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Biden urges domestic and international unity in State of the Union

In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden pushed for international unity in opposition to Russia and among lawmakers in Washington.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Marking a pivotal moment in his presidency, President Joe Biden delivered the State of the Union Tuesday night, asserting the United States as a stalwart of democracy on the world's stage and pushing for legislative compromise in Washington.

The address came at a pivotal moment for Biden, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine placing his international leadership under the microscope, and stalled portions of his domestic agenda and low approval ratings at home creating a difficult environment for forging American unity.

Biden began the address speaking solemnly on Ukraine while looking out over a sea of lawmakers, many wearing yellow and blue in a nod to the Ukrainian flag.

"Six days ago, Russia’s 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. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people," Biden said, leading to the first unified standing ovation of the night.

The president said the Kremlin miscalculated the resolve of the U.S. and its allies when Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine and announced that the U.S. will ban Russian aircrafts from U.S. airspace, following suit with recent flight bans laid out by the European Union, Canada and the United Kingdom.

“Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And, he thought he could divide us here at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready,” Biden said.

While reiterating that no U.S. troops would set foot on the ground in Ukraine, Biden noted that ensuring Ukraine had support was a matter of the very thing core to America itself — democracy.

"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 said.

This messaging comes as congressional Democrats and Republicans have shown signs of bipartisan support for providing $6.4 billion in aid to Ukraine and neighboring countries as Russia continues to bear down it’s military might on Ukraine.

Lawmakers have toyed with tagging humanitarian and economic aid for Ukraine onto the government funding bill Congress needs to pass next week in order to keep the lights on in Washington.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, told reporters Tuesday they had “hit a snag” on negotiations over how to include the Ukrainian aid. McConnell said Democrats wanted to take the defense aid for Ukraine out of the defense department’s budget.

While his orations on Ukraine garnered bipartisan cheers and multiple full-chambered standing ovations, Biden's pivot to the economy exposed the deep political divides that remain in Washington.

Biden celebrated the impressively low unemployment rate and economic growth of the past year and touted his American Rescue Plan, which distributed stimulus checks and extended the child tax credit as Americans were dealt an economic blow by Covid-19.

"We needed to act, and we did. Few pieces of legislation have done more in a critical moment in our history to lift us out of crisis," Biden said.

It was this assertion that garnered the first round of "boos" from Republicans and cut through Biden's calls for unity as a reminder of the partisan schisms that persist.

While he lauded his economic achievements, the president acknowledged the toll the pandemic and decades-high consumer prices have had on Americans.

"But with all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills. 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 said.


Framing his legislative agenda and already passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill as the the remedy to the economy's woes, Biden tried to assuage American's financial concerns.

“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer,” Biden said. "I have a better plan to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And, instead of relying on foreign supply chains — let’s make it in America.

He revived calls for Congress to make headway on lowering prescription drug prices, resuscitating the child tax credit and doling out tax credits for clean energy — all policies formerly included in his ill-fated social spending plan known as the Build Back Better Act.

Referencing policies he pushed for early on in his presidency, Biden also urged Congress to lift the limit on Pell Grants to $2,000 a piece, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and create a national system for guaranteeing paid family leave.

The president also called on Congress to pass bills already on the agenda, including legislation focused on combating China's dominance in the manufacturing market, investing in domestic technology research and expanding production of semiconductors.

As he acknowledged the anxiety felt by many as prices at the pump and on the grocery store shelf continue to rise, Biden addressed the shadow that still lingers over the economy and Americans' every day lives.

"We have lost so much to COVID-19. Time with one another. And worst of all, so much loss of life," Biden said.

The sea of largely maskless lawmakers gathered inside the House chamber during the president's oration told a story about the pandemic all on its own. New CDC guidelines suggesting localities with low Covid-19 transmission and hospitalization rates could relax masking dropped days before Biden's speech, leading the Capitol to drop its mask mandate and allow State of the Union onlookers to attend after a negative PCR test.

While the pandemic is far from over and fears about the efficacy of child-approved vaccines have many still on edge, the mass of mingling maskless lawmakers was a striking visual background for Biden's assertion that the pandemic is entering a new moment.

"Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, COVID-19 need no longer control our lives. I know some are talking about 'living with COVID-19.' Tonight — I say that we will never just accept living with COVID-19," Biden said.

Striking a triumphant note, the president called for a return to in-person work and school, while noting that the pandemic is not yet over.

"We can end the shutdown of schools and businesses. We have the tools we need," Biden said.

Waiting until the end of his speech to describe the state of the union, Biden followed in the footsteps of the many presidents before him who have used the same word to define the status of the American experiment: strong.

"The State of the Union is strong — because you, the American people, are strong. We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today,"

While the yearly presidential address is but one singular moment in the fast-pace of Washington, Jeremi Suri, professor of public affairs and history at The University of Texas at Austin, said Biden's address made the president look, well, presidential.

"Biden’s optimism was compelling. This was probably his best speech as president so far. A mix of Reagan and Clinton themes," Suri said.

No speech can be the magic wand to change the political landscape of American politics, but they can create a moment for the president to reset the political agenda.

"Tonight's speech is unlikely to provide the President with a major boost in popularity, but could provide a much-needed reset that puts Covid in the rear-view mirror and shifts the focus to foreign policy. This could yield bipartisan support and in turn provide some momentum for his fledgling domestic agenda," Aaron Kall, author of "The State of the Union is ... : Memorable Addresses of the Last Sixty Years," said.



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