President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, promising to “inflict pain” on Russian President Vladimir Putin in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
“We are choking off Russia’s access to technology that will sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come,” said Biden.
Speaking directly to members of Russia’s kleptocratic ruling class, Biden pledged that the US will “seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
He also lauded the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, who on Tuesday night faced a vicious barrage of missiles on their major cities and continued to resist Russia’s advance.
“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people. He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world,” Biden said.
Appearing before a joint session of Congress at a fraught moment in modern history, Biden called for a united resistance to defend the international order endangered by Russian aggression and warned the oligarchs who bolster Putin’s regime that he would seize their luxury yachts and private jets.
“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,” Biden said. “But he badly miscalculated. 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. He met the Ukrainian people.”
Hailing the heroism of the Ukrainian resistance, Mr. Biden introduced Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, who joined Jill Biden in the first lady’s box holding a small blue-and-white Ukrainian flag. In a show of bipartisan solidarity, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, some of them wearing blue and yellow and many of them waving Ukrainian flags, leapt to their feet in an ovation to her and her country.
Biden sought to use his first formal State of the Union address to persuade glum Americans that the country is making impressive progress containing the coronavirus pandemic and rebuilding the economy.
Two years after the pandemic transformed American life, Biden declared that “we’ve reached a new moment in the fight against Covid-19,” and he generated bipartisan applause by calling for schools to remain open. “Our kids need to be in school,” he said. Yet he warned against complacency and called on lawmakers who have demonstrated unity over Ukraine to put aside their differences at home.
“Let’s use this moment to reset,” he said in the hourlong speech. “So, stop looking at Covid as a partisan dividing line. See it for what it is: a God-awful disease. Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies. Let’s start seeing each other for who we are: fellow Americans.”
But the discord of today’s politics erupted in the chamber in ways that would have once been unthinkable. When Biden talked about immigration reform, Representative Lauren Boebert, a far-right Republican from Colorado given to angry spectacle and conspiracies, tried to start a “build the wall” chant but was joined only by a like-minded colleague, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, Republican of Georgia.
Later in the speech, when Biden was paying tribute to American troops in flag-draped coffins, Ms. Boebert interrupted again. “You put them in — 13 of them!” she shouted, referring to service members killed during the withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Mr. Biden did not respond, but went onto cite his son, Beau, who served in Iraq and later died of brain cancer.
No president had delivered his State of the Union address with such a large-scale and consequential land war underway in Europe since 1945, and Biden faced the challenge of holding together multinational and bipartisan alliances to counter Mr. Putin. But even before he arrived in the House chamber, congressional negotiations over an aid package bogged down in a partisan quarrel.
Biden announced that he would ban Russian planes from American airspace and agreed with foreign counterparts to release a cumulative 60 million barrels of oil from their strategic petroleum reserves to try to curtail gasoline price increases stemming from the war. Private companies continued to flee the Russian market, while Apple cut off sales of its products and Universal and Paramount joined other Hollywood studios in suspending movie releases there.
Biden, who has teamed up with European leaders to impose sanctions not just on Russian institutions but on Putin personally, highlighted the unified response to Russia’s invasion.
“Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and totally unprovoked,” he said.
“He rejected repeated efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home in this chamber and this nation. He thought he could divide us in Europe as well. But Putin was wrong. We are ready. We are united.”
He said Putin and his cronies should not go unpunished. “Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson — when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” Mr. Biden said. “They keep moving. And the costs, the threats to America, and America to the world, keeps rising.”
Biden directly threatened the moneyed moguls who prop up Putin while keeping their money and enjoying life in the West. “Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime: No more,” he said, adding, “We’re joining with European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets.”
The speech, an annual rite of passage for any commander in chief, was originally envisioned as an opportunity for Biden to rejuvenate his presidency with new energy after months of political and economic travails at home, and the White House was loath to let the foreign crisis completely overwhelm his domestic agenda.
In a sign of the times, the speech took place in a Capitol once again ringed by security fences and National Guard troops, almost 14 months after the building was stormed by a violent mob egged on by President Donald J. Trump in an effort to stop the counting of Electoral College votes sealing Mr. Biden’s victory.
But in a more hopeful indicator, all members of Congress were invited and the chamber was fuller than last year, when the audience was limited to a fraction of its usual size out of concern over Covid-19. While testing was required and every other seat was supposed to be left vacant to encourage social distancing, masks were optional and only a few lawmakers covered their faces.
For only the second time in history, two women stood behind a president on the rostrum, Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Biden hailed his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who would become the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
Biden spoke in a strong voice but stumbled occasionally over his words. At different points, he said “Iranian” when he meant “Ukrainian,” “America” when he meant “Delaware” and “profits” when he meant “prices.” But he appeared energized by the crowd and lingered afterward to chat with lawmakers.
The speech came at a politically shaky moment for him and for the country. After two years of struggling with the pandemic and related economic troubles, the state of the union is sour. Fully 70 percent of Americans surveyed by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research said the nation was heading in the wrong direction, the kind of number that typically spells trouble in a midterm election year for the party in power.