The problem for President Biden during his first State of the Union address, on Tuesday night, was not that the nation was in crisis but that there were so many of them. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Inflation. The COVID pandemic. Gun violence. Cancer. The country’s fraying democracy. He seemed to mention all in the course of his address—which clocked in at an hour and two minutes—without necessarily making a particularly strong argument for what he would do about any of them.
In a House chamber filled with the bright blues and yellows of the Ukrainian flag, worn in solidarity with that embattled nation, the President offered some of the toughest language Americans have heard about the Russian dictator, whose unprovoked war on his neighbor is the largest conflict in Europe in decades. Putin was “menacing,” a liar whose “premeditated and unprovoked” invasion would be met with democratic resolve. Recalling the horrors of the last century, Biden sternly noted that, “when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos.”
Those were grim facts for the grim reality of the day on which he spoke—a day when Putin’s Army attacked civilians and bombed the Kyiv TV Tower to keep the truth from being broadcast about a war whose absurd pretext, according to Putin, is that the first Jewish President of Ukraine is in fact a “Nazi” leading a fake country that does not deserve its independence.
A few days ago, before the full scale of Putin’s plans became clear, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had compared his invasion of Ukraine to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, in 1938—the prelude to the Second World War. A week later, with horrific shelling in Ukraine’s cities and a war that seems intent on obliterating Ukraine as a nation, the analogy that now comes to mind is the Nazi invasion of Poland, in 1939, which marked not the war’s prologue but its actual start. Some Russia experts believe that is exactly where Putin might be headed now: toward a broader confrontation with the West.
But, while Biden’s rhetoric about Putin was biting, it was clear that a widening conflict with Russia is not an outcome the President wants to prepare the country for. Rather than giving Americans a rallying cry for a dangerous new era of superpower confrontation, he wanted to reassure them that the U.S. is not going to war with Russia. A perennial optimist, the President vowed that Putin would suffer a disastrous comeuppance. “He has no idea what’s coming,” Biden ad-libbed at one point. “He badly miscalculated,” he insisted. “The free world is holding him accountable,” he said. His most Biden-esque line was hardly a foreign-policy doctrine for the ages. “I want you to know that we are going to be O.K.,” he said. And again, for emphasis: “We’re going to be O.K.”
Biden laid out the devastating consequences to the Russian economy of the tough sanctions that have been imposed by the United States and its allies in recent days. But he did not announce many new facets of his strategy for combatting the Russian aggression, beyond a new ban on Russian flights in U.S. air space; the release of thirty million barrels of oil from the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve, in hopes of mitigating the expected war-driven spike in energy prices; and a new Justice Department task force to “go after the crimes”—and yachts—of Russian oligarchs.
Was it enough? If Putin is, indeed, this century’s Hitler, then the answer is very likely that the measures taken in the past week—including remarkable actions that were politically unthinkable prior to the invasion, such as sanctions on the Russian Central Bank and a huge increase in the German defense budget—will seem modest in contrast with what inevitably comes next. But Biden’s speech did not go there, and perhaps it did not have to, not yet. The fate of Ukraine, after all, is not yet decided. Neither is the fate of Putin, who seems to have risked it all—including potentially his own regime—on this war.
In Europe, the invasion of Ukraine has, after years of indifference to pleas from four successive U.S. Administrations to take Putin’s threats more seriously, caused a swift and decisive policy shift, of the kind that has little recent precedent. Germany this week has undergone a generational change, with its new and untested Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, personally declaring the end to the country’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, endorsing massive sanctions, and announcing that Germany will now spend more than two per cent of its annual G.D.P. on defense—a seventy-two-per-cent increase.
In Washington, the effect has been less to transform U.S. politics than to temporarily terrify the large pro-Putin wing of the Republican Party into pretending they never said all the things they said a few days ago, when their leader, Donald Trump, was hailing Putin’s “genius.” Now they are all standing with Ukraine. But not, it should be emphasized, with Biden. A survey from Yahoo News this week found that Trump voters view the President of the United States far more unfavorably (eighty-seven per cent) than the President of Russia (sixty per cent).
As Biden spoke on Tuesday evening, the elected Republicans in the House chamber were at pains to emphasize the G.O.P.’s current unity on Ukraine. There were multiple standing ovations during the Russia part of Biden’s speech, and little obvious sign of dissent regarding his plans. Like the Democrats, they were cloaked in performative support for Ukraine. They cheered when Biden said sanctions would be “inflicting pain” on Putin and when he vowed that “Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”
But the truth is that, no matter what Biden said or how much anyone clapped when he trash-talked Putin, few in Washington are under any illusions of a new era of bipartisanship breaking out, on foreign policy or anything else. Republicans have turned their predictions of Biden’s “failure” as the President into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever the issue, whatever he did or said or didn’t do or didn’t say—this was the plan from the start. And it has worked well for them politically. Even as missiles flew toward Kyiv and Kharkiv on Sunday night, the official Twitter account of the party of Trump tweeted, “Joe Biden is a failed president.”
Still, I must admit that I found the flickering signs of normalcy that erupted at various points during Biden’s State of the Union comforting, if purely nostalgic. After two years of the pandemic and isolation, there was something reassuringly before-times about merely seeing the members of Congress, the Cabinet, and the Supreme Court all together in the same room, smiling and shaking hands and hugging one another. “We are finally together again,” Biden said as he opened his speech, to genuine cheers on both sides of the aisle.
Even the long—and it was long—laundry-list portion of the speech had a pre-crisis feel to it, as Biden reeled off an array of policy proposals to satisfy every constituency, from L.G.B.T.Q. advocates to gun-control supporters. His “Unity Agenda for the Nation” included programs to address the opioid epidemic, mental health, support for veterans, and cancer. There was nothing that seemed to unite these disparate problems, except that many Americans would likely support easing them. “I don’t see a partisan edge to any one of those four things,” Biden said, and it was clear that is why he included them. Last year, the Democratic Party wanted Biden to sound like a modern-day L.B.J., transforming America with the stroke of his Presidential pen; this year, facing defeat in the upcoming midterm elections, not so much.
Before Putin’s war, that’s what the speech was supposed to be all about: resuscitating Biden’s popularity in advance of the midterms. The idea was for Biden to talk about liberating the country from COVID, about a booming economy, and about a bipartisan infrastructure bill that would actually start building things. To anyone who wondered how Biden’s White House speechwriters would handle the challenge of having the biggest crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War break out days before such an important address, the answer was surprisingly simple: they seemed to have simply kept the original speech—and grafted a new beginning onto it. At least the ending wasn’t scripted. “Go get ’em!” Biden exhorted at the conclusion of his address. Was it Putin he was talking about? An exhortation to the Ukrainians? The Democrats? Who knew. But he seemed delighted to have made it through this particular American ritual.