President Joe Biden Delivers His First State of the Union Speech: 'We're Finally Together Again'

The economy and foreign policy were the overarching themes, with the president offering an assessment of his administration's first year — and what's next

President Joe Biden on Tuesday gave his first State of the Union address, delivering the speech amid a tumultuous time in world affairs due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing economic and social issues brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The economy and foreign policy were the overarching themes, with the president offering an assessment of his administration's year-one accomplishments, as is characteristic for the annual speech — plus a positive spin on the things that are seriously ailing his administration, like historic inflation.

"Last year, COVID-19 kept us apart," Biden, 79, said. "This year, we're finally together again." (The Republicans and various other lawmakers will give their responses to Biden later Tuesday.)

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The president was flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both seated directly behind him in an historic image that marked the first time the State of the Union was given with both those seats occupied by women. (This isn't quite a first for any of them: Harris and Pelosi have been seated behind Biden for his addresses to Congress since last year.)

State of the Union
President Joe Biden. Win McNamee/Getty

Though the speech is traditionally devoted to domestic issues, Biden spent much of his remarks by focusing on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, vowing, "Freedom will always triumph over tyranny."

Saying Russian President Vladimir Putin "badly miscalculated" when Putin invaded Ukraine last week, Biden said the he was "met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined."

"He met the Ukrainian people," Biden added, eliciting a standing ovation from all of those in the House Chamber and introducing Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova, seated with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden who, in a sign of support for the Ukrainian people, had an embroidered appliqué of a sunflower — the national flower of Ukraine — sewn to the sleeve of her dress near her wrist.

Oksana Markorova (left), Jill Biden
Oksana Markorova (left), Jill Biden. Win McNamee/Gett

President Biden also used the first portion of his remarks to offer a message for Putin and his allies, noting that the U.S. would be seizing yachts, private jets and apartments owned by Russian allies.

"We're coming for your ill-begotten gains," Biden said, adding that America would institute a ban on Russian aircraft in U.S. airspace — the latest retaliatory measure levied against the country after it launched its invasion on Thursday.

Biden also spoke of the strength and importance of uniting international institutions like NATO — from which his predecessor, Donald Trump, had reportedly mulled leaving — saying that the U.S. military would not engage in combat in Ukraine but would defend its allies in Europe.

"Our forces will not engage with Russian forces in Ukraine ... the U.S. and our allies will defend every inch of NATO territory," he said.

Addressing the American people, Biden offered a message of reassurance amid a chaotic conflict that could potentially shake the decades-old European order, with the specter even of nuclear war.

"We're going to be okay," he said. "When the history of this era is written, Putin's war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker, and the rest of the world stronger."

Biden, who some recent polls show is facing a job approval of 37%, instead touched on some of his administration's legislative wins rather than those challenges, with the midterm elections looming. He jabbed at his predecessor in the process.

"Unlike the $2 trillion tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefited the top 1% of Americans, the American Rescue Plan helped working people — and left no one behind," Biden said, referring to a COVID relief planned passed last year and eliciting both boos from Republicans and cheers from other lawmakers.

State of the Union
House chamber. Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty

Other highlights of his first year, Biden said, included the vaccine rollout and a massive investment aimed at overhauling the nation's infrastructure that had been unsuccessfully sought by past presidents.

Making another thinly-veiled dig at the Trump administration, Biden said his White House is "done talking about infrastructure weeks. We're talking about an infrastructure decade."

Biden eventually also made note of some of the challenges facing his administration, including inflation — as he insisted that getting it under control was a "top priority."

"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," he said. "Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel. I get it. That's why my top priority is getting prices under control."

Continuing to speak about rising costs, Biden argued that global supply chain disruptions had spurred inflation: "One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I have a better plan to fight inflation: Lower your costs, not your wages."

Biden also spent much of his speech urging the passage of his sweeping economic rescue package, which stalled in Congress last year amid objections from Republicans and moderate Democrats and will likely need to be re-tooled.

His plan, Biden said in his State of the Union, would cut the cost of prescription drugs, lower energy costs and cut the cost of child care — an issue close to heart, he said, noting that was a single dad for five years raising two kids following the death of his first wife in a 1972 car crash, offering the caveat that he had "a lot of help" that many modern working families don't.

"So that's my plan," Biden said. "It will grow the economy and lower costs for families. So what are we waiting for? Let's get this done."

Elsewhere in his speech, Biden ran through a laundry list of items he'd like to see accomplished over the next three years, including an increased minimum wage, extension of the child tax credit, the passage of a paid leave plan and a ban on assault-style firearms.

Biden also drew a line in the sand between him and more progressive lawmakers, calling for an investment into resources and training for police officers

"We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police," he said. "The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities."

Biden briefly touched on other hot topics, urging lawmakers to pass both the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, a move broadly supported by advocates though Republicans contend it would allow the federal government to intrude in local control of elections.

The president lambasted the "onslaught of state laws targeting transgender Americans; and highlighted his recent nomination of 51-year-old Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court — the first Black woman so honored.

From left: Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi
From left: Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi. Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty

In closing his speech, Biden hearkened back to his presidential campaign by saying he was offering a "unity agenda" and had listed "four big things we can do together."

Among those, the president said, was beating the opioid epidemic, focusing on mental health, and supporting veterans — something that he said was close to his heart as his own son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.

"Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan faced many dangers … When they came home, many of the world's fittest and best trained warriors were never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin," Biden said. "I know. One of those soldiers was my son Major Beau Biden."

Imploring Congress to pass a law to ensure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan "finally get the benefits and comprehensive health care they deserve," Biden said his final goal was to work to "end cancer as we know it." (As Biden spoke about veterans, he was briefly interrupted by Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Republican, who shouted out about the service-members killed in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.)

"Our goal is to cut the cancer death rate by at least 50% over the next 25 years — and I think we can do better than that — turn more cancers from death sentences into treatable diseases," Biden said.

Ending his speech, Biden again drew on the pandemic and the other myriad challenges facing the country and the world as a whole, saying the state of the American union was "strong."

"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. Now is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time.
And we will, as one people."

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