WASHINGTON — President Biden’s first formal State of the Union address focused on Ukraine, inflation, the coronavirus pandemic and a four-point “Unity Agenda.”
He urged world unity in standing up to Russia, listed ways he’s trying to address rising prices (even if they will likely have limited to no effect in the short term) and offered an optimistic outlook about the end of the pandemic.
Biden made mention of some progressive policy items, such as the need for robust voting-rights legislation and stood up for transgender and abortion rights (while leaving out some other topics such as climate change).
And he also touted some of his accomplishments of his first year, such as the COVID-19 relief bill and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. But the speech’s emphasis on many of Biden’s centrist policy positions, like not defunding the police, was a clear choice in an election year. It was reminiscent, in some ways, of Bill Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address made after Republicans’ historic gains in the 1994 midterm elections.
Here are five takeaways from Biden’s address to Congress:
1. This was a much more unified-looking Congress (for the most part) than in past years
Watchers of State of the Union addresses are pretty used to seeing, literally seeing, partisan applause lines. One half of the audience — the president’s party — usually stands and applauds for most things, while the other half — the opposition party — sits quietly or … voices their displeasure.
But for the most part, the mood was more unified on Tuesday night. And that’s because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian blue and gold was a hard-to-miss symbol of unity in a deeply polarized Congress with lots of members donning blue-and-gold flags and lapel pins.
The president’s defiant tone on the crisis elicited several moments of bipartisan applause, something rare in this partisan age. That is, of course, aside from some usual suspects.
2. Biden painted an optimistic portrait of life after COVID
Another striking visual was the absence of masks in this speech in the age of COVID-19. It was a sign of the eagerness that Americans feel in wanting to move past the pandemic, and the president was cautiously optimistic.
Biden called for people to get vaccinated, for children to get vaccinated, and for production and distribution of antiviral pills to protect vulnerable people. He also forcefully called for the country to get back to work, to “fill our downtowns” and to keep schools open.
Still, unlike in last July when he was close to declaring independence from the pandemic, only to be derailed by deadly variants, Biden said, “I cannot promise a new variant won’t come. But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”
On Wednesday, the White House is set to announce a new roadmap for moving forward on the pandemic.
3. He tried to empathize on inflation but delivered a healthy dose of economic nationalism
Biden tried to say he understands that inflation is pinching lots of Americans. “I grew up in a family where if the price of food went up, you felt it,” the president said, before pointing out that that’s why he pushed to pass the COVID-19 relief bill.
It was almost as if the White House had read the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, which asked Americans what they thought should be Biden’s top priority. Far and away, the top answer was inflation.
“I get it,” he said. “That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”
Biden laid out a kitchen-sink approach. He said he authorized releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; he spoke out against price gouging; and he called for the confirmation of his Federal Reserve Board nominees. He also took a nationalistic turn, promoting making products in America.
“Lower your costs, not your wages,” he urged companies. “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.”
All that is intended to show he’s on it, but traditionally, products made in the U.S. are more expensive because of the labor costs disparity between the U.S and other countries, such as China. Shipping costs are currently high, so there’s an argument that now is a good time to make a transition to making more at home.
But there isn’t much a president can do to curb inflation in the short term. He has to hope as the pandemic recedes, inflation goes along with it.
4. Biden touted his accomplishments and punched back against Republican attacks
The speech struck a unifying tone early on, but Biden got in his digs on Republicans, too, while boasting of his first-year legislative accomplishments.
“Unlike the $2 trillion tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefitted the top 1% of Americans,” Biden said, “the American Rescue Plan helped working people — and left no one behind. And it worked. It worked. It created jobs. Lots of jobs.”
Talking about the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Biden thanked Republicans who voted for it, but got this dig in on former President Donald Trump. “We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks,” he said. “We’re going to have an infrastructure decade.”
In this era of unabashed base politics, Biden needs to shore his up. The latest NPR poll found Biden lacking in his intensity of support. The White House has to hope some of this rhetoric — and pride — can help with that.
5. Not quite “triangulation,” but getting close
Cowed by sweeping Republican gains in the previous year’s midterm — and with an eye to his own reelection — President Bill Clinton gave a State of the Union address in 1995 that sought middle ground.
Biden certainly tried to seek out a middle path that focused on what he called a “Unity Agenda” with four parts — beating the opioid epidemic, taking on mental health, supporting veterans and ending “cancer as we know it.”
Beyond that, just look at how he talked about the police. Throughout his campaign, Biden broke from liberals in his party and called for more funding of police. He emphasized that again on Tuesday night.
“Let’s not abandon our streets – or choose between safety and equal justice,” Biden said, adding, “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police. Fund them with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
Biden has been suffering with independents, a group he won in the 2020 presidential election, and Republicans have been trying to brand him a socialist beholden to the left wing of his party.
These middle-ground statement were clearly an attempt to push back against that and appeal to moderates at a time when many of the issues hampering him are out of his control.