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Amid fast-changing events, Biden looks ahead in State of the Union

For the first time at a State of the Union address, two women — Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi — were behind the president.Pool/Getty

WASHINGTON — As a dangerous war rages abroad and with his domestic agenda stalled at home, President Biden on Tuesday used his first State of the Union address to project strength and resolve amid a backdrop of crises that could define his presidency.

“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways, but he badly miscalculated,” Biden said. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined.”

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Opening his speech with praise for Ukraine and for the worldwide effort to isolate and punish Russia for an invasion that threatens the global order, Biden promised pain for Russia and Putin and sought to comfort Americans rattled by the sudden instability and the cost it could impose.

“I want you to know we are going to be OK,” Biden said, offering words that drew members of both parties in the nation’s normally divided Congress to their feet.

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy,” he said, “democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security.”

It was an upbeat — albeit weighty — opening to a speech that has had to be rewritten as history unfolds by the day, delivered by a president who is fighting low approval ratings and eager for a reset. Biden touted the US role in uniting European and other countries in their efforts to economically isolate Russia, and announced tough new measures to ban Russian planes from US airspace and setting Justice Department prosecutors after Russian oligarchs.

The crisis is overshadowing Biden’s legislative agenda as well as the country’s more recent progress fighting COVID-19. Still, aware his party needs a winning message to carry it uphill through the midterm elections, Biden sought to rebut Republican criticisms on crime and policing while casting his administration’s key legislative accomplishments — an economic stimulus bill supported only by Democrats and a bipartisan infrastructure bill — as a balm for the economy, even as he acknowledged Americans’ pain over rising prices.

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“And with all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills,” said Biden, forced to reckon with the problem that polls suggest has kept his approval ratings underwater for months. “Inflation is robbing them of gains they might otherwise feel.”

Biden’s speech, which was initially meant to focus on his plans for the economy and progress in fighting COVID-19, was instead split between the international crisis and a renewed pitch for his domestic agenda. On COVID-19, the president promised a cautious return to normal and asked people to set aside partisan divisions over the “God-awful disease.”

“I know you’re tired, frustrated, and exhausted . . . but I also know this,” Biden said. “Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have been provided by this Congress, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”

“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year,” he added, “COVID-19 need no longer control our lives.”

In some ways, the crowd in front of him told the story of the lightning-fast change coursing through the country. The assembled group of lawmakers and administration officials on the House floor was mostly maskless, an unusually normal sight that reflects the administration’s effort to find a way to live with COVID Some of the assembled lawmakers wore yellow and blue — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — as a sign of support for a nation under assault on the other side of the globe. Justice Stephen Breyer stood somberly in his black robes, his presence a reminder of his impending retirement, which offers Biden a chance for a big political win, after he nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to become the first Black woman on the court.

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But the scene also revealed the scale of the obstacles he faces as renewed his pitch for his stalled legislative agenda. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat who frustrated Biden’s plans to enact a sweeping social spending bill and reform of the filibuster so he could enact new voting rights protections, sat with Republicans instead of members of his own party. And Republicans booed Biden when he spoke of his economic agenda, breaking the earlier bipartisan camaraderie around Ukraine.

Biden, who spent much of 2021 locked in protracted negotiations with Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another moderate Democrat, offered up parts of the social spending bill they had sunk as an answer to the problem of inflation. He called on lawmakers to lower prescription drug prices, cut energy costs by combating climate change, cut child care costs, and make the tax system fairer.

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“I think I have a better idea to fight inflation: Lower your costs, not your wages,” Biden said.

But it is no clearer now than it was in recent months how Biden will get those measures through Congress.

His approval rating in some polls has plummeted below 40 percent since last summer as COVID cases surged again,and he’s faltered in two areas touted as his strengths: foreign policy and congressional deal-making.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll released over the weekend showed the depths of Biden’s troubles. His overall approval rating reached a new low of 37 percent. Just 36 percent of Americans said they thought Biden was a strong leader and only 40 percent said he had the mental sharpness to be an effective president.

But the poll also indicated an opportunity for him in the Ukraine crisis. Two-thirds of respondents said they supported economic sanctions against Russia by the United States and its European allies. And eight in 10 said they viewed Russia as unfriendly or an enemy to the United States.

Biden, who spent decades on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, seemed most confident and at ease while rallying the lawmakers and officials in front of him against Russia and in support of Ukraine and his country’s alliances.

“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson, when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression they cause more chaos,” Biden said. “They keep moving, And the costs and the threats to America and the world keep rising.”

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He said that he had spent “countless hours” unifying European allies and sharing US intelligence about Russia’s plans, and that global action had left Putin as isolated as he has ever been.

But he was also careful — as he has been for months — to emphasize his reluctance to send American troops to Putin’s ground war or to start any other military engagement in Ukraine.

“Let me be clear, our forces are not engaged and will not engage in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” Biden said.

The speech comes as Democrats search for a message they hope will hold off Republican gains in this year’s midterm elections. Biden called for new investments in crime prevention and community policing — likely seeking to rebut Republicans who say his party is soft on crime.

“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said. “It’s to fund the police, fund them, fund them, fund them with the resources and training, resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

In the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s speech, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds criticized the president over his handling of the economy. “The Biden administration believes inflation is a ‘high class problem,’” she said. “I can tell you it’s an everybody problem.”

In his speech, Biden also laid out a litany of other priorities, including confirming Jackson to the Supreme Court, and passing the same voting rights legislation that Manchin and Sinema effectively killed.

Biden also offered up a “unity agenda” to combat the opioid epidemic, address mental health problems, help veterans, and beat cancer. The latter piece of that agenda sparked a Republican lawmaker to yell out at Biden, blaming him for the deaths of 13 service members during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Biden ended his speech on a hopeful note. “We are stronger today than we were a year ago,” he said. “And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today.”

Jim Puzzanghera of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her @jessbidgood.