President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) look on during a joint session of Congress, March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC.

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address as U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) look on during a joint session of Congress, March 1, 2022 in Washington, DC. Pool / Getty Images / Saul Loeb

‘Battle Between Democracy and Autocracy’ Leads Biden’s First State of the Union

President says Putin “will pay” even more for Ukraine invasion–but mentions no other foreign policy priorities.

President Joe Biden condemned Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, lauded NATO's and the global community’s response, and announced new measures to squeeze the dictator’s supporters in his first State of the Union address to Congress, delivered Tuesday. 

With missiles falling on Kyiv and hundreds of thousands fleeing the country, Biden opened his hour-long speech with more than 10 minutes about to the crisis in Ukraine. The national-security opening was unusual for the annual address, which is customarily more focused on domestic issues. He praised the transatlantic alliance—no surprise from a former leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who also worked on foreign policy priorities during his eight years as vice president. 

“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated,” the president said. “He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home. Putin was wrong. We were ready.”   

Biden highlighted the months he spent building “a coalition of freedom-loving nations” in Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa to oppose 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,” he said. “And now that he has acted, the free world is holding him accountable.”

Biden warned Americans to prepare for a long-term fight, with costs. 

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” he said. “This is a real test. It’s going to take time.”

But Biden did not mention the multitude of other global security threats facing the United States. He mentioned China just twice, and only in relation to economic competition—not as the top priority for Pentagon planners. Nor did he mention threats to the nation’s space assets, new nuclear negotiations with Iran, or the continued violence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, from which Biden abruptly withdrew the remainder of U.S. forces in August  

Richard Fontaine, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, noted Biden’s narrowly focused remarks.

“Much in the [State of the Union] appropriately devoted to Russia and Ukraine. Little/nothing on China, which the admin identifies as its top foreign policy priority, or on Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Asian engagement or the Western Hemisphere. Shows challenge of focus for a global power,” Fontaine said in a tweet.

Biden highlighted the measures the United States and allies are taking against Russia, including isolating Moscow banks from the international financial system and going after the yachts, apartments, and private jets of Russian oligarchs—the latter drawing an ovation from both sides of the aisle in the House chamber. 

The president also announced that America would close its airspace to all Russian flights, as have the European Union and Canada, “and adding an additional squeeze on their economy,” Biden said. Putin "has no idea what’s coming.” 

Biden emphasized that the United States will not send troops to fight in Ukraine. But he said the U.S. and its allies will defend “every inch” of NATO territory if Putin attempts to push farther west into Europe. He made no mention of Putin’s threatening rhetoric, activation, or heightened state of Russia’s nuclear forces. 

Lawmakers from both parties united around Ukraine during the speech. Many lawmakers wore yellow and blue outfits or  ribbons in support of Kyiv, and some Republicans held small Ukrainian flags. Members of both parties rose to their feet, at Biden’s urging, in solidarity with Ukraine.

As Biden spoke, several Republicans issued tweets criticizing his handling of the crisis. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., said Biden’s leadership has “fueled the rise of the Taliban and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who voted to overturn election results in 2020, said the “real” state of the country is that “Biden has undermined our allies & embolden [sic] our enemies.” 

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the 87-year-old ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who announced last week he would retire later this year, said Biden failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine and blamed him for the Afghanistan withdrawal.

“Across the globe, our adversaries, like Communist China, are taking notes on how the United States and our allies and partners are responding to the crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan. This administration has proven unable to take calculated risks, to think creatively, or to make the investments in national security across the government that would gird America for long-term strategic competition,” Inhofe said in a prepared statement.

Democrats hit back by slamming former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia, including his recent comments supporting Putin, and noted that his first impeachment was about withholding aid from Ukraine while pressuring the Ukrainian president to corroborate debunked conspiracy theories.

“It has been gratifying to see Democratic and Republican members of Congress come together in support of Ukraine,” Florida Democrat Rep. Val Demings, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, tweeted. “I wish that this moral clarity had existed several years ago when many members of this body defended Ukrainian security assistance being illegally put on hold.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, tweeted about the commendable bipartisanship in Congress on imposing consequences on Putin, hurting the Russian economy, and standing with NATO—but also took a dig at Trump. 

“Amazing to see Republicans and Democrats united for Ukraine and against Russia. Great to see. We are united for Ukraine and against Russia. Are you listening Mr. Trump?” she said

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a senior leader on the Senate Armed Services Committee, applauded Biden for repairing the “strained relationships” with allies that were exacerbated by the Trump administration. 

“Over the last year, President Biden rebuilt our economy, re-established the United States’ role as a global leader and reaffirmed our transatlantic bonds that have preserved our world order for 70 years,” she said. "It’s not just what he did; it’s how he did it. President Biden’s determination to end the vitriolic partisanship and discord that our nation knew for four years put the United States back on track.”

Near the end of his speech, Biden addressed a domestic security priority: gun regulations. He urged Congress to tackle a to-do list to cut down on gun violence, including passing legislation that requires universal background checks to buy a firearm, banning assault weapons and high capacity magazines, and lifting the liability shield to allow gun manufacturers to be sued. He also promised to tackle gun trafficking and “ghost guns,” which are purchased online and built at home.

Biden also urged Congress to do more to care for veterans who developed cancer after being exposed to toxins from burn pits while deployed. He announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs will expand benefits eligibility to veterans with nine different types of respiratory cancers, invoking his son Beau, who died of brain cancer after serving in Iraq. 

“When they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best-trained warriors were never the same,” he said. “I know. One of those soldiers was my son, Maj. Beau Biden. We don’t know for sure if a burn pit was the cause of his brain cancer, or the diseases of so many of our troops. But I’m committed to finding out everything we can.” 

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., urged their colleagues to pass their bipartisan bill, the Presumptive Benefits for War Fighters Exposed to Burn Pits and Other Toxins Act.

“Veterans and service members exposed to toxic burn pits are sick and dying. We can't run from our responsibility to get them the care they've earned. This is the cost of war. I urge my colleagues to pass my bill to get our heroes exposed to burn pits the care they deserve. #SOTU,” she said

The speech was the first gathering of members in the chamber without face masks, following a change in federal guidance. Semi-truck drivers had threatened to disrupt the evening by staging a protest convoy in Washington, D.C., though they had not arrived by the time the speech began. That threat, and the potential for a repeat of Jan. 6 violence on the Capitol Building, led local police to erect barriers and fencing around the grounds.  

Several Republican members boycotted the speech anyway, protesting Congress’s requirement that attending members submit a COVID test. That gave a window for Biden’s most vocal opponents to attack, even before his speech began. 

“I hope Biden explains tonight why he surrendered America’s energy independence & apologizes for it. I’ll be watching from home,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who also sought to overturn the results of the 2020 election. “I refuse to submit to a Covid test to sit in a room of fully vaccinated people in a Capitol ringed with barricades to satisfy Joe Biden’s Covid theater."

Caitlin M. Kenney contributed to this report.