Before I begin… wow. What else is there to say about the terrible situation in Ukraine? My last column was already outdated before its release, as Russia’s invasion came before dawn on Thursday, Feb. 24. Just like the brave Ukrainian people preparing for brutal urban combat, I will always stand against all forms of authoritarian aggression. I can only hope for the rest of this community to do the same.
Back to the domestic: On the evening of Tuesday, March 1, United States President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress. For those unfamiliar with this practice, Article II, Section 3, of the United States Constitution establishes that presidents “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Since George Washington began the practice in 1790, most presidents have addressed Congress annually, in either late January or February. Some addresses were written instead of spoken in the 19th century, but modern presidents have given their SOTUs in person. As the pandemic interrupted last year’s address, Tuesday was the first in-person SOTU since former President Donald Trump’s final address on Feb. 4, 2020.
As I write the first part of this column before Biden’s address, I have several questions I hope will be answered Tuesday night. At the top of this list is America’s COVID-19 recovery. With cases declining everywhere and Democrats lifting pandemic restrictions seemingly faster than the virus can spread, how much credit will Biden take for “ending” the pandemic? And depending on the stance he takes, how will Republicans and less mainstream Democrats — such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — respond?
Next, will Biden seize the opportunity to escalate his rhetoric against Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine? Hours before Biden’s SOTU on Tuesday, European diplomats walked out in protest as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addressed the United Nations. Even neutral Switzerland and the Taliban are turning against Russia, so I doubt the president has much to lose by upping the ante here.
Finally, to what extent will Biden mention the economic concerns of his citizens? Soaring gas prices, supply chain issues and “Bideninflation” — which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) says margaritas “will not cure” — all threaten Americans financially and Democrats politically. If Biden is to restore the electorate’s confidence on the economy, some humility will do him wonders.
After a couple days of reflecting on the president’s address, I’m torn. On one hand, Biden seemed to say all the right things. But a classic gaffe and a bizarre interruption from far-right Republicans leaves me more confused than energized about the potential impact of Biden’s speech. (For those interested, the full SOTU text can be found on the White House website.)
First, some facts: Biden’s SOTU attracted 37 million viewers across America’s major networks — roughly equivalent to the number of people who watched Trump’s 2020 SOTU. This address also featured two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, behind the president for the first time in American history. Notably absent were California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, as well as a slew of Republicans who objected to the Capitol’s COVID-19 testing requirements.
Right away, Biden wasted no time in calling out Putin for invading Ukraine. The ongoing war was perhaps the SOTU’s greatest theme, as Biden promoted (a) the Western world’s effort to economically stifle the Russian ruble and (b) a new Department of Justice crackdown on Russian oligarchs. This $59 million initiative creates a DOJ task force — dubbed Task Force KleptoCapture — to prosecute the oligarchs’ financial crimes, and Biden’s announcement of it received widespread applause from members of both parties.
On COVID-19, Biden predictably promoted vaccines and his desire for the American people to return to working in person. He also refrained from taking too much political credit for the decline in cases, to the surprise of many. But in a break with an increasing number of Democratic leaders around the country, Biden rejected the idea of living with the virus and instead outlined four “common sense steps” for moving forward.
Biden’s response to the criticism he’s received for his handling of inflation exceeded my expectations. The president said the word “inflation” six times during his address, which is at least five times more than I think anyone expected. Additionally, Biden touted the revitalization of “made in America” manufacturing as the solution to supply chain issues. While some on the president’s left may dislike this nationalist tone, I applaud it — especially as the pandemic wanes and different countries adopt vastly different trade policies.
Beyond the answers the SOTU provided to my three main questions, Biden spoke about various other issues, including voting rights, gun control and the need to support law enforcement. He did not mention any plans to forgive trillions of dollars in student loan debt, which angered Ocasio-Cortez during her appearance on MSNBC Tuesday night.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Biden speech without an embarrassing gaffe, and his “Iranian people” blooper will go down in presidential history alongside many quotes from his predecessor.
Somehow, this wasn’t even the worst moment of the night — that honor goes to Rep. Lauren Boebart (R-Colo.). As Biden spoke about helping veterans exposed to toxic burn pits during the Iraq War, Boebart heckled the president. “You put them there, 13 of them,” she shouted, in an apparent reference to the 13 soldiers killed during America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. Not to be outdone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) immediately stood up, clapped excitedly and shouted “that’s right” several times. Someone must have forgotten to tell them that Congress isn’t the place for House of Commons antics!
By addressing Congress in his first SOTU, Biden has effectively articulated the Democratic platform for November’s midterms. The power now shifts to Democrats at the state and local levels, who must back candidates capable of winning on Biden’s agenda. Conversely, the GOP must run candidates capable of exploiting weaknesses in said agenda — and then rein in Boebart and Greene.