President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address featured, in its opening minutes, something that’s been increasingly rare in recent years: sustained bipartisan applause. Republicans especially usually make a big show of booing and heckling Democratic presidents, but Biden’s address opened with remarks on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that united the parties in applause.
Vladimir Putin “badly miscalculated,” Biden said. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.” Biden went on to detail how “We spent months building a coalition of other freedom-loving nations from Europe and the Americas to Asia and Africa to confront Putin. I spent countless hours unifying our European allies. We shared with the world in advance what we knew Putin was planning and precisely how he would try to falsely justify his aggression.” And he announced that the U.S. was closing its air space to Russia.
The rest of the State of the Union, of course, drew little Republican support and some of the now-traditional booing and heckling (including particularly obnoxious moments from Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, who seemed to be trying to outdo each other), even as Biden made efforts to reach across the aisle at several points.
After the Trump years, Biden’s speech was a breath of fresh air not just in its basic coherence and decency but in its relative brevity: Where Trump’s speeches from 2018 to 2020 ranged from one hour and 18 minutes to one hour and 22 minutes, Biden spoke for just one minute over an hour. In that time, in addition to Russia-Ukraine, he addressed the economy and supply chain issues, the COVID-19 pandemic, plans for infrastructure investment, plans to help U.S. families—though he did not use the words “Build Back Better”—police funding and reform, voting rights, his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, gun law reform, and more. Many of these, it must be said, were very brief mentions.
Biden announced a number of plans his administration is putting into action, such as getting 60 million barrels of oil released from strategic reserves of countries around the world to minimize the impact of cutting off Russian supply; the Justice Department creating the position of chief prosecutor for pandemic fraud; a crackdown on ocean carriers that have exploited the pandemic to make record profits by “overcharging American businesses and consumers”; new, higher standards for nursing homes, set by Medicare; another round of free rapid home tests from covidtests.gov; and the Department of Veterans Affairs expanding eligibility to veterans with nine respiratory cancers.
He also hailed the major legislation already passed under his leadership: the American Rescue Plan and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. “Unlike the $2 trillion tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefitted the top 1% of Americans, the American Rescue Plan helped working people—and left no one behind,” Biden said in one of the moments that drew loud boos from Republicans. “And it worked. It created jobs. Lots of jobs. In fact, our economy created over 6.5 million new jobs just last year, more jobs created in one year than ever before in the history of America.”
Biden moved from that to emphasizing (some might say overemphasizing) the bipartisan status of the infrastructure bill, though there was still one rhetorical shot fired when he said, “We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks. We’re going to have an infrastructure decade.”
We’ll build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, begin to replace poisonous lead pipes—so every child—and every American—has clean water to drink at home and at school, provide affordable high-speed internet for every American—urban, suburban, rural, and tribal communities.
4,000 projects have already been announced.
And tonight, I’m announcing that this year we will start fixing over 65,000 miles of highway and 1,500 bridges in disrepair.
Biden also did his best to focus the ending sections of the State of the Union on bipartisanship, noting, “While it often appears that we never agree, that isn’t true. I signed 80 bipartisan bills into law last year,” before launching into a four-point Unity Agenda: beating the opioid epidemic, focusing on mental health, supporting veterans, and ending cancer as we know it.
Overall, it was an upbeat speech that acknowledged war and economic hardship and the pandemic but expressed the conviction that all of those could and would be overcome. Biden is not one of the greatest orators of our time, but he closed with a crescendo:
My fellow Americans—tonight, we have gathered in a sacred space—the citadel of our democracy.
In this Capitol, generation after generation, Americans have debated great questions amid great strife, and have done great things.
We have fought for freedom, expanded liberty, defeated totalitarianism and terror.
And built the strongest, freest, and most prosperous nation the world has ever known.
Now is the hour.
Our moment of responsibility.
Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself.
It is in this moment that our character is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged.
Well I know this nation.
We will meet the test.
To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity.
We will save democracy.
As hard as these times have been, I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life.
Because I see the future that is within our grasp.
Because I know there is simply nothing beyond our capacity.
We are the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity.
The only nation that can be defined by a single word:
So on this night, in our 245th year as a nation, I have come to report on the State of the Union.
And my report is this: The State of the Union is strong—because you, the American people, are strong.
We are stronger today than we were a year ago.
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.
The United States of America.
May God bless you all. May God protect our troops.