CNN Opinion contributors share their thoughts on President Joe Biden’s 2022 State of the Union speech.
Van Jones: Biden nailed it
The real Joe Biden is back. Tonight, he reminded us why America picked a tried-and-true defender of democracy – at home and abroad – to lead us through these tough times.
On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden challenged autocracy and dictatorship overseas, while offering himself as a champion of national unity and cross-party cooperation at home.
He has blown off course at times during his first year. But during his first State of the Union address, Biden found his footing – and his true north – once again. He rose tonight as a global leader and a national unifier at the very moment that the forces of freedom and solidarity most need strong leadership.
In his handling of Ukraine, we have seen the competent, seasoned and experienced foreign policy hand we voted for. He has expertly weaved a response to the most consequential foreign policy moment in years – a far cry from the Afghanistan withdrawal. Tonight, he effectively made the case for Americans and the world uniting against autocratic aggression.
In fact, unity was the theme.
His domestic agenda – making more stuff in America, making work pay and making America a safer place to live – are all things that are widely popular among voters. Call it a positive populism, without anger or scapegoating.
Look at how he talked about renewable energy and public safety. Progressives want action on climate change. But conservatives who care about innovation, job creation, or energy independence and national security would also like what they heard. Republican voters liked hearing Biden say no to defunding the police, while Democrats loved hearing about investing in communities to stop crime before it starts.
The highlight of his unity agenda was Biden’s call to prioritize mental health, especially that of our kids. The past few years, in large part thanks to toxic social media, have been rough on kids in red and blue states alike. Mobilizing resources to help the next generation is something we can all get behind.
A few weeks ago, this was a speech that few planned to watch. Tonight, it was the speech that nobody wanted to miss. And with history herself taking notes, Biden nailed it.
Van Jones is a CNN host and political commentator and the founder of Dream Corps.
Kirsten Powers: Biden gave Americans a dose of optimism
“We are going to be okay.”
“I know you’re tired, frustrated and exhausted.”
“We’re moving forward safely, back to a more normal routine.”
These short lines dispersed throughout President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address tonight let Americans know that he gets how worn down and worried so many of them are about their future. He made clear he understands the concerns about inflation, while still highlighting the gains the US economy has made on his watch. He pulled off a delicate dance, as a president can never seem to be telling Americans that they are wrong in their feelings about the economy (just remember one-term president George H.W. Bush).
Biden came across in his speech as empathetic and capable, perhaps the two most important traits that got him elected president. He maximized this opportunity to connect to the American people fresh off rallying America’s allies against Russian aggression, earning plaudits for his leadership across the board. This was a president in command.
Biden offered a rousing close that was nakedly patriotic and proud of America’s role in the world, and reflected a deep belief in the resilience of the American people and the country itself. At a time that many stop to wonder if America’s best days are behind her, Biden promised that it was not so and proposed an agenda to bring the country together around issues such as mental health, fighting the opioid epidemic, supporting veterans and ending cancer. It was a needed dose of optimism.
Kirsten Powers is a CNN senior political analyst and New York Times bestselling author of “Saving Grace: Speak Your Truth, Stay Centered and Learn to Coexist with People Who Drive You Nuts.” Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook @KirstenPowers.
SE Cupp: The glaring omission in Biden’s speech
In many ways, it was the speech he was meant to give.
Joe Biden has wanted to be president for decades, and he’d always touted his foreign policy bona fides along the way. Here he is, smack in the middle of a war in Ukraine and foreign policy crisis. Without question, he met the moment, standing with Ukraine and telling Russian President Vladimir Putin that the world is against him.
However, he missed an important opportunity. Putin’s war of aggression isn’t just happening “over there,” but here in America, too. Putin’s oppression and disdain for democracy is winning the hearts and minds of too many American voters, stoked by a former president, members of a political party and right-wing media machine that has defended Russia, tried to overturn democratic elections and is trying to keep people from voting through new restrictive voter laws.
To not make this very obvious correlation between “over there” and “right here” seems like a glaring omission. But Biden ended with a truly remarkable statement: “I am more optimistic about America today than I have been in my whole life.” I guess if you’re not going to take on the looming problem of Trump, Trumpism and the millions of Americans who still want to break democracy, that’s probably true.
SE Cupp is a CNN political commentator.
