When President Joe Biden began mulling the themes he wanted to strike during his State of the Union address, the President knew he would likely need to include Russia’s buildup of troops near Ukraine.
But in those early drafting sessions late last year, he did not expect the speech to act as a rallying cry for a besieged European nation. Now, as Biden prepares to deliver his yearly address to Congress and the nation, the White House and Democratic allies are acknowledging the war in Ukraine will assume an outsized role in what his advisers had once viewed primarily as an attempt to reset his economic agenda.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday that “there’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago.” And Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee who’s a longtime friend and colleague of Biden’s, said the President’s domestic agenda and any accomplishments he will outline during the address have effectively “been eclipsed by Ukraine.”
While the historic Supreme Court nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will still be part of the President’s message, Durbin said it would understandably take a back seat to escalating conflict in Ukraine by Russia.
“It’s a life and death struggle,” Durbin said, “that will be front and center.”
Russia’s invasion has galvanized Western nations and, in an era of bitter division in the United States, drawn mostly unanimous condemnation from Democrats and Republicans alike. It makes for an urgent illustration of Biden’s animating principle of protecting democracies from a global wave of autocracy.
Biden and his team have revised portions of his speech to reflect the crisis, which the administration has been warning about for months. Once-unthinkable images of missiles and urban warfare in a European capital have gripped the President and his aides as a 70-year peace on the continent is tested anew.
As he was drafting the address with members of his team, Biden was thrust into a foreign policy emergency, sending them into the Situation Room nearly every day over the past several weeks as new intelligence showed the likelihood of an imminent attack growing.
Between his everyday meetings and frequent briefings about the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Biden has been preparing for his address by working with speechwriters and members of his policy team to adjust his message. He’s also been doing run-throughs of his remarks, according to the White House.
His longtime messaging guru Mike Donilon has worked alongside Biden’s top speechwriter Vinay Reddy on the tone and writing in the speech. Other policy advisers have helped corral the annual litany of requests from across the government to include various agencies’ priorities in the speech.
Psaki told reporters on Monday that Biden is expected to lay out the efforts he has taken “to rally the world to stand up for democracy and against Russian aggression.”
“He will talk about the steps we’ve taken to not only support the Ukrainian people with military and economic assistance, but also the steps he’s taken to build a global coalition imposing crippling financial sanctions on President Putin, his inner circle and the Russian economy,” she continued. “And he will talk about the steps he’s taken to mitigate the impact of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, on the global economy and the American people.”
Psaki also said Biden is expected to discuss the US’ importance as a global leader and the efforts he’s undertaken to mitigate the impacts of the war in Ukraine on Americans.
The speech on Tuesday won’t be entirely about the war in Ukraine. Biden is still expected to tout his major accomplishments: the nomination of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, the prospect of a return to normalcy as Covid-19 cases wane and the passage of his first two major legislative priorities in his first year in office.
At the same time, he will seek to recalibrate an economic message that acknowledges the hardships many Americans are facing amid higher prices. That message, officials previewing Biden’s remarks have said, will focus on a new plan to lower costs for American families and his administration’s efforts in the labor market’s recovery.
As he wrote his address, Biden sought ways to convey his understanding of Americans’ economic unease, according to officials, who say the President will deliver a message that reflects the anxiety over inflation while also touting the past year’s accomplishments.
Biden is expected to announce two new specific initiatives in a pair of disparate industries: the ocean shipping sector and nursing homes.
He’ll use the shipping example to illustrate corporate consolidation the administration says is driving up prices; three conglomerates now control 80% of global container ship capacity. Biden is launching an initiative between the Federal Maritime Commission and the Justice Department to promote greater competition.
He’ll also highlight the toll Covid-19 has taken on nursing homes and announce new steps to improve conditions in those facilities, including plans to establish a new minimum staffing ratio and expand penalties for poorly performing homes.
The President also plans to call on Congress to send him legislation combating climate change, arguing that some of the tax credits he has petitioned for would lower costs for families. Biden “will call on Congress to deliver on a legislative agenda for clean energy and climate action that has overwhelming support from the American people – Republicans, Democrats and independents,” a senior administration official said.
During his remarks, Biden will specifically call for renewed investment in and tax credits for domestic energy manufacturing and deployments, steps the administration says could save Americans an average of $500 a year in energy costs.
“As part of the President’s unwavering support for climate solutions, these investments will reduce emissions, lower costs for families, create good-paying jobs for workers and advance environmental justice,” the official told reporters Monday.
A lingering pandemic
Biden is expected to address the evolution of the pandemic and the US’s response to it during the speech, amid changes to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and the White House’s work to develop a strategy for the next phase of the pandemic.
A White House official said the President will highlight the “tremendous progress” the US has made in the fight against Covid, putting the country “in a position to move forward safely.”
He will do so ahead of the release of the new strategy document that White House officials have been working on for weeks. The document was expected to be rolled out in time for the State of the Union – as long as the Covid risk continued to decline and the CDC released its updated guidance first – but was delayed amid the rapidly unfolding situation in Ukraine, which has dominated Biden’s attention, one senior administration official said.
