(NewsNation Now) — With the backdrop of an escalating conflict in Europe, President Joe Biden spent a large part of his first State of the Union address vowing to check Russian aggression, saying it’s important to combat “dictators” before they “cause more chaos.”
“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 he began his speech, Biden asked lawmakers crowding the House chamber to stand and salute Ukrainians who have been fighting in their home country against a Russian onslaught for almost a week. Biden declared that he and all members of Congress, whatever political differences there may be, were joined “with an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”
It was a notable show of unity after a long year of bitter acrimony between Biden’s Democratic coalition and the Republican opposition.
“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people,” Biden said. “He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.”
Biden highlighted the bravery of Ukrainian defenders and the commitment of a newly reinvigorated Western alliance that has worked to rearm the Ukrainian military and cripple Russia’s economy through sanctions.
As Biden spoke, Russian forces were escalating their attacks in Ukraine, having bombarded the central square of the country’s second-biggest city and Kyiv’s main TV tower, killing at least five people. The Babi Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv was also damaged.
During his address, Biden said the U.S. is following Canada and the European Union in banning Russian planes from its airspace in retaliation for the invasion of Ukraine. He also said the Justice Department was launching a task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs, whom he called “corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime.”
“We are coming for your ill-gotten gains,” he said, pledging that the U.S. and European allies were looking for opportunities to seize their yachts, luxury apartments and private jets.
Pivoting to concerns at home, Biden then addressed what has become a major concern for voters: Inflation and the economy. Even before the Russian invasion sent energy costs skyrocketing, prices for American families had been rising, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to hurt families and the country’s economy.
Biden outlined plans to address inflation by reinvesting in American manufacturing capacity, speeding supply chains and reducing the burden of child care and elder care on workers.
“Too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills,” Biden said. “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”
Biden’s speech came amid public disapproval of his handling of the economy and the pandemic. The results of a recent NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ poll found that 57% of respondents disapproved of Biden’s handling of his presidency. Another 55% say he isn’t a clear communicator. And 88 percent said they were at least somewhat concerned about inflation, with 55 percent saying it was an even bigger concern than COVID-19 or unemployment.
As he disparaged the impact of the 2017 tax cuts, which mostly benefited wealthier Americans, though it cut taxes for a significant majority of the country, Biden was booed by Republicans in the chamber.
In a rare discordant moment, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado yelled out that Biden was to blame for the 13 service members who were killed during last August’s chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“You put them in, 13 of them,” Boebert yelled as Biden mentioned his late son Beau, a veteran who died from brain cancer and served near toxic military burn pits used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Biden is pursuing legislation to help veterans suffering exposure and other injuries.
Rising energy prices as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine risk exacerbating inflation in the U.S., which is already at the highest level in 40 years, eating into people’s earnings and threatening the economic recovery from the pandemic. And while the geopolitical 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 on his pledge to promote national unity.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, selected to give the Republican response, said Biden’s address came as a blast from the past with rising inflation, rising crime and a resurgent Russia, making it feel more like the 1980s than today.
“Even before taking the oath of office, the president said that he wanted to – quote – make America respected around the world again, and to unite us here. He’s failed on both fronts,” she said.
Biden used his speech to nudge the country back “to more normal routines” after two pandemic years reshaped American life.
“It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” he declared. He said people will be able to order another round of free tests from the government and that his administration was launching a “test to treat” initiative to provide free antiviral pills at pharmacies to those who test positive for the virus.
Where his speech to Congress last year saw the rollout of a massive social spending package, Biden this year largely repackaged past proposals in search of achievable measures he hopes can win bipartisan support in a bitterly divided Congress before the elections.
The president also highlighted investments in everything from internet broadband access to bridge construction from November’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law as an example of government reaching consensus and delivering change for the nation.
As part of his pitch to voters, he also put a new emphasis on how proposals such as extending the child tax credit and bringing down child care costs could bring relief to families as prices rise. He was said his climate change proposals would cut costs for lower- and middle-income families and create new jobs.
Biden called for lowering health care costs, pitching his plan to authorize Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, as well as an extension of more generous health insurance subsidies now temporarily available through the Affordable Care Act marketplaces where 14.5 million people get coverage.
Biden also appealed for action on voting rights, which have failed to win GOP support. And as gun violence rises, he returned to calls to ban assault weapons, a blunt request he hadn’t made in months. He called to “fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
He led Congress in a bipartisan tribute to retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and highlighted the biography of federal judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, his nominee be the first Black woman on the high court.