Raul Reyes: Biden delivers a sense of possibility
Under extraordinary circumstances, President Joe Biden delivered a State of the Union address that was solemn, serious and successful.
Only moments after beginning, he delved into foreign policy, highlighting the situation in Ukraine and detailing the ways that the US has imposed sanctions on Russia. “He [Putin] has no idea what’s coming,” the President declared, drawing applause from the chamber. Compared to past SOTU addresses, there seemed to be an unusual number of bipartisan ovations on Tuesday night.
The President smartly highlighted his accomplishments, like his infrastructure bill, the record number of jobs created during his first year and the historic appointment of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court. Yet his tone was measured; he avoided taking what might appear to be a victory lap at a time when many Americans are still struggling with inflation and high prices.
To his credit, Biden did not avoid the contentious issue of immigration. He stated that he was doing more to protect the border, to help migrants and to fix our broken immigration system. “We can do all this while keeping lit the torch of liberty,” he said, before calling for a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, farm workers and others.
He reminded his audience that immigration reform is supported by a broad coalition of interests. “It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the economically smart thing to do.” These are words that immigrant advocates have been yearning to hear. Moving forward, Biden will have to show how he can achieve such goals.
This was a speech that delivered a sense of possibility. Biden presented himself as a defender of democracy, a champion of middle and working-class Americans and as a president ready to face global instability head-on. By strategically emphasizing populism and patriotism, Biden met the moment with honesty and hope.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.
Scott Jennings: Biden failed to change course
I have to say, I was stunned by this State of the Union address. President Joe Biden’s presidency is, charitably, on the ropes. And he did not meaningfully pivot on any issue that gives his party a chance to change its trajectory, leaving Democrats on the path to a shellacking in November’s midterm election. There are common-sense ways he could’ve shown himself to be the pragmatic moderate he promised to be in his campaign, such as announcing a ban on Russian oil imports and ending his administration’s war on American-made fossil fuels. Instead, he doubled down on a green energy agenda that does nothing for poor Americans who are struggling (and will struggle more) to fill up their cars and heat their homes in the weeks ahead.
He took unnecessary partisan shots at Republicans for cutting taxes, repeating an old, debunked line suggesting only the top 1% benefiting from the 2017 tax bill, even as he preached unity. Will that attract independents? Doubtful.
Presidencies are rarely defined by a president’s plans; usually, unexpected events intervene and a president’s reaction to these emergencies determines his political fate. A crisis like the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offered Biden a chance to break free from the liberal orthodoxy that has him shackled on issues like national energy policy. He could’ve sensed that and pivoted in his address. Instead, he chose to stay a course that has him under 40% in some national polls.
Sometimes you gotta zig when they think you are going to zag. In Biden’s case, he’s been zigging for over a year, and it simply isn’t working. I wish him well in trying to stave off Putin’s murderous advances, but the question remains: how serious are we in stopping this guy? If Ukraine falls, what then?
The Republican response was ably given by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who smartly focused on the domestic issues that will make up the Republican campaign message – schools, inflation and crime. This is ultimately where the November midterm election will be won or lost, and at the moment, polls indicate Republicans are in a strong position because Biden is viewed as a failure. Republicans should follow Reynolds’ example and focus on what really matters to the American people.
Scott Jennings, a CNN contributor and Republican campaign adviser, is a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and a former campaign adviser to Sen. Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations in Louisville, Kentucky. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY.
Roxanne Jones: Biden hits the right notes, but now needs to make them happen
“We are stronger today than we were a year ago,” President Joe Biden told the world as he ended his first State of the Union address.
Yes, indeed we are, Mr. President. By almost every measure: masks are off, Covid deaths are down and schools are open. Roughly 6.5 million jobs were created last year alone.
Despite the soaring inflation that has left too many American households struggling, there’s no denying that America feels more hopeful than it did a year ago while we were in the throes of a pandemic, surrounded by death, toxic political divisions and an insurrection.
Biden hit all the right notes in his hour-long speech. He opened with Ukraine and vowed to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, although it seemed unclear just exactly how the US would stop Putin from trying to rebuild his Russian empire.
What was clear was that “our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” Biden pledged. And like many other Americans, I will hold him to that promise. America has no appetite for war with Russia.