Led by Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients, White House officials have spent weeks putting together a new document outlining the administration’s strategy to tackle the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, officials said.
“How do we best optimize our current response and how do we prepare for the future,” one senior administration official said in describing the document, calling it a “40,000-foot strategy.”
Zients and others on the Covid-19 response team have spoken with a slew of outside experts as they craft the new strategy, which is expected to address how the nation can mitigate coronavirus effects while also reestablishing a sense of normalcy in the country, relying on the widespread availability of vaccines and new treatments.
White House officials have probed outside experts on a wide range of topics, from the future of masks and vaccine requirements to efforts to distribute the vaccine globally to protecting immunocompromised individuals in a world in which most coronavirus restrictions are dismantled. The strategy will also address how the administration will respond to the nearly inevitable emergence of new variants.
“There’s the science itself, there’s how do you think X-Y-Z decision might resonate with public health experts? And how do you think it might play out?” said Dr. Celine Gounder, one of the experts the White House consulted. “We’re transitioning out of the crisis phase and into a more long-term strategy.
“That’s what they’re trying to figure out, is what does this look like? And I think the key is not that you stop doing anything, it’s that you try doing things that are less restrictive, less onerous,” said Gounder, who noted that the White House has “cast a wide net” in getting input from outside experts as it crafted the new strategy.
“In large part because we have more tools than ever before to protect Americans from Covid and to treat those who do get sick, we’re in a position to move forward safely in a way in which Covid no longer disrupts our lives the way it has previously,” the White House official said. “The President will also emphasize the need for the US to remain vigilant in the face of an unpredictable virus, including by preparing for future variants.”
In need of a political turnaround
Biden brings a mixed bag of political victories and legacy-altering challenges to this year’s address.
His poll numbers have slipped precariously since he first addressed a joint session of Congress a year ago. Then, Biden was enjoying the glow of a recently passed Covid stimulus bill and the successful start of a nationwide vaccination campaign.
This year, Americans have soured in their view of his performance. The persistent pandemic, higher prices, fears about crime and questions over government competence have all contributed to the slide. A sense of national disunity has not lifted, and the consequences will be visible on Tuesday, when a fence is erected around the Capitol to prevent protests from interrupting the speech.
Biden has also failed to advance his ambitious “Build Back Better” bill – stymied not only by unanimous Republican opposition but also by a key Democratic holdout, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The future of that bill, which includes items like expanded education and money to combat climate change, is in doubt and how Biden addresses a path forward on Tuesday has been a subject of some debate among his allies.
Biden’s second joint address to the House chamber, like his first one last year, will take place in front of a united Democratic Congress. It’s clear that Democrats hope Tuesday’s speech will be a moment when the President can deliver a message that gets through to voters and boosts his poll numbers – especially ahead of the November midterm elections. Though Biden isn’t on the ballot in 2022, the President himself has acknowledged that his administration has not adequately touted its own political victories.
Meanwhile, House Democrats, who have been hit with an avalanche of retirement announcements not seen in decades, are facing an uphill battle to hold control of the chamber in the midterms.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain told House Democrats in mid-February that he was hoping Biden’s State of the Union address would boost the President’s polling, in part by demonstrating leadership on national security and by showing empathy for Americans frustrated with Covid-19 and inflation.
Like Biden, Klain told lawmakers the White House believes it can do a better job of sharing with Americans what the administration has achieved in the President’s first year in office and that Biden plans to acknowledge frustrations about the spike in consumer prices as well as the pandemic, according to two lawmakers on the call and a person familiar with its contents.
There was acknowledgment that there is more work to be done to ensure that Democrats – including the President – are perceived as more trusted on their handling of the economy, with Klain suggesting part of that will entail touting certain economic data points, like the number of jobs created.
That effort won’t end with Tuesday’s speech. Biden has said he hopes to escape Washington more in the coming year to engage with Americans in the country, and on Wednesday he’ll visit Wisconsin to promote the infrastructure law that passed last year.
Signs of a change in political fortunes
Tuesday’s remarks will look different from the last speech Biden gave in the House chamber, when he spoke in front of a masked Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There were a limited number of attendees, who all wore masks and sat socially distanced.
This year, in contrast, every member of Congress has received an invitation to Tuesday’s address and masks will be optional following changes to public health guidance.
As in years past, the first lady will have guests in her box who illustrate some of the President’s messages and proposals. And more Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices will attend this year’s address.
Yet it is the heavy dose of foreign policy that will separate this year’s State of the Union from its predecessors. For Biden, it is the culmination of a nearly five-decade career that placed a premium on trans-Atlantic ties, including eight years as the Obama administration’s frontman on Ukraine.
Having once famously told Vladimir Putin to his face that he believed the Russian leader “had no soul,” Biden is now in a generational struggle that could have a lasting global impact.
This story has been updated with additional reporting Monday.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Donald Judd contributed to this report.