Biden’s State of the Union comes amid tensions at home and abroad

The presidential speech usually focused on domestic issues, will also address the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Biden speaking
President Joe Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday night will be an opportunity for him to rebound his standing with the American public on key issues [Patrick Semansky/AP Photo]

Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and discontent at home, United States President Joe Biden is gearing to give his State of the Union a speech aimed at uniting Americans around the importance of confronting Russia’s aggression, navigating the country out of the pandemic, and focusing on his stalled domestic agenda.

The speech on Tuesday night had initially been conceived by the White House as an opportunity to highlight the improving coronavirus outlook and rebrand Biden’s domestic policy priorities as a way to lower costs for families grappling with soaring inflation. But it has taken on new significance with last week’s Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“There’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday.

“But every State of Union speech also reflects a moment of time,” Psaki said adding that Biden will detail his efforts “to rally the world to stand up for democracy and against Russian aggression”.

The address comes days after Russia opened war against Ukraine, despite US-led efforts to prevent military conflict. It also comes at a challenging time for Biden, who is weighed down by public disapproval of his handling of the economy and the pandemic.

Still, the speech will be an opportunity for Biden to command one of the largest audiences this year and is an opportunity to rebound his standing with the public.

“The [speech] comes at a good time,” John Geer, a political scientist and an expert in public opinion at Vanderbilt University told Reuters. “He needs to grab the national stage and set a course that offers a brighter future.”

Geer said Biden is likely to tout his work helping the world resist Vladimir Putin’s offensive, while celebrating the effectiveness of vaccines and other mitigation measures that have brought about a sharp decline in COVID-19 cases and easing of guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Public opinion polls have shown Biden out of favour with the majority of Americans for months. The most recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, taken last week, showed him at 43 percent approval.

Even with the jobless rate at 4 percent, most voters remain pessimistic about the economy largely due to skyrocketing consumer prices.

Biden will “absolutely use the word inflation” and talk about his plans for reducing costs, Psaki. He is also expected to call on Congress to act on his now-stalled proposals for lowering the cost of child care, elder care and prescription drugs, she said.

Biden will explain the US role in Russia’s war against Ukraine, including rallying Western nations to support the Ukrainian people, who want to remain independent, Psaki said. Just 26 percent of those surveyed in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll said the US should have a major role in the conflict.

Fencing being put around Capitol building
Federal authorities reinstalled fencing around the Capitol as Washington, DC prepares for planned trucker protests inspired by demonstrations in Canada against pandemic-related restrictions [Al Drago/Reuters]

Biden can also be expected to discuss Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, his nominee for an upcoming opening on the Supreme Court. She is the first Black woman to be nominated for the post.

Mask-wearing will be optional for those attending the address. Last week, the CDC eased its mask guidance due to a sharp drop in cases, hospitalisations and deaths caused by the Omicron strain of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, security at home is an issue. Federal authorities are reinstalling fencing around the Capitol as Washington prepares for planned trucker protests inspired by demonstrations in Canada against pandemic-related restrictions.

Matt Bennett, vice president of Third Way, a moderate Democrat think-tank, said that Biden should aim for a sweeping tone about US leadership on the world stage and the economy.

“The most important thing,” Bennett said, “is that he shows America that he is in command of world and domestic events. No policy idea or accomplishment is going to make a real difference.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies