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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

5 takeaways from the State of the Union address

By Michael D. Shear

President Joe Biden used his first State of the Union address Tuesday night to condemn President Vladimir Putin of Russia, rally global support for the besieged country of Ukraine and convince Americans that his administration has made progress toward a COVID-19-free time of economic and social prosperity.

The hourlong address, delivered to a mostly maskless audience of lawmakers and others in the House chamber, was in some ways two separate speeches: The first half focused on the war unfolding in Europe, followed by a second half aimed at reviving his stalled domestic policy agenda in Washington.

Biden drew bipartisan standing ovations for some declarations, including comments on the need to fund police, keep schools open and support Ukraine. But Republicans sat, stone-faced, on their hands when the president called for more spending on child care and criticized a Trump-era tax cut.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., interrupted Biden twice, once when she tried to start a “Build the Wall!” chant during remarks about immigration, and again when she suggested that Biden put service members killed in Afghanistan in graves, yelling: “You put them in — 13 of them!”

The beginning sent a message to Russia.

The president began his speech with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, speaking even as bombs continued to fall on Kyiv, that nation’s capital. For Biden, the moment was in some ways the culmination of decades of experience in foreign policy as a senator, vice president and now president.

He vowed to make Putin “pay a price” for the invasion, and he announced that he would ban Russian planes from flying over the United States. He asserted forcefully that Putin would regret the decision to send his forces across a sovereign border.

Domestic issues dominated the second half.

The rest of Biden’s address was more of a traditional State of the Union, shifting quickly from one part of his domestic policy agenda to another.

Before the events in Russia, the White House had hoped the president could use the speech to restart his stalled domestic agenda. He tried to do just that Tuesday, renewing his call for pieces of his failed “Build Back Better” plan that was stopped by Republicans and two recalcitrant Democratic senators.

His pitch included a renewed call for expanded child care, elder care, prekindergarten education, climate change initiatives and prescription drug price cuts. But he gave no indication of why he thought he could get support for the programs this year when he could not last year.

“What are we waiting for?” he asked lawmakers. “Let’s get this done.”

A few centrist issues drew applause from both sides.

The largest standing ovation during Biden’s speech came when he forcefully rejected demands from some liberal Democrats to “defund the police,” attempting to make it clear that his administration — and most Democrats — did not embrace that part of a portion of the party’s agenda.

“We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police,” he said. “Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training, resources and training they need to protect their communities.”

The moment was a direct challenge to Republicans who have sought to cast Biden and his administration as card-carrying members of the far left. He called for sending hundreds of millions more to police departments even as he insisted there was no need to “choose between safety and equal justice.”

‘We will stay on guard’ regarding COVID.

Last summer, Biden declared that the country had achieved “independence” from the coronavirus — a Fourth of July moment that he came to regret when the delta, and then omicron, variants swamped the country and brought back restrictions.

In his speech Tuesday, Biden sought to walk a more careful line, telling Americans that the country is “moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”

White House officials are eager for the pandemic to be over, saying publicly that COVID-19 exhaustion has weighed heavily on Biden’s approval ratings. But the president avoided saying that there was nothing more to worry about.

“We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases,” the president said. “And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard.”

Barely mentioned topics included some of the biggest on Democrats’ agenda.

There were few subjects that did not get a mention in Biden’s speech. But some of the Democratic Party’s biggest agenda items — like climate change, immigration, gun control and abortion rights — received only cursory treatment.

On climate change, which is perhaps one of the party’s most unifying subjects, he stayed away from calling for far-reaching action. Instead, he focused mostly on limited actions that he urged lawmakers to take by passing parts of his social spending legislation.

“Let’s provide investments and tax credits to weatherize your homes and businesses to be energy efficient and you get a tax credit; double America’s clean energy production in solar, wind, and so much more,” he said.

Biden urged lawmakers to pass an overhaul of the immigration system, but he also gave a nod to the need for border security, a message that is likely to draw criticism from immigration activists who already blame him for maintaining some Trump-era immigration restrictions.

With the Supreme Court weighing whether to overturn Roe v. Wade, Biden briefly called for preserving “a woman’s right to choose.” And he called for passage of the Equality Act, which would protect transgender Americans from discrimination.

He mentioned voting rights and gun control but did not dwell on either. And just days after nominating a Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court for the first time in history, he spent only a moment hailing her legal credentials and never mentioned that she is Black or the history made by his choice.

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