President Joe Biden came to his first State of the Union address Tuesday night with tough words for his autocratic adversaries and a balm for his beleaguered population, battered by a grueling pandemic, rising prices and bitter political divides.
Throughout, Biden emphasized the same value he urged Americans to embrace in his inaugural speech: Unity.
"We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity," Biden said at the conclusion of a roughly hour-long address that spanned a range of topics from the Ukraine crisis to the U.S. economy to the pandemic, to legislative reforms in areas like gun rights and voting rights.
"We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today. Now is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time."
Focus on Ukraine
As Members of Congress waved small blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, Biden wasted no time addressing the escalating conflict between Russia and Ukraine, announcing that he was immediately closing U.S. airspace to Russian flights. He stuck to the topic for the next 10 minutes.
"Six days ago, Russia's Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways," he said, to what appeared to be widespread applause from the crowd of both Democrats and Republicans. "But he badly miscalculated. 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."
As if to underscore that point, Oksana Markarova, Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, joined first lady Jill Biden in her viewing box, and was greeted by a standing ovation. The White House said that the first lady had a small embroidered applique of a sunflower, Ukraine's national flower, sewn onto the wrist of her dark blue dress for the speech.
The coronavirus pandemic and as always, the economy, also featured prominently in Biden's address. He had previously addressed a joint session of Congress, but this is his first State of the Union speech.
On the pandemic, he said: "Because of the progress we've made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines."
Analyst Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said Biden's emphasis on consensus served him well during this speech.
"I thought what was particularly strong about the speech was starting very strong on Ukraine, and building bipartisan, enthusiastic applause, for a strong presentation," he told VOA via Skype. "Following that, especially with an appeal for bipartisan support, with a list of things that are hard to oppose, from opioid addiction to helping out veterans, especially those who have encountered toxic materials and gotten cancer or other kinds of diseases. At a time when we are enmeshed with tribalism, finding some issues where you could build that support – that's important."
"Overall, I thought it was more of a campaign speech than a State of the Union speech," said Vanessa Beasley, who teaches presidential rhetoric at Vanderbilt University. "And that makes a lot of sense, because in a way, he needs to talk about what's yet to come. And he also needs to rally everyone around the flag, in the same way you would with a campaign."
The evolving crisis in Ukraine has become a central focus of Washington in recent weeks. U.S. and NATO allies have imposed bruising sanctions that have caused Russia's currency and stock markets to plummet, and also pledged weapons and aid for Ukraine's government. But Biden also said no U.S. troops would fight in Ukraine.
"The Ukrainians are fighting back with pure courage. But the next few days weeks, months, will be hard on them," he said.
Some observers were looking for more action.
"It was an evening of symbolic support for Ukraine," said Brett Bruen, president of Global Situation Room. "We saw the members of Congress dressed and draped in blue and yellow colors. Yet, the new support that is so desperately needed was largely absent. The only new measure Biden announced was a small one, banning Russian aircraft from the United States."
Biden's fiercest American critics have also spared no words in lobbing critiques at him, with former President Donald Trump on Tuesday saying that "there should be no war waging now in Ukraine, and it is terrible for humanity that Biden, NATO and the West have failed so terribly in allowing it to start."
Biden's speech was followed by the Republican Party's response, delivered by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who blamed the president for high inflation in America and other woes.
"President Biden and his party have sent us back in time to the late 70s and early 80s, when runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing our cities, and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map," Reynolds said.
The governor added that Republicans are ready to lead even if a Democrat occupies the White House.
'Building a better America'
On the economy, Biden focused on four steps he plans to take: increasing manufacturing in the U.S. and strengthening supply chains; working to bring down prices of goods; promoting fair competition in order to protect small businesses; and eliminating barriers to well-paying jobs.
His economic pronouncements showed some of the deep divides in Congress, with members at one point booing his mention of a pandemic relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan.
"I think I have a better idea to fight inflation: lower your cost, not your wages," he said. "Make more cars and semiconductors in America or infrastructure and innovation in America or goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America instead of relying on foreign supply chains. Let's make it in America."
This speech is usually a showcase for some pomp and reflection on what it means to be American. This year was no different. The first lady was joined in her box by eight guests who the White House says were selected "because they represent policies or themes to be addressed by the president in his speech."
They included Americans who represent union labor, parents attending college, the health care workforce, technological innovators, military families, Indigenous Americans, and the future of America.
The youngest among them was seventh-grader Joshua Davis of Midlothian, Virginia, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a baby. At age 4, he advocated for the Virginia General Assembly to pass a bill making schools safer for children with Type 1 diabetes.
As is customary in a State of the Union speech, Biden exercised his presidential prerogative to make an announcement: He told the chamber that just a day earlier, Joshua turned 13.
"Happy birthday, buddy, by the way," Biden said.