(WASHINGTON) — President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address looked very different Tuesday night than it would have a few weeks ago — before Russia invaded Ukraine, inflation kept rising and coronavirus guidance dramatically shifted.
From the war in Ukraine to rising prices at home, here’s a look at the key takeaways from Biden’s first State of the Union address to Congress:
Calling out Putin by name
The president kicked off his speech with strong words of support for the Ukrainian people and their president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“From President Zelenskyy to every Ukrainian,” Biden said, “their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, literally inspires the world.”
The president praised his strategy of standing in lockstep with Europe and NATO allies in imposing harsh sanctions on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, arguing they solidified the NATO alliance and that the Russian president was now “more isolated from the world than he has ever been.”
“Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked,” Biden said. “He rejected repeated — repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber, in this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready.”
The president also announced the U.S. would ban Russian airlines from American airspace, after Europe and Canada took similar steps Sunday.
“When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” Biden said.
First lady Jill Biden hosted Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, as a guest in her box. She received a standing ovation from Democrats and Republicans, many of whom wore the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The president devoted about one-fifth of his speech to Ukraine — and received rare bipartisan applause for much of what he said — a significant chunk in an address typically focused on partisan domestic issues.
Heavy focus on countering inflation
With low approval ratings for his handling of the economy — and inflation top of mind for Americans — Biden proclaimed: “I get it.”
“Too many families are struggling to keep up with their bills,” he said. “Inflation is robbing them of gains they thought otherwise they would be able to feel.”
He said his “top priority is getting prices under control.”
But many of his proposals will rely on a Congress that has been reluctant to pass much of his social spending proposals.
Emphasizing the need to boost domestic manufacturing, Biden also called for some specific items that would have been part of his stalled “Build Back Better” plan: cutting the cost of prescription drugs, combating climate change in order to lower energy costs, lowering the cost of child care, and instituting free, universal pre-K, among other initiatives.
He touted the nation’s economic recovery but acknowledged that factories had closed, supply chains had been disrupted and prices had gone up.
Biden said his “plan to fight inflation” was, “Lower your costs, not your wages.”
A new phase in the coronavirus pandemic
Biden acknowledged Americans were “tired, frustrated and exhausted” from the coronavirus pandemic — but also signaled the U.S. was entering a new phase.
“We’ve reached a new moment in the fight against COVID-19, where severe cases are down to a level not seen since July of last year,” he said.
He announced his administration was launching a “test-to-treat” program where Americans who test positive for COVID at drugstores could then receive free antiviral pills to treat the virus.
The president also said Americans would be able to order even more free rapid tests from COVIDTests.gov starting next week.
He warned the U.S. must “prepare for new variants” — and noted that scientists could “deploy new vaccines within 100 days” if necessary.
“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, COVID-19 no longer need control our lives,” Biden said.
“Last year, COVID-19 kept us apart. This year we’re finally together again.”
Few masks made appearances in the House of Representatives chamber where Biden spoke.
Under new protocols announced Sunday, attendees did not have to wear face coverings. Biden did not don one like he did last year; attendance was also much more restricted in 2021.
The president hobnobbed with members of Congress at close range in a scene reminiscent of pre-pandemic State of the Union events.
All attendees had to show a negative PCR coronavirus test to gain admittance, and several Republicans boycotted the speech by refusing to test.
But the testing did turn up at least four positive cases among lawmakers.
‘A unity agenda for the nation’
Biden has made a quest for bipartisanship a hallmark of his presidency, and during his speech he proposed what he called “a unity agenda for the nation.”
In addition to listing a variety of proposals that would have been part of a larger “Build Back Better” bill that passed the House but stalled in the Senate because of opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, he called for legislation to invest in cancer research, support veterans, combat domestic violence and more.
“We can do these things,” Biden said. “It’s within our power.”
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