Biden to America: ‘We’re going to be OK’

President Joe Biden unfurled a resolute defense of democracy in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, declaring that the United States would act as a leader for the free world as it rallies with Ukraine against a brutal Russian invasion.

With a war raging an ocean away, Biden vowed that the United States would emerge from years of division and disease to protect and expand freedoms at home and abroad.

“While it shouldn’t have taken something so terrible for people around the world to see what’s at stake, now everyone sees it clearly,” the president said. “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’s speech was delivered against the backdrop of a pandemic that ignored borders and touched every corner of the globe for the past two years. It was not the one the president and his team had planned to give. But with the situation in Ukraine, the topics that had once been on the front burner — Covid, inflation and economic recovery — took a backseat, another reflection of a presidency that has been forced to respond to events rather than shaping them.

Biden made the implicit case for the need for alliances, reflecting his belief that the lockstep approach of NATO and European allies — who have sent weapons and supplies to Ukraine and unleashed punishing rounds of sanctions against Russia — has made the Ukrainian resistance possible. He condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and reasserted the United States’ role as a moral leader.

“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people,” he declared. “He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.”

Biden has long put at the center of his presidency the need to showcase to the world the powerful symbol of an America willing to forcefully follow its ideals. But rarely has his argument been so critically tested on such a massive stage. At times on Tuesday, the president seemed to be trying to will the public to believe that the campaign he was waging would work.

“But I want you to know that we are going to be OK,” he said at one point. “We’re going to be OK.”

The speech was Biden’s biggest stage of the past year, a chance to vouch to a wide audience for what his administration has accomplished. It was also an opportunity to try to turn around his own poor poll numbers and reassure Democrats nervous about their party’s chances in the 2022 midterms.

Having spent the last few months on the defensive, Biden tried out a new tack on Tuesday: He made an affirmative case for his success. Seizing the bully pulpit of a national prime-time address, he praised Ketanji Brown Jackson, his pick for the Supreme Court, as “one of the nation’s top legal minds.” And he took pains to point out his administration had passed two massive spending bills, including a badly needed bipartisan infrastructure deal to shore up the nation’s aging highways, bridges and water supply.

He also urged the revival of pieces of his Build Back Better agenda, which has crashed upon the rocks of opposition from his own party. While avoiding using the name of the package, the president ticked through items his aides believe enjoy broad support when taken independently: lowering prescription drug costs, making child care more affordable, raising taxes on the wealthy and helping fight climate change.

The speech bounced around, at times, from agenda item to agenda item, with some getting more attention than others. Though Biden has said defending the right to vote was the defining issue of his presidency, it received only a passing mention as he denounced Republican efforts to restrict access to the ballot, measures carried out in the name of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

“The most fundamental right in America is the right to vote — and to have it counted. And it’s under assault. In state after state, new laws have been passed, not only to suppress the vote — we’ve been there before — but to subvert entire elections,” he said.

He then offered a brief endorsement of federal legislation that has little chance to succeed, in part due to an opposition to filibuster reform by fellow Democrats. He did not say Trump’s name, nor did he mention the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, which was led by Trump supporters.

The president also touted the nation’s progress against the Covid-19 pandemic, pointing to his administration’s vaccination program as the primary cause behind the nation’s plummeting number of cases. The House chamber itself offered a visual testament to progress made and what remains to be done. A year ago, there were only a few audience members for Biden’s speech to Congress, and they were all wearing masks in a socially-distanced hall. This year, the lawmakers sat spaced out. All but a few had discarded their masks. But the halls of Congress were relatively bare compared to years past, and those who did show up were required to be tested for Covid beforehand.

The bipartisan standing ovation from the lawmakers for Ukraine was not often repeated, as many Republicans — those who showed up, as many stayed home — booed Biden’s mention of his domestic agenda. And, perhaps in a worrisome sign for Democrats, the senator who has helped derail parts of Biden’s agenda — Joe Manchin of West Virginia — crossed the aisle to sit among Republicans.

Biden took the stage far weaker politically than he did when he addressed Congress last April. Then, his administration had just pushed through a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill, had unveiled a sweeping re-imagination of the social safety net and was poised to forcefully reclaim its footing on the global stage after four tumultuous years of Trump.

But the war in Eastern Europe provided an ominous backdrop to the annual speech at the U.S. Capitol, creating an eerie split screen as Biden devoted the first lengthy section of his speech to Ukraine while social media feeds provided running updates on the shelling in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Biden paid tribute to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose leadership has made him an inspirational figure across the West, while first lady Jill Biden hosted the Ukrainian ambassador in her box in the chamber’s balcony.

Outgunned and outmanned, the Ukrainian forces have held off Putin’s war machine for nearly a week, but every hour has seemingly brought more Russian firepower to bear as massive convoys encircle Ukraine’s largest cities. Biden outlined a series of sanctions and announced the U.S. had closed its airspace to Russian planes, while sending a warning to the oligarchs who encircle Putin: Your wealth is not safe.

“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets,” Biden said. “We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”

“He has no idea what’s coming,” Biden added of Putin, in a line that was ad-libbed.

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