Biden highlighted the fact that the US economy grew 5.7% in 2021, the fastest rate clip since 1984, in spite of the ongoing pandemic . But the country still faces serious and longstanding problems.
Black voters turned out in record numbers to elect Biden, hopeful that he would fight systemic racism in policing and confront voter suppression. But that hope is now dwindling, and many are growing impatient wondering if Biden has lost his drive to confront these problems.
We don’t have to “choose between safety and equal justice,” Biden said, pushing for more – not less – funding for police departments to invest in “proven strategies like community violence interruption.” That may prove true, but it’s time to see stronger leadership in Washington to make those words ring true.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat: The crucial lesson in Biden’s address
In March 2021, President Joe Biden predicted the struggle between democracy and autocracy would come to a head and said, “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”
2022 is shaping up to be a fateful year in that struggle. As Biden delivered his State of the Union address, Russian forces pummeled civilian areas in Ukraine, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging an unprovoked war to subjugate a neighboring country.
While Biden spent the bulk of his speech on domestic issues, and reviewed his administration’s accomplishments, an implicit theme emerged: the need to make America stronger so that the country will be more credible as a global democratic leader – no small feat after four years of the autocrat-loving former President Donald Trump.
Biden was also smart to reclaim patriotism as central to the Democratic agenda. “There’s something happening in America…the rebirth of the pride that comes from stamping products ‘Made in America.’” At a time when displaying the flag and calling for freedom have become increasingly linked to Republicans touting extremist ideologies, tying love of country to economic policy is likely to resonate with the moderates and independent voters Biden needs to court.
“Throughout our history, we’ve learned this lesson when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos.” Biden gets the strongman threat. He knows that the central test of Democrats will be to beat back the pro-autocratic forces within our own country. That’s why his speech introduced initiatives to combat disinformation, corruption and violence – the tools autocrats like Putin use to destroy open societies. And it’s why the President ended with a reminder that democracy is about possibility: the chance to grow, to change course, to dream.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat (@ruthbenghiat), a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, is professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and the author of “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.” She publishes the newsletter Lucid on threats to democracy.
Peter Bergen: Foreign policy hasn’t taken center stage like this in two decades
Not since President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union in January 2002, four months after the 9/11 attacks, has an American president delivered a speech freighted with as much foreign policy significance as the one President Joe Biden delivered on Tuesday night.
In 2002, Bush started laying the groundwork for the Iraq War, decrying a purported “axis of evil” that included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. On Tuesday, Biden called out the Russian authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin for his “unprovoked” war in Ukraine, while making clear that US troops would not be deployed there.
Instead, Biden mounted a spirited defense of NATO and its 29 other members, vowing that the US would “defend every inch of territory of NATO countries with the full force of our collective power.”
After former President Donald Trump spent years gratuitously bashing NATO and embracing Putin, it was refreshing to hear a US president rousingly endorse the alliance, which Trump’s own Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called “the most successful and powerful military alliance in modern history.”
Putin has long tried to undermine NATO. Now, due to his reckless military assault on Ukraine, that alliance could grow to include more members. Over the past several days, Russia’s neighbor Finland, which has long held the position of military non-alignment, has taken a sharp turn and Finnish politicians are now actively considering joining.
In his State of the Union address, Biden positioned himself as the leader of the free world. Given what we’ve seen in the last week, it didn’t seem like a hollow boast.
Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the senior editor of the Coronavirus Daily Brief and author of the new book “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden.”
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Americans were reminded why they elected Biden
Prior to his first State of the Union speech, President Joe Biden had already tackled challenges of historic proportion, including a pandemic, economic downturn and an endless war. Add an unhinged tyrant to the list, and it is likely the biblical story of 10 plagues will soon pale in comparison.
Similarities between Biden and the unlikely hero, Moses, in the Book of Exodus, were on display.
Like Moses, Biden has a speech impediment, overcoming fear of speaking publicly, to lead a great nation of people. As the kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania, spoke with passion and empathy about his vision to build a better America through unity, we were reminded why we elected him President. He demonstrated that he still keeps everyday people top of mind, reflected upon the success of the American Rescue plan and laid out an agenda focused on addressing kitchen table issues, including inflation, mental health, opioid addiction, medical care, childcare and education costs.
Biden may not be a perfect leader, but he is perfect for this moment. On full display was his experience – someone who has studied dictators and never underestimated their evil. Biden urged us to unite to tackle both the war of Putin and the pandemic.
