Biden launches State of the Union with show of American unity in support of Ukraine

Opens with message for Vladimir Putin, before turning to domestic affairs

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, acknowledges President Joe Biden as first lady Jill Biden applauds during his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Pool)
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, acknowledges President Joe Biden as first lady Jill Biden applauds during his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Pool)
Posted March 1, 2022 at 10:32pm

President Joe Biden was greeted by an abundance of Ukrainian blue and yellow as he entered the House chamber to deliver his formal State of the Union.

The show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine as that country is at war after a Russian invasion underscored a central theme of Tuesday night’s address: the global response to the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways,” Biden said. “But he badly miscalculated.”

It would be only the sixth State of the Union address to mention Russia or the Soviet Union more than 10 times, according to data compiled by Factba.se, which, like CQ and Roll Call, is a FiscalNote business.

Early in the speech, the president prompted a standing ovation for the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who was seated with first lady Jill Biden.

Just two weeks ago, there were concerns that Putin was preparing an invasion, but it was far from clear that a war between Russia and Ukraine would become the focal point of foreign policy for much of the world, something perhaps brought about because Ukrainian military forces and civilians started fighting to the death to repel the Russian onslaught.

“Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked. 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 and this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe, as well,” Biden said. “But Putin was wrong.”

Many of the members wearing blue and yellow were organized by Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democrat from a Chicago-based district who chairs the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus.

“This small demonstration is meant to show the President and the world that Congress is a ready and willing partner as we provide even more military, humanitarian and financial aid to Ukrainians and their government,” Quigley said in a statement ahead of the speech.

Biden earned cheers from throughout the chamber, where members were spread out not only on the floor but also in the galleries because of the remaining COVID-19 protocols. Many members and other attendees didn’t wear masks, with the regulations in the Capitol having been loosened in the days ahead of the president’s speech.

The White House crafted the State of the Union to start with issues of greatest unity, and then to pivot to domestic policy, which predictably brought the first of the Republican jeers.

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to Congress in the Capitol on Tuesday night. (Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times/Pool)

Biden spoke to the pillars of his domestic agenda, highlighting the efforts to lower costs of prescription drugs and change the tax code, and he spoke to the upcoming Senate consideration of his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the next associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

He once again called on Congress to advance legislation to protect and expand voting rights, for lowering costs of electric cars, reducing child care costs and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, in addition to a panoply of other domestic policy agenda items.

He also got a show of bipartisan support for his remarks about the next phase of COVID-19, saying the tools are now available for Americans to return to more normal lives.

“It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people. People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to their offices,” the president said. “We’re doing that here in the federal government. The vast majority of federal workers will once again work in person. Our schools are open. Let’s keep it that way. Our kids need to be in school.”

“With 75 percent of adult Americans fully vaccinated and hospitalizations down by 77 percent, most Americans can remove their masks, and stay in the classroom and move forward safely,” Biden said, adding that he would still be requesting further supplemental spending to address the pandemic.

But in the end, the president turned back to a recurring theme of his presidency: democracy itself.

“In this Capitol, generation after generation of Americans have debated great questions amid great strife, and have done great things,” Biden said. “We have fought for freedom, expanded liberty, debated totalitarianism and terror. We’ve built the strongest, freest, and most prosperous nation the world has ever known.

“Now is the hour. Our moment of responsibility,” Biden said. “Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself.”

Chris Cioffi contributed to this report.