State of the Union addresses are often seen as a chance for US Presidents to turn the page on an issue, to launch a platform, or to simply control a narrative. To say Joe Biden’s first one was badly needed is an understatement.
After last summer’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, America’s commander-in-chief is facing another international dilemma with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and he delivered last night’s State of the Union address from a near-historically unpopular position (only his predecessor, Donald Trump, has had worse approval ratings at this time in their presidency).
Just as the crisis in Ukraine threatens the security of a European continent that was just eeking its way out of pandemic life, the Russian invasion may continue the corrosion of Biden’s image domestically whilst plaguing the Democratic Party’s already ominous midterm election hopes at the end of the year.
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Alongside the urgent situation in Ukraine, Biden’s ‘SOTU’ address attempted to alleviate concerns over potentially lingering consequences to his unsettled first year in office- namely economic inflation and the coronavirus pandemic.
On the topic of Covid-19, there was reason for optimism. The House Chamber was filled, all mask and vaccine requirements were dropped, and the president insisted that America had reached a “new moment” in the pandemic era.
However, whilst there were silver linings to his message on the pandemic, there was less optimism over rising inflation, with the president acknowledging that “so many families are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food, gas, housing, and so much more… I understand.”
A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 61% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, and inflation topped the list of issues that Americans see as the country’s most pressing problem. A struggling economy is traditionally an electorally devastating obstacle – a clear reason why Biden stated that addressing inflation was his “top priority” during his speech.
Biden’s address also received a rare moment of bipartisan support in the increasingly divided Congress. Both sides of the aisle repeatedly rose to their feet as he condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine, and Biden channelled Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s earlier message to the European Parliament as he proclaimed that “light will win over darkness” when he introduced the Ukrainian Ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova.
President Biden applauded the courage of Ukrainians & added that Putin’s war was premeditated & unprovoked
— CNBC-TV18 (@CNBCTV18News) March 2, 2022
Biden reportedly spoke with the Ukrainian President ahead of his speech on Tuesday, and whilst he maintained the stance that US troops would not be sent into Ukraine during his State of the Union address, the president underscored that he was prepared to “defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power.” This was unfortunately a stance in need of reinforcing considering Putin’s escalating threats to other European nations, including Finland and Sweden.
As much as what was included in Biden’s speech is illustrative over the current state of his presidency, a stark omission was just as telling: Build Back Better.
In his first joint address to Congress a year ago (a speech akin to a State of the Union but given in the early days of a president’s tenure), Biden’s presidency was still in its honeymoon stage, and his rhetoric was far more bullish over the future. However, Build Back Better, Biden’s ambitious domestic ‘human-infrastructure’ agenda, has since fallen victim to the pitfalls of a divided party, with Senator Joe Manchin – a frequent obstacle to Democrat hopes in the Senate in Biden’s first year- maintaining his opposition to the legislation.
The Democrats did still manage to pass a smaller infrastructure bill with bipartisan support earlier in Biden’s presidency, an achievement that he labelled “the most sweeping investment to rebuild America in history” in his speech. However, the collapse of its sister bill somewhat-overshadowed that victory, with divisions within the president’s party also dashing a voting rights reform bill a month ago.
In the traditional ‘rebuttal’ speech to the president’s address, given this year by the Republican governor of Iowa Kim Reynolds, Biden’s presidency was hit with criticisms that one can expect to be echoed by the GOP platform nationwide heading into this year’s midterms. Arguing that the weakness of Biden’s presidency is hurting both the American people domestically and the nation’s standing on the world stage, Reynolds stated that “it feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time.”
On the left, progressive leader Rashida Tlaib responded to Biden’s speech by pressing for the passage of the Build Back Better package, as the congresswoman called the agenda “unfinished” and said that “no one fought harder for President Biden’s agenda than progressives”. However, with what was supposed to be Biden’s landmark domestic agenda looking all but over, it makes sense why the president didn’t feel the need to repeat that bodyblow in this year’s speech.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds delivers Republican State of the Union response: “The president told us that he wanted to ‘make America respected around the world again and to unite us here at home.’ He’s failed on both fronts.” #SOTU https://t.co/fRRhmoV8PD pic.twitter.com/qfhm1VIT8w
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) March 2, 2022
It is no secret that Biden and his Democrat colleagues may be in for a rough year.
Inflation and a struggling US economy, a central pillar of last night’s speech, continue to provide political ammunition to the president’s Republican opposition. Two embattled foreign nations, Afghanistan and Ukraine, threaten Biden’s decision making credentials. Abortion rights are at risk of being upended after half a century of constitutional security… the list goes on.
Whilst last night’s SOTU speech cannot right any of these wrongs, or solve any of these issues outright, it did offer Biden the chance to appear presidential and take on many of the attacks on his first year in the White House. He took the opportunity to address a nation questioning his presidency, and although last night may not go down as a turning point, only significant victories and a sharp turnaround in fortune could realistically see to that.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: US President Joe Biden. Featured Photo Credit: Prachatai, Flickr