Moses came to realize that he alone could not be victorious, and like Biden, knew a team would maximize his power. With the steadfastness of an experienced leader, Biden fiercely spoke of uniting NATO and galvanizing the world to thwart Russia’s reign of terror upon Ukraine.
Biden is bringing America out of the wilderness through intentional and purposeful leadership, after four years of disastrous leadership that made democracy appealingly vulnerable to attack.
POTUS stood before us as the uniter, comforter, optimist and defender in chief, calling upon us to see each other for who we are – fellow Americans, laying out a plan for us to experience today’s version of the Promised Land, an America where the right to vote is protected and hopes and dreams are attainable.
Moses grew as a leader, before the very eyes of his people, and during his State of the Union, so did Biden.
Keisha Lance Bottoms is a CNN political commentator and former Democratic mayor of Atlanta.
Julian Zelizer: Biden managed to walk a fine line
In his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden was successful in walking a fine line between rallying the US behind the fight against Russia and avoiding boisterous tropes that could divide a relatively united western world.
The President’s ongoing goal has been to speak with balance and restraint. His intent has been to keep the world united against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, rather than to make the US the center of attention. This was the strategy that President George H.W. Bush used as the Soviet Union collapsed, and Biden has been following a similar path as Russia attempts to expand its power.
Biden’s message was as much for the US as it was for Russia. Biden reminded the Russians of the intensifying pain that their nation will feel if Russian leader Vladimir Putin continues with these military operations.
Just as Ukrainians are making a choice to stand defiantly against the attack on their country, Russians need to contemplate how far they will allow their leaders to go as Putin’s decisions put a stranglehold on their economy and society. Older Russians will remember the way that rampant military spending and the quagmire in Afghanistan during the 1980s contributed to the Soviet Union collapsing under its own weight. Russia is facing this threat once again because of Putin’s dangerous actions.
On Tuesday night, the President declared that “freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” Unfortunately, that has not always been the case.
But Biden’s promise is that by continuing to work with allies to build pressure on Russia, while simultaneously working to strengthen America’s own domestic and democratic infrastructure, his administration can help ensure that freedom wins out.
Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer.
Alice Stewart: Biden tried to distract from his own failed agenda
During his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden’s announcement to close American airspace to all Russian aircraft accomplished two things: it sent a necessary warning signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and also served as a distraction to Biden’s own failed agenda.
There’s no air cover that can shield the fact that Biden’s speech had no unifying message and no acknowledgement of his inability to fulfil his campaign promise to shut down Covid-19, and no solution for rising gas prices and rising crime.
The speech fell flat because this administration is failing the American people.
Approval numbers in the low 40s indicate Biden’s lack of accomplishments are proving to be a major vulnerability.
With inflation at a 40-year high, President Biden’s talk of lowering prices and increasing wages did little to reassure Americans that he has a viable plan to turn things around.
In the GOP response, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds went to the heart of this issue, saying “The Biden administration believes inflation is a high-class problem, it’s an everyday problem.”
Reynolds goes on to say that Biden’s signature Build Back Better agenda failed to pass because members of his own party said, “Enough is enough.”
President Biden did get a few things right, calling for unmistakable support for Ukraine, ending the shutdown of schools and businesses, and shifting from “defund the police” to “fund the police.”
He’s also right about this: “The state of our union is great because the American people are great.”
Alice Stewart is a CNN political commentator, member of the Student Advisory Board at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard University and former communications director for Ted Cruz for President.
David Gergen: Biden may be restarting his engines
In his State of the Union address last night, Joe Biden very likely revived the spirits of the Democratic Party – but whether he also rallied the country behind him seems more problematic.
Over the past six months, Democrats have become increasingly despondent about their prospects in November’s midterm elections. Their party was tied up in knots of their own making and their President remains at 40% in the polls, an ominous sign.
But Biden came prepared with a robust domestic agenda and a self confidence that made one wonder if he may actually be able to restart his engines. It helped enormously, of course, that a massive number of Republicans stood up with Democrats as Biden denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin for invading Ukraine. We haven’t seen that much bipartisanship for months.
David Gergen has been a White House adviser to four presidents of both parties and is a senior political analyst at CNN. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-founded its Center for Public Leadership.