- Ukraine loomed large over Biden’s first State of the Union address.
- Biden drew bipartisan applause as he discussed how the US is combatting Russia’s aggression.
- The president also touted his economic accomplishments and outlined his goals for the Supreme Court and voting rights.
President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address Tuesday night. He touched on a number of topics, but Ukraine loomed large over the event given its ongoing fight against Russia’s invasion. Biden also touted his administration’s accomplishments on issues including the economy, infrastructure, inflation, and the coronavirus pandemic.
Here are 11 key takeaways from Biden’s speech:
Ukraine takes center stage, uniting Democrats and Republicans
In a rare moment, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle stood up and clapped as Biden paid tribute to Ukraine’s fierce resistance to Russia’s brutal war against it. Russian troops invaded Ukraine last week as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to topple Ukraine’s democratically-elected government and bring it back into the Russian sphere of influence.
On Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans cheered while Biden said Putin “met a wall of resistance he never imagined” after attacking Ukraine.
They also gave a standing ovation to Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, who was watching Biden’s address from the viewing box with First Lady Jill Biden.
The president announced that the US will close its airspace to Russian planes, a major development that signifies the Biden administration’s commitment to countering Russia’s aggression.
Biden reiterated the US’s commitment to NATO and the post-World War II order.
“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson: when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” Biden said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “They keep moving. And the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising.”
“That’s why the NATO alliance was created to secure peace and stability in Europe after World War II,” Biden continued. “The United States is a member along with 29 other nations. It matters. American diplomacy matters. Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked.”
Biden highlighted other steps the US and its European allies have taken to hold Putin accountable and bolster Ukraine’s defenses, including imposing harsh sanctions on Russia and sending weapons and armor to Ukraine.
“He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond,” Biden said of Putin. “And he thought he could divide us here at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready.”
Congress shows solidarity with Ukraine
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were seen wearing blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — as well as US and Ukraine flag pins.
Among those lawmakers were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wore a red, white, and blue tie.
—The Associated Press (@AP) March 2, 2022
Some lawmakers also posted video messages and photos signifying their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and its fight against Russia.
—Senator Mitt Romney (@SenatorRomney) March 1, 2022
—Rep. Abigail Spanberger (@RepSpanberger) March 2, 2022
—Sherrod Brown (@SenSherrodBrown) March 2, 2022
Biden distances himself from “defund the police”
Biden took a moment to once again declare that he does not support the call from progressives to lower funding for America’s police departments. San Francisco and other cities have reversed their actions to slash budgets as they deal with rising crime.
“We should all agree: The answer is not to Defund the police,” Biden said to cheers from even some Republicans. The GOP has renewed a decades-old effort to paint Democrats as soft on crime.
“The answer is to FUND the police with resources and training … they need to protect our communities,” Biden added.
Not all Democrats were happy with Biden’s message.
“With all due respect, Mr. President. You didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech,” Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri, who rose to prominence during the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, wrote on Twitter.
—Cori Bush (@CoriBush) March 2, 2022
Lawmakers ditch masks
Biden kicked off his first State of the Union by noting that “last year, COVID-19 kept us apart. This year, we are finally together again.”
Most members of Congress who attended Biden’s address, both Democrats and Republicans, did not wear masks, as Insider’s Oma Seddiq noted. The shift came after the Capitol Hill’s attending physician said earlier this week that masks are now optional in the building.
—Matt Fuller (@MEPFuller) March 2, 2022
Biden on Tuesday urged unity on combatting the pandemic, saying, “Let’s stop looking at COVID-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: a god-awful disease.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) eased mask restrictions last week for roughly 70 percent of the country. Health experts previously slammed the White House for declaring victory over the coronavirus prematurely before the Omicron variant sent cases soaring in early winter. The US appears headed in a better direction as cases have dropped off nearly 85 percent since January.
A focus on the economy
Biden touted two major legislative achievements during the speech: the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and a bipartisan infrastructure law designed to strengthen America’s roads, bridges, ports, and more.
Biden drew considerable Republican support for the infrastructure law, achieving a victory that eluded his Republican predecessor Donald Trump. He brought up how states and cities are implementing new programs to upgrade airports and improve the country’s climate resiliency.
