JACK STONE TRUITT, Nikkei staff writer
NEW YORK — Six days into the invasion of Ukraine, U.S. President Joe Biden opened his first State of the Union Address by condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin and championing the resolve of NATO in face of Europe’s largest ground war in generations.
“Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated,” Biden said.
After 36 years in Congress and eight as vice president listening to other presidents give their annual speech, the address offered Biden a triumphant moment to at finally give one of his own. The occasion was familiar as the chamber was filled with maskless attendees for the first time since the pandemic began, but also remarkable given the specter of the rapidly evolving war in Ukraine.
“When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression they cause more chaos. They keep moving. And the costs and the threats to America and the world keep rising,” he said. “American diplomacy matters. American resolve matters.”
As concerns mount over a larger conflict with Russia — just over six months after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan created a vacuum that allowed the Taliban to quickly take over the country — Biden said American troops would not be fighting Russia on the ground in Ukraine.
“Let me be clear, our forces are not engaged and will not engage with Russian forces in Ukraine. Our forces are not going to Europe to fight in Ukraine, but to defend our NATO allies in the event that Putin decides to keep moving west,” he said.
State of the Union addresses rarely open with foreign policy, and even rarer — at least in recent years — do they begin with a bipartisan round of applause. But Russia’s war on Ukraine has been a galvanizing force that sent Biden’s speechwriters scrambling for rewrites with each new development in Eastern Europe.
Biden’s hour-long speech made 30 references to Putin or Russia and their military forces which continue to close in on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The swift and sweeping response from the U.S. and its allies has given Biden a talking point tailor-made for his central foreign policy focus of combating rising autocracy across the world.
“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. This is a real test,” he said.
But that agenda was crafted as a counter narrative not to Putin and Russia but to China and its leader Xi Jinping. Yet Xi or China — America’s primary strategic adversary — were referenced just three times by Biden, each time in the context of economic competition to argue for Biden’s domestic legislative agenda.
“We’re going to have an infrastructure decade,” Biden said, touting his signature legislation as well as a dig at former President Donald Trump’s much maligned “infrastructure week” five years earlier.
“It is going to transform America and put us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st century that we face with the rest of the world, particularly with China. As I’ve told Xi Jinping, it is never a good bet to bet against the American people,” he said.
Prior to the Ukraine war, Biden was expected to use the address to make the case for a stalled legislative agenda as persistent inflation and a perceived sluggish response to tanked the president’s polling numbers. Coming into the address Biden’s approval rating was down 13 points from a year earlier.
The Republican rebuttal, delivered by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, targeted rising inflation and “weakness on the world stage” in foreign policy.
Following the opening salvo against Putin, Biden’s speech felt like a return to what was expected. The president churned through many topics, pivoting sharply from one to the next.
Biden wrapped up with a plea for bipartisanship, identifying four areas where progress could be made: beating the opioid epidemic, tackling mental health, supporting veterans, and ending “cancer as we know it” by cutting the disease’s death rate by half over the next 25 years.
“We are stronger today than we were a year ago, and we will be stronger a year from now than we are today,” he concluded before adding one final, if ambiguous, deviation from his prepared remarks.
“Go get him!”