WASHINGTON DC – The US president Joe Biden opened his State of the Union with a strong message on Ukraine. The Russian president Vladimir Putin ran into a wall of strength he didn’t expect, Biden said. That wall was the Ukrainian people. He had the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, stand up and receive applause. He spoke of the strength of Nato and its allies (a sharp contrast with his predecessor, who frequently lambasted the alliance). He swore to support Ukraine without involving America and its troops in another war. He talked about sanctions and resolve. “He [Putin] has no idea what’s coming,” Biden ad-libbed. The whole room, at various points, was on its feet.
And then Biden moved on to the rest of the speech, which was written and delivered as though there was no war in Ukraine. He spoke of how good it was that the infrastructure legislation was passed. He called on Congress to pass voting rights legislation, to put into law paid leave and child tax credits and investment in historically black colleges and universities. He urged improvements to the American healthcare system, and called for gun control.
In short, he called for things for which there is not, at present, bipartisan support. Biden tried to say that, deep down, we do all want these things. That, in their heart of hearts, Republicans in Congress know they should support them too. But not a single Republican – not one – signed on to support legislation to protect the right to vote. The bar was on the floor, and yet Biden could not make them clear it. And there is no reason to think that he will in the year to come.
There was such a clear contrast between Biden speaking about Ukraine, where he has an obvious sense of purpose and direction, and Biden speaking about the US. This is not to say that Biden shouldn’t be involved in Ukraine: on the contrary, it is one of the few areas where I applaud his performance. I just wish that he managed similar passion, clarity and creativity in dealing with his own country. I wish he were, if not as angry, then at least as pointed with Republicans who could not manage to support clean drinking water, or affordable insulin, or rights for transgender America. I wish that, in the year since he delivered his address to both houses of Congress last April, Biden had come up with something more sophisticated than telling Republicans that he knows, deep down, that they agree with him. Does what they think deep down matter? What matters isn’t what they say to him in private. What matters is that they’re brave enough to say it in public. What matters is how they vote.
China, which was the focus of so much of Biden’s joint address to Congress last year, barely got a mention. Perhaps, for now, it was understood that the real antagonist is not Xi Jinping. That is Vladimir Putin, indiscriminately bombing Ukrainian cities and killing civilians, including – inexcusably, unforgivably – children. And then there are our own worst antagonists: ourselves.