The president also devoted a large amount of the address to reining in inflation, which has hit a four-decade high as a result of supply-chain bottlenecks and a persistent shortage of workers. He pitched his stalled legislative agenda as one meant to cut prices for families in areas like healthcare and childcare. In addition, he argued it would cut the deficit to win over Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democratic holdout.
Biden added that strengthening supply chains and shoring up domestic manufacturing are two of his big goals to tamp down rising prices squeezing pocketbooks.
“Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America,” he said. “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.”
The president also pressed Congress to approve a host of other priorities, like renewing the expired child tax credit, a $15 hour minimum wage, and a paid leave program. But those measures face an uphill climb to become law over GOP resistance.
Democrats booed Trump’s $2 trillion tax cut
A chorus of boos and jeers broke out among Democrats when Biden referenced the “two trillion dollar tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefited the top one percent of Americans.”
His remarks also resulted in an awkward moment in which Schumer prematurely stood up to applaud before sitting down, and then stood up again to clap with fellow Democrats when Biden mentioned the American Rescue Plan.
—ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) March 2, 2022
A subtle jab at Trump
Biden appeared to mock his predecessor while discussing his administration’s efforts to prioritize infrastructure.
“We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks,” Biden said. “We’re going to have an infrastructure decade.”
The notion of an “infrastructure week” became something of a joke during the Trump administration, as talks of a sprawling infrastructure deal were repeatedly derailed by arguments over funding and Trump’s assertion that he would not work with Democrats on the issue while they investigated his myriad of business dealings and personal life.
Biden pays tribute to his late son Beau
The president put the spotlight on veterans issues and the lack of comprehensive health and medical benefits afforded to veterans.
They “are the best of us,” Biden said, going on to tout his administration’s steps to provide assistance with job training and housing, and helping lower-income veterans get debt-free care.
Biden also noted the danger that toxic burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan pose to US servicemembers.
“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors were never the same,” Biden said. “Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”
He continued: “I know. One of those soldiers was my son, Major Beau Biden.” The younger Biden died in 2015 after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
“We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops,” the president said. “But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.”
Rep. Lauren Boebert interrupted Biden as he began talking about Beau Biden’s death, invoking the 13 American troops who were killed in Afghanistan last summer as they tried to protect the Kabul airport during the US’ chaotic withdrawal.
“You put them in, 13 of them,” Boebert shouted in the chamber just as Biden was beiginning to mention Beau, according to multiple reporters in the chamber. A number of Democratic lawmakers booed the congresswoman.
Biden said many veterans like his son suffer from lifelong injuries, including cancer, after serving in combat. He said Beau may have developed his brain cancer as a result of exposure to toxins from burn pits in Iraq.
Biden touts his historic nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson for the Supreme Court
Biden paid tribute to retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, calling on lawmakers to “honor someone who has dedicated his life to serve this country.”
The president also noted his nomination of US appeals court judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to replace Breyer after he steps down from the high court.
“One of our nation’s top legal minds,” Jackson “will continue Justice Breyer’s legacy of excellence,” Biden said.
The Senate is expected to move quickly to try to confirm Jackson, who would be the first Black woman to sit on the high court.
Democrats don’t need Republican votes if the party stays united on confirming Jackson to the high court, but Biden has repeatedly pointed to Jackson’s confirmation process as a potential ground for bipartisan cooperation.
Voting rights ‘under assault’
Biden implored lawmakers to pass voting rights measures including the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. He also urged the passage of the Disclose Act, “so Americans can know who is funding our elections.”
The president stressed that the right to cast a ballot and to have it counted is “the most fundamental right in America.”
“And look, it’s under assault,” Biden said. “In state after state, new laws have been passed, not only to suppress the vote — we’ve been there before — but to subvert entire elections.”
Republican-controlled states have passed new laws that tighten ballot access, restrict the authority of election officials, and, in some cases, give partisan officials more control over elections. Biden, who has described such laws as “Jim Crow in the 21st century” and the biggest challenge American democracy has faced since the Civil War, put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of leading the administration’s voting rights push.
But the White House and congressional Democrats have come up short in their efforts to pass sweeping voting rights and democracy reform legislation.
Senate Republicans blocked the consideration of multiple voting rights bills in 2021, culminating in Schumer’s January attempt to deploy the nuclear option to change the Senate’s filibuster rules to pass such legislation along party lines. But Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema joined every Senate Republican to block that effort as well, dooming any chance of substantive voting rights protections passing Congress before the 2022 midterms.