Mar. 2, 2022
Saleha Mohsin, Jenny Leonard and Nancy Cook
President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address came as he faces a pivotal moment in his presidency amid major headwinds ranging from Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine, soaring inflation and lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden opened his speech by labeling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “dictator” and vowing to stand by Ukraine — then quickly pivoted to his biggest domestic priorities of combating inflation and lowering drug prices.
In his 62-minute remarks to Congress on Tuesday night, Biden tried to revive his stalled “Build Back Better” economic package. This time, he rebranded it as “Building a Better America.”
Here are five conclusions.
He’ll stare down Putin
The first 10 minutes were about highlighting a united front over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was one of the rare bipartisan moments in the speech, punctuated by the tearful mouthed “thank you” from Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, who was sitting in the gallery as first lady Jill Biden’s guest.
Biden called Putin a “dictator,” and asked the audience to stand to show their support for Ukraine.
“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,” he said. “He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready.”
He’s putting COVID behind him
Following the lead of governors around the country, Biden announced that the disease that hobbled the U.S economy “need no longer control our lives.” The biggest coronavirus-related news was that that the federal government would soon make Pfizer’s anti-viral pills available at pharmacies for free immediately upon a positive test. He also said people will be able to order another round of free tests from the government.
In an unexpected move that may cause unease among some Americans still wary of the virus, Biden urged people who have been working from home for nearly two years to return to their offices.
Biden called on Americans to “fill our great downtowns again.” Many restrictions have already been lifted as Congress sat unmasked but socially distanced in the House chamber. “People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office,” he said.
The national rate of coronavirus infections on average increased less than 0.1 percent over the past week, and more states including Michigan are lifting mask mandates.
Inflation is job one
Biden sought to sympathize with Americans feeling the pain of inflation at the grocery store and gas pump. The president said his “top priority is getting prices under control.” He recalled the uncertainty he felt when his father lost his job. “I grew up in a family where if the price of food went up, you felt it,” Biden said.
He demanded more competition in concentrated industries that were overcharging Americans, and also pushed for cutting the prices of prescription drugs, childcare, and the reduction of health-care premiums, tax breaks to encourage a shift to address climate change, and more affordable housing.
“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer,” Biden said. “I think I have a better idea to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages.”
China barely gets a mention
It was notable that there were only two mentions of China in the hourlong speech, given the increased tensions between the world’s two biggest economies. He only mentioned China in the context of competition and infrastructure.
“As I’ve told Xi Jinping, it is never a good bet to bet against the American people,” he said, citing a line he often uses to push for investment in domestic manufacturing.
He did not mention the country in the context of the war in Ukraine or his fight against autocracies and human rights abusers.
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 like extending the child tax credit and bringing down child care costs could bring relief to working 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.