Very few American leaders have ever enjoyed an opportunity to define themselves and their presidencies—as well as regain the initiative against their political rivals and geopolitical foes—in the way U.S. President Joe Biden did Tuesday night. Biden didn’t do badly in his first State of the Union address—but given the stakes, he could have done much better.
Facing probably the most serious challenge to freedom since former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in World War II, Biden didn’t exactly deliver a “rendezvous with destiny” speech. It was more like a rendezvous with your checkbook.
Only days before the address, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, providing Biden with an ideal chance to hammer away at what he has called the “defining challenge” of his presidency: pitting democracy against autocracy around the world. Biden thus delivered his first State of the Union to what might have been an unprecedentedly huge audience—not just domestic but global.
But the president’s address, hastily rewritten after Putin’s aggression, pretty much sounded like the patch job it was. The first 12 minutes or so were devoted to what Biden called the United States’ “unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.” The remainder, however, amounted largely to a restatement of his familiar agenda—in other words, a somewhat toned-down version of Biden’s neoprotectionist economic program.
Biden did deliver some stirring lines: “Throughout our history, we’ve learned this lesson: When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. … In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment.” He spoke inspiringly about the Ukrainians’ brave fight against Russia (while hailing, up in the visitors’ gallery, Ukrainian ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova). He declared that the U.S. Justice Department was going after the wealth of Putin’s corrupt oligarch allies and ad libbed, “[Putin] has no idea what’s coming.”
What was missing, though, was any unifying theme that was the demand of the moment: not just the need to fight tyranny but a coherent argument for why freedom is the only solution—a message not just to Putin but to Chinese President Xi Jinping and his fellow autocrats, who threaten democracy around the world. And not just the need to fight for freedom but a full-on embrace of the international community that the United States did so much to create and has receded from in recent years—yet which has come together in unprecedented ways in just the last few days.
Instead, Biden’s big applause line at the outset was the rather pedestrian “American diplomacy matters. American resolve matters.” He declared, “The United States is a member [of NATO] along with 29 other nations”—rather than the alliance’s de facto leader, which it is. Biden also missed a chance to announce any new defiance of Putin’s outrage apart from banning Russian flights into the United States—before he turned again to minimizing the pain to American wallets. Biden announced he was working “with 30 other countries to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world.” He added that “America will lead that effort, releasing 30 million barrels from our own Strategic Petroleum Reserve” so as to “help blunt gas prices here at home.”
“I want you to know that we are going to be okay,” Biden said. In other words, no sacrifices are necessary, and there is certainly no rendezvous with destiny on the horizon.
Above all, Biden didn’t seize a unique moment to elucidate what he has been talking about since he was elected—that the fight for the 21st century will be about the virtues of freedom and democracy over authoritarianism. He failed to deliver what could have been a singular theme linking his domestic and foreign agendas. To wit: Putin, and all he stands for, is why the United States is seeking to strengthen its democracy at home, and why it’s imperative to overcome domestic divisions. Instead, Biden concluded, somewhat awkwardly, “A Russian dictator, invading a foreign country, has costs around the world.”
The irony was that Biden could claim, with some justification—though he certainly owes a lot to Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s heroic, eloquent president—that he has unified the West and much of the world to an extraordinary degree against a historic threat. He did talk that achievement up a bit, but early reactions indicated that Biden was less than inspirational, and his speech probably did little to alter his low approval ratings. A CNN instant poll of speech watchers found that only 41 percent had a “very positive” reaction to the speech—a serious drop from Biden’s speech to Congress in April 2021, when 51 percent of reactions were very positive.
Up against Putin and his ilk, what probably mattered most of all at this moment—as it hasn’t for many years—was Biden’s bid to reclaim the United States’ role as leader of the free world. Biden said, “Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever,” but he failed to elucidate why and say what might happen to Xi—who less than a month ago embraced a new partnership with Putin at the 2022 Beijing Olympics—if he adopted Putin’s playbook against Ukraine regarding Taiwan. What are the unifying values, precisely, that have isolated Putin—and no doubt given Xi reasons to wonder what his own comeuppance might be if he invades Taiwan? It’s clear by now that the last thing China—which is far more integrated into the global economy than Russia—could endure would be total isolation and the kind of unprecedented financial sanctions imposed on Russia.
Yet Biden made no mention of China or its threat to democracy other than to reiterate his familiar theme that the United States must outcompete China on the economic front. “We are going to buy American: buy American products to support American jobs,” he said, so as “to level the playing field with China and other competitors.”
There is no formula that requires State of the Union addresses to be long-winded laundry lists. The U.S. Constitution only says the president shall from “time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
Some past presidents have used the annual message to great effect. In his January 1941 State of the Union, before the United States even entered World War II, Franklin Roosevelt laid out the “four freedoms.” (His famous line that “this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny” came at the Democratic National Convention in 1936.) In his 1964 State of the Union, with the nation still traumatized by the assassination of former U.S. President John Kennedy, then-U.S. President Lyndon Johnson launched his “war on poverty.” Other presidents have botched the attempt to go big: In 2002, less than five months after the 9/11 attacks, then-U.S. President George W. Bush took the nation in a catastrophic misdirection when he labeled North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as an “axis of evil,” laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq.
The 2022 State of the Union was a unique opportunity for Biden to turn a run-of-the-mill, almost always unmemorable grab bag into a defining moment for his presidency. With many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle wearing the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag, his audience was more than willing to listen and applaud. And some even did; even Republicans in Congress delivered a bipartisan ovation on several occasions, especially when it came to Ukraine.
But even there, Biden missed some opportunities. He said of Putin: “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.”
True enough. But what about the wall of strength rebuilt by democracies united under U.S. leadership around the world?