By Chris Megerian
WASHINGTON (AP) — Midway through his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Joe Biden pleaded with the country to finally, after nearly one million deaths, stop viewing the coronavirus as a political fault line.
“Let’s use this moment to reset,” he said.
It was a phrase that applied to much more than the pandemic.
After a first year that saw his most ambitious plans bogged down and his public approval ratings plummeting, Biden delivered a speech that aimed to turn the page and prepare his party for midterm elections in November.
He did not mention the words “build back better,” the name of his stalled legislative agenda, speaking instead of “building a better America.” He insisted he would battle inflation, promising he had a “better plan” to cut cost increases than the Republicans.
He acknowledged that Americans are “tired, frustrated and exhausted” as he marked a “new moment” when the coronavirus will be more manageable and masks will be needed less often. He did not take credit for keeping his promise to end the country’s longest war, eliminating any mention of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden has instead focused on a new war in Europe, where Russia invaded Ukraine days ago, bringing to life the global battle between autocracy and democracy he is often warned about.
“While it wouldn’t have taken something so terrible for people around the world to see what’s at stake, now everyone sees it clearly,” he said.
Instead of his usual warnings about expanding the power of dictatorships, Biden said “democracies are on the rise, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”
In a flourish that did not appear in Biden’s prepared remarks, he issued a warning to President Vladimir Putin as he rattled off a list of sanctions intended to undermine Russia’s economy as punishment for the invasion.
“He has no idea what’s coming,” he said.
Even if US troops are not deployed to fight directly in Ukraine, the war could still have ripple effects that drive up gas prices. Biden promised to limit the effects and stressed the need to confront Putin.
“When dictators don’t pay the price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” he said. “They keep moving. And the costs and threats to America and the world continue to mount.
Some lawmakers wore yellow and blue outfits or had ribbons pinned to their lapels to show their support for Ukraine. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States sat down with first lady Jill Biden, who had an embroidered appliqué of a sunflower, the country’s national flower, added to her blue dress.
Few presidents have had such urgent foreign and domestic crises fomented at once, so early in their term, and with a nation deeply polarized on so many issues.
Biden tried to draw a connection between the two as he called on Republicans who rejected him at almost every major turn to now join him in a common cause.
It won’t be an easy sell because a single speech is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on how Americans view Biden’s professional performance.
But Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked for Biden’s campaign, said the Ukraine dispute has created an opportunity for the president to show his strengths on the international stage.
“More people have a question mark, what kind of leader do we have in charge right now?” said the lake. “And they’re going to see what kind of leader we have.”
A look around Capitol Hill on Tuesday revealed mixed progress.
Although nearly 2,000 people still die from the coronavirus each day, masks were made optional on Capitol Hill in time for the speech. Attendance was less limited than last year, when Biden addressed a joint session of Congress a few months after taking office.
But law enforcement reinstalled a security fence around the Capitol “out of an abundance of caution” amid fears protests could disrupt the city. The fence was last put in place in the months following the Jan. 6 attack on the building as Trump supporters sought to prevent certification of Biden’s election.
Biden reiterated his call to pass voting rights legislation, but he spent more of his speech singling out politically popular proposals such as limiting the cost of prescription drugs.
And he plans to continue promoting the benefits of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure legislation he signed into law last year, though he has broken down the plan into some of its most popular elements rather than introduce a bill that was actually too big to describe.
Biden will follow the State of the Union by traveling to Superior, Wisconsin, home to the 61-year-old Blatnik Bridge. More than 33,000 vehicles use the bridge daily to cross St. Louis Bay, although its deteriorating conditions mean large trucks are prohibited. It’s a challenge because the bridge is a key connection to Duluth, Minnesota and its port, the nation’s largest freshwater hub for international and domestic cargo.
It’s part of a delicate balancing act for him, with his focus on the rapidly unfolding war in Ukraine, and the prospect of it escalating into a much larger conflict, and persuading Americans that he’s is also focused on issues closer to home.
Only 29% of Americans believe the nation is on the right track, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research February poll.
Biden’s approval rating also fell to 44% from 60% in July.
So the president spent the evening asking for a fresh start, born out of the most serious conflict with Russia in a generation, and another chance to explain his national agenda.
“He’s got his back against the wall and he’s got his party’s back against the wall,” said Whit Ayres, a seasoned Republican pollster.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Chris Megerian covers the White House for The Associated Press.
This story has been edited to correctly spell Whit Ayres’ last name.