WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union (SOTU) address on Wednesday (Singapore time) was clearly designed to to project resolve and reassure an anxious nation.
The crisis in Ukraine, not surprisingly, loomed large over the address. But the president also used the opportunity to vow to tame soaring inflation, deal with the fading but still dangerous Covid-19 pandemic, and lobby for legislative packages aimed at strengthening America’s democracy and economic resilience.
On Ukraine, he blasted his Russian counterpart, Mr Vladimir Putin, announced a ban on Russian flights in US airspace, and elicited a rare show of unity when he declared that, whatever their political differences, he and all members of Congress shared “an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the US, was in the chamber as Mr Biden delivered his address. She was there as a special guest of First Lady Jill Biden, who had a sunflower – Ukraine’s national symbol – sewn into her sleeve. When President Biden asked lawmakers to acknowledge the Ukrainian envoy, the entire house stood and cheered.
“The United States - for now at least - is strongly united in response to Putin,” tweeted Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer. This was the “most unifying speech of (the) Biden presidency,” he added.
But Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, described the speech as disappointing, saying in a tweet that the President had “failed to explain why we will need to do more in the world, and if Ukraine is so important why not do more?”.
The speech also “missed a chance to message Russian people that our problem is with their leader and his war, not their country. Too much laundry list, not enough education.”
On the domestic front, the President while patting himself on the back over job creation, Covid relief packages and key legislation on infrastructure, positioned himself as a centrist.
On immigration, he spoke of stopping drug smuggling and human traffickers and the need for reform of the system.
On high crime rates – an Achilles’ heel for Democrats – he buried the progressive idea of defunding the police, saying: “The answer is not to defund the police; the answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
This did not go down well with the party’s progressives. Democratic Congresswoman from Michigan Rashida Tlaib in a response said “roads and bridges are critical, but so are child care and prescription drugs – and we shouldn’t have to choose.”
The President’s air of optimism was helped by the fact that mask mandates are being relaxed across the country as Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths all fall. The New York Times’ national Covid tracker on March 1 registered 58,986 cases – a 58 per cent drop over the previous two weeks.
As a result, none in the chamber yesterday wore face masks; after his speech the maskless President, mingled with legislators and guests alike.
Republicans were quick to slam the President on his domestic record, saying he was out of touch with reality.
The speech was full of “lies”, said top Fox News host Sean Hannity, a staunch ally of of Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump. Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott said: “The President’s speech tonight seemed to reflect an alternate reality to that of working Americans.
“Inflation is at a 40-year high due to Democrats’ economic mismanagement and wasteful spending,” he added.
“The President wants to continue down a path towards killing the American energy industry. The President also failed to convey confidence that he has a plan to combat rising crime.”
The political analytics website Five Thirty Eight’s average of polls, later on Tuesday night had the President at an approval rating of 41.1 per cent, with 53.6 per cent disapproving.
The President’s speech is unlikely to move those numbers much, analysts said, partly because SOTU speeches rarely do, historically.
Today, in a polarised, even toxic political environment charged with increasing tension over crucial mid-term elections in November, the only issue drawing any kind of unity across the aisle, is the Ukraine crisis.
Otherwise, the response to his speech seemed lukewarm. A CNN poll found that 71 per cent of Americans who watched the President’s speech had a positive reaction, with a more modest 41 per cent reacting “very positively.”
But that was a less enthusiastic response than what President Biden got for his joint address to Congress last April, when 51 per cent reacted very positively.
Asked whether the President had adequately addressed inflation concerns, 53 per cent said he had not while 54 per cent felt he did not adequately address the issue of violent crime.