U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress, March 7, 2024

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address during a joint meeting of Congress, March 7, 2024 Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

Biden: ‘Freedom and democracy are under attack, both at home and overseas’

National-security issues lead off State of the Union that previews Gaza aid, pleads for Ukraine aid, and lambasts an unnamed predecessor.

U.S. President Joe Biden targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hamas, the January 6 insurrectionists, and a certain unnamed predecessor in his appearance before Congress on Thursday. 

“Freedom and democracy are under attack both at home and overseas,” Biden said, giving his 2024 State of the Union speech

The president opened with a dire warning about the future of Europe and a plea to Congress to pass a supplemental aid package for Ukraine. Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., who has blocked efforts to approve such aid, nodded behind him. 

“If anybody thinks Putin will stop at Ukraine, I assure you he will not,” Biden said. 

He then acknowledged Ulf Hjalmar Kristersson, prime minister of Sweden, which had officially joined the NATO alliance earlier in the day. 

Biden never mentioned Donald Trump by name, but did lambast his predecessor for encouraging Putin to attack America’s NATO allies, should they fail to meet alliance spending guidelines.

“A former Republican president tells Putin, quote, do whatever the hell you want,” he said. “I think it's outrageous. It's dangerous and it's unacceptable.”

Biden, who described himself “as a lifelong supporter of Israel,” announced a new relief measure to get much-needed humanitarian aid into Gaza. 

“I'm directing the U.S. military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier on the Mediterranean on the coast of Gaza [to] receive large shipments carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelter.”  

He said no U.S. troops would be put on the ground.

Biden said Israel “must allow more aid into Gaza and ensure humanitarian workers aren't caught in the crossfire.” 

He also pressed for a six-week ceasefire to allow the return of Israeli hostages and the delivery of humanitarian aid. 

Biden spoke amid a slip in the polls for his popularity and the popularity of foreign policies he champions. Public support for Ukraine is morphing, with nearly two-thirds now supporting a negotiated end to the conflict that Russia launched, even at the expense of Ukraine losing territory.

Biden’s support for Israel in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 17 attack has also drawn fire. Many voters in key battleground states such as Michigan withheld their support in the Democratic primaries, citing the heavy casualties—including more than 30,000 civilian deaths—that Israel has inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza. Meanwhile, Trump, never a noted supporter of the Palestinian cause, vowed last October to expand a travel ban to Gaza if re-elected.

The tight 2024 presidential race reflects a sharp choice between Biden’s incrementalism and Trump’s promises for radical, undemocratic change. The former president has made little secret of his ambitions to remake government in the vein of Hungary’s populist strongman Viktor Orban

Or it could be that the sound solutions of the past carry less credibility now, and ring of too many false starts. Biden devoted a portion of his speech to advocating for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, a solution that neither side particularly wants.

That’s a good example of how little middle ground there is left to create agreements between increasingly divergent sides, at home and abroad.