Escalating conflict in Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and — as always — the economy, are likely to dominate President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
The constitutionally mandated address is the rhetorical highlight of the year for the U.S. president. Joe Biden is no exception, but this year’s State of the Union — his first, although he has previously addressed a joint session of Congress — comes at an especially fraught time.
As if to underscore that, Capitol police said Sunday that they were taking extra precautions at the site of the speech.
“Out of an abundance of caution, and in conjunction with the United States Secret Service, a plan has been approved to put up the inner perimeter fence around the Capitol building for the State of the Union Address,” said United States Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger. “I have also requested support from outside law enforcement agencies as well as the National Guard to assist with our security precautions.”
The White House says Biden is likely, during the Tuesday night speech, to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, his wider view of the world. But press secretary Jen Psaki stressed that the situation is rapidly changing — and the president’s words may evolve before he speaks in front of legislators.
“We are in the middle of an active invasion,” she said Friday. “So I just can’t give you a preview of what that will look like in the State of the Union. As it relates to how the president views his approach to foreign policy — you know, the president ran for president wanting to return America’s seat at the world, wanting to return to a time where other leaders around the world could trust the word and the commitments of the United States, and what you have seen over the last few months, is the president deliver on exactly that.”
In the past week, Biden has delivered three speeches on the escalating crisis in Ukraine; but, in his deeply politically divided nation, analysts say Biden should expect a frosty reception when talking about what he describes as the greatest threat to global security since World War II.
“The country generally rallies behind a president when we face an international crisis,’ said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “If you watch [Fox News TV host] Tucker Carlson, or listen to Donald Trump, or know what many Republicans in Congress have been saying, we’re not going to get that rallying around the president by a significant share of the population. The tribal divisions are there now, for even things that affect American national security.”
Recent public opinion polls indicate the president’s approval rating has dipped since the early days of his administration, when the Gallup survey reported 57% of Americans said they approved of the job he was doing. The same group’s poll conducted in the first half of February reported Biden now has a 41% job approval rating.
Trump, the former president, has been outspoken in his support of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his animus toward Biden. On Monday, Trump criticized Biden’s energy policy and said, “This war should never have started in the first place.”
Trump continues to maintain, in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise, that the November 2020 election was rigged, and said that under his leadership, the U.S. “would right now continue to have record-low gas prices, as it was under my administration, and we would be supplying the world with oil and gas.”
It’s the economy, always
Presidents typically use this speech to sell Congress on their domestic agenda and bills they want to pass. And there is one topic every president is expected to cover in the State of the Union address, says Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin.
“He will argue that the economy is growing, that unemployment is low, and that we are going in the right direction and that inflation has to do with supply difficulties and pandemic difficulties, which he is working diligently to solve, and which will be resolved soon,” he said. “And every president comments on the economy because they all want to say the state of the economy is such that we are getting richer, we are doing better than ever before. The only exceptions when presidents don’t talk about the economy are when we are at war ourselves.”
One thing that is certain: America, and the world, will be listening to what he has to say. The address begins at 9 p.m. Washington time, on Tuesday.