- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2022

President Biden used his first State of the Union address Tuesday night to try to reassure a nation that is increasingly doubtful of his leadership and anxious about an escalating war in Europe, surging inflation and the 2-year-old COVID-19 pandemic.

With Russian tanks and artillery attacking deeper into Ukraine and the civilian death toll mounting, Mr. Biden insisted in his prime-time address that U.S. sanctions on Moscow are crippling the government of President Vladimir Putin.

During his speech, Mr. Biden announced that the U.S. will close its skies to Russian aircraft, escalating the efforts to punish Mr. Putin for the ongoing assault in Ukraine. The move follows similar action earlier this week by Canada and the European Union.

In a bid to recast how Americans see him after last year’s bungled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden condemned Mr. Putin with harsh rhetoric and promoted NATO’s value as a bulwark against Moscow’s aggression in Europe’s biggest crisis since the end of the Cold War.

“Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked,” Mr. Biden said. “He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And, he thought he could divide us here at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready.”

Barely a year into Mr. Biden‘s presidency, the conflict has raised fears of nuclear war and prompted criticism in Congress that he should have acted sooner in the hopes of deterring Russia’s invasion. Mr. Biden has ordered thousands of U.S. troops to Europe to bolster the defenses of NATO countries.

SEE ALSO: ‘Badly miscalculated’: Biden says Putin, Russia will pay price of invasion for years

He told Americans, “Let me be clear, our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine.”

Hours before delivering his speech, Mr. Biden held a 30-minute phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, pledging to keep providing aid to the embattled nation and to hold Russia accountable. 

To underscore U.S. support for Ukraine, the White House hosted Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, in the first lady’s box for the president’s speech.

Lawmakers showed solidarity with Ukraine by wearing blue and yellow suits, dresses, ties and ribbons. Some held Ukrainian flags. When Mr. Biden urged lawmakers to stand if they support Ukraine, they gave Ms. Markarova a standing ovation.

In his address, Mr. Biden defended economic sanctions as the best way to confront Mr. Putin.

“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson — when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” the president said. “They keep moving. And the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising.”

SEE ALSO: Biden met with shouts of ‘build the wall’ while pushing immigration reform

The confrontation brings economic risks to the U.S., too, including sending fuel costs soaring even higher. Economists say escalating financial sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Moscow could drive up gasoline prices to as much as $5 per gallon. Gas prices have already surged past the $4 threshold in several states.

With inflation at a 40-year high and the president desperately needing a reset, Mr. Biden zeroed in on his plan to lower costs for American families and boost the labor market. In his speech, he laid out a four-point plan to combat rising costs on everything from groceries to gasoline. 

“We have a choice. One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I have a better plan to fight inflation,” Mr. Biden said, adding that his plan both lowers prices and reduces the deficit.

“Lower your costs, not your wages,” the president said. “Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And, instead of relying on foreign supply chains – let’s make it in America.”

With approval ratings at the lowest level of his presidency, voters are giving Mr. Biden poor marks on a host of issues ahead of the midterm elections.

Although Mr. Biden touted the economic gains over the past year, he also admitted there is more work to do to lower inflation, acknowledging that Americans are still skeptical about his handling of the economy. 

“The pandemic has been punishing. And so many families are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food, gas, housing and so much more,” he said. “I understand.”

An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday found that only 37% of those surveyed approved his economic performance, while 58% disapproved. Mr. Biden announced two new initiatives, to reduce ocean shipping costs and spiraling nursing care expenses for the elderly. But the rest of the domestic agenda he spelled out was largely rehashing already passed spending proposals and costly safety-net initiatives that Congress has blocked.

In another partisan moment, Mr. Biden was booed by Republicans for panning the Trump-era tax cuts as having “benefited the top 1% of Americans” while his “American Rescue Plan helped working people — and left no one behind.”

Republicans were quick to jeer the remakes with a chorus of “boo.” Democrats attempted to drown them out with shorts of “Joe,” but to little avail.

One moment of bipartisanship seemed to be a snub of Mr. Biden, as Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, opted to sit on the side of the House chamber traditionally reserved for Republicans rather than with members of his party.

The “designated survivor” — the member of the Cabinet who customarily remains outside the Capitol during the State of the Union in case a disaster incapacitates those in line for the presidency — was Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

In a bid to tackle both climate change and rising gas prices, Mr. Biden also doubled down on his clean energy sales pitch. He touted priorities that were included in his $1.75 trillion economic and climate agenda, including offering tax credits on clean energy projects.

Mr. Biden again pushed for achieving 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 by focusing on clean energy manufacturing, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and other ways to combat climate change. Republicans have demanded that Mr. Biden address costs more swiftly by ramping up domestic production of oil and gas. 

“On day one of his presidency, Joe Biden killed the Keystone XL pipeline and launched his war on American energy independence,” House GOP Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York said. “Then Joe Biden gifted Putin the Nord Stream 2 pipeline while importing a record amount of oil from Russia last year,”

Mr. Biden on Tuesday ordered the Department of Energy to release 30 million barrels from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve as part of a global effort to mitigate supply shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Also on Tuesday, Senate Republicans introduced a bill that would ban Russian oil imports to the U.S.

Ahead of the speech, Republicans hammered Mr. Biden for failing to do more to prevent the Russian invasion of Ukraine and called on him to do more to help the Ukrainian people who are under a vicious assault. They said Mr. Biden should provide more military and medical supplies. 

“They’re not asking for American men and women to fight. They’re just asking to have some supplies. So they can at least have a fair fight,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican. 

On the domestic front, Mr. Biden spoke out against progressives’ call to defund local police departments amid a nationwide crime surge. He called on Congress to provide more funding for law enforcement, seeking to blunt criticism from Republicans that his administration is soft on crime.

“We should all agree: The answer is not to ‘defund the police.’ The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities,” Mr. Biden said.

He also called on Congress to pass gun control legislation and crack down on so-called ghost guns, firearms that can be made at home without a serial number.

Mr. Biden pledged to address what he says is a mental health crisis in America. The president promoted a new three-digit crisis hotline already available in some parts of the country and expected to go nationwide in July. He also proposed nearly $700 million in federal funding in his fiscal 2023 budget to staff up local crisis centers. Mr. Biden also asked Congress for $5 million to study social media’s harms and to launch a national Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness.

The pandemic has been blamed for a rise in mental-health problems. Although more than 900,000 Americans have died from the virus, the omicron variant is subsiding and Mr. Biden seems poised to put the pandemic in his rearview mirror. The White House announced this week that masks are no longer mandatory for visitors and employees at the complex. 

Toward the end of his speech, Mr. Biden spoke about the pandemic, which is still claiming the lives of about 2,000 Americans daily. Mask mandates have been drooping in blue states across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week loosened its guidance on masks, and the Biden administration is poised to bring federal workers back to their offices.

“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, COVID-19 need no longer control our lives, “ he said.

The president urged Congress for a $2,000 increase to the maximum for a Pell Grant, federal aid to assist students from lower economic backgrounds seeking higher education. He also asked for another $65 million to help historically black colleges and universities.

Ramsey Touchberry, Tom Howell Jr. and Kerry Picket contributed to this report.

• Jeff Mordock can be reached at jmordock@washingtontimes.com.

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