as advanced degrees), and remind voters of Biden’s moderate leanings (fund the police and reform border security and the immigration system).
Second, because democrats are notoriously guilty of failing on message penetration, remind the public of actual accomplishments this year (infrastructure, including broadband).
Third, mark a new stage from pandemic to endemic (CDC new mask guidelines, as well as ending school shutdowns).
Finally, send a message to policymakers about priorities that have a chance of resurrection from the ashes of Build Back Better (childcare and drug pricing) and turn to new policies that still may hold promise for democratic unity or potential bipartisanship (mental health and cancer moonshot).
But, let’s be clear, foreign policy was the real muscle tonight, and, when it came to domestic policy, the principle is similar to what our strained healthcare workforce adheres to: first, do no harm. By that measure, President Biden appears to have succeeded.
In the face of the most troublesome international crisis over the past three decades, President Biden opened his State of the Union speech with the confident, unifying tone that the American people wanted (and needed) to hear. President Biden rightfully noted that “Putin is more isolated than ever”, thanks in large part to his Administration’s efforts to unite America’s NATO allies. As Putin and his cronies become even more unpredictable, our president rose to the occasion last night and confidently declared that America would join our NATO allies in defending every inch of NATO territory.
Unfortunately, the president’s speech lost momentum as he brought his speech home to his domestic agenda. In the face of unchecked inflation and rising energy prices, the president was as authentic as he always is in communicating his understanding of the anxiety and pain confronting Americans. While the president was able to authentically communicate his appreciation of the economic distress confronting low and middle-income households alike, his speech lacked the details needed to buoy American confidence that this Administration will right the economic ship in the months ahead.
Many economists will fairly note that any White House – Republican or Democratic – only has so many tools in the toolbox to swiftly contain inflation and reduce energy costs. However, last night, President Biden’s tools of choice were yet another Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) release – which collectively covers less than a week of America’s energy needs; enacting tax credits to weatherize homes and encourage the adoption of electric vehicles – at a time when Americans struggle to both fill the gas tank and pay utility bills; and reshoring American jobs to improve supply chains, which is a process that will take years, if not decades.
Finally, President Biden hardly mentioning the climate crisis is something to behold, considering that just 13 months ago his Administration cited it as one of the four major crises they planned to address. However, in the place of the president’s grandiose and costly Build Back Better plan, the president offered tax increases on corporations and a "Unity Agenda". Each and every American can relate to the importance of addressing the opioid crisis, furthering mental health, supporting our veterans, and defeating cancer, however, this so-called Unity Agenda provided limited details and does little to address the near-term economic crisis that has already arrived on American doorsteps.