President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night, a speech that came amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and lagging poll numbers in advance of the 2022 midterm elections.
I watched the speech – and the reaction to it – and jotted down some of the best and the worst of the night.
* Inviting the Ukrainian ambassador to the US: Ever since Ronald Reagan first invited honored guests to the State of the Union, it’s been an opportunity for presidents to strike memorable moments in a speech that often feels like a laundry list of policy priorities. Biden’s decision to have the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States as a special guest of first lady Jill Biden made for an early high point in his speech as the chamber – Democrats and Republicans – rose to their feet to cheer. “We the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people,” Biden said.
* A history-making backdrop: For the first time ever, two women – Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi – sat behind the president of the United States during a State of the Union address. It was a remarkable visual. And it was history.
* A return to normal: As the camera panned the House chamber before Biden spoke, I couldn’t see a single person wearing a mask. When the President walked in, maskless, he immediately began shaking hands. It felt like every State of the Union before the world heard the words “Covid-19.” Biden said at one point: “We are moving forward safely back to normal routines.” At another: “Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, Covid-19 need no longer control our lives.” The words had more meaning because the chamber in which Biden said them looked a lot like normal.
* Pushing the reset button on Covid-19: One of the worst developments of the last two years is that a virus has become political football. Biden made a plea to change that reality. “Let’s stop looking at Covid-19 as a partisan dividing line and see it for what it is: A God-awful disease,” he said. “We can’t change how divided we’ve been. But we can change how we move forward – on Covid-19 and other issues we must face together.”
* “Fund the police:” Democrats have been facing calls from their most liberal members to defund the police amid a series of high-profile police shootings of people of color. The simple fact is that the American public has little interest in pulling money away from police departments. Biden delivered a stirring rebuke to his party’s base by insisting that “the answer is not to defund the police. It’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.” The chamber erupted in applause, a rare moment of (mostly) bipartisan agreement.
* Not giving up on bipartisanship: Biden sprinkled his speech with lines like “thanks to my Republican friends” and repeatedly acknowledged that there were real differences of opinion on major issues. He said: “It is important for us to show the nation that we can come together and do big things.” Biden then proposed a series of proposals – addressing the opioid crisis, taking care of veterans – that he believed could be done on a bipartisan basis.
* Stephen Breyer: Biden personally acknowledged the retiring Supreme Court justice, who was treated to an extended applause for his years on the court. It was a rare moment of genuine emotion in such a formal speech.
* Actions from Republican Reps. Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene: Colorado’s Boebert and Georgia’s Greene, two of the most prominent members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus, turned their backs and refused to applaud as Biden’s Cabinet was introduced and took their seats in the House chamber. Which is, well, lame. Whether or not you agree with them – or any administration – it’s at least worth being polite as a way to honor their service for the country. Later, Boebert interjected as Biden was talking about the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer.
* The work-from-home crowd: Biden made clear in the speech that he believed it was time for people to begin going back to work regularly, following two years of Covid-19 related changes to the workplace. “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” Biden said. “People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.”
* “The Iranian people:” As Biden wrapped up the section of the speech dedicated to the Russia invasion, he sought to praise the Ukrainian people. Except that he said “Iranian people.” I know what he meant but, well, it took a little something away from the moment.
* The Schumer stand: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer leapt to his feet to applaud Biden’s touting of his economic plan. Except he sort of mistimed the applause. Look, man. We’ve all been there.