Joe Biden, a man without a mask, entered the House Chamber Tuesday evening, and shook hands with legislators before speaking about the new time in America that would ease its pandemic restrictions. “Last year COVID-19 kept us apart. This year we are finally together again,” Biden said during his first State of the Union address, to bipartisan applause.
Then, for ten minutes, Biden found another topic that kept Republicans and Democrats on the same page: opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Invasion of Ukraine.
Putin “badly miscalculated,” Biden said. “He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. But he found a wall that was stronger than he could have imagined. He met The Ukrainians.” To loud applause from both parties, Biden announced the U.S. is closing its airspace to Russian planes and would work to seize yachts and apartments of Russian oligarchs. Putin “thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber and this nation,” Biden said. “But Putin was wrong. We’re ready. We are united.”
Biden spent much time in his speech, which lasted over an hour, discussing ways that bitterly divided countries can come together around common goals. Not only was he able to stand up against Russia, but he also highlighted the importance of collaborating with other countries. He garnered bipartisan applause for saying the solution to protecting communities is not to defund the police but to “fund the police” with resources and training. GOP applause also went his way for supporting the security of the border. He spoke of the need to increase the number of judges available to hear asylum cases, ad libbing from his prepared remarks that “those who are not legitimately here can be sent back.” Biden said schools should stay open, a stance many Republicans have held for the greater part of the last two years. He acknowledged inflation—which may turn out to be a crippling Democrats in vulnerability in the midterms—is “robbing” families.
A President with low approval ratings and attempting to unite the country sought to do more than emphasize their differences. He never mentioned former President Donald Trump by name, and although he criticized the tax cuts passed during Trump’s Administration, he largely avoided partisan attacks on Republicans. A strong performance Tuesday night was needed by Biden who, beset by angry voters about his 20-year-old war in Afghanistan and his promises to control the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the growing likelihood that his party may lose control of one or both of Congress’s chambers in November’s midterm elections.
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Partisan cracks still showed. Biden was just finishing his talk about Ukraine, and Republicans were booing the first time he mentioned his domestic policies priorities. Biden invoked his coronavirus relief program that he signed immediately after taking office.
Biden didn’t mention his stalled social spending and climate policy package by its former title, Build Back Better, but he was met by stony silence from the GOP when he promoted aspects of it like affordable childcare and cheaper electric vehicles that aides say the President still hopes to pass in increments. Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from West Virginia who sank plans to pass these legislative items as a sweeping package, was seated next to Republicans, showing fissures remain even among the President’s own party.
Others signs of discord were even more evident. Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado heckled Biden’s citation of American troops who died of fatal illnesses after service abroad—including his late son Beau Biden—and ended up in flag-draped coffins. “You put them in, 13 of them,” she called out, in reference to the 13 U.S. military members who died in an explosion during the messy Afghanistan withdrawal.
Going into the address, Republicans were eager to paint Biden as a weak and ineffective leader by highlighting the rising prices consumers are facing across the nation—particularly at the gas pumps. “Americans are paying the price for Joe Biden’s anti energy agenda that has caused the price of gas to skyrocket,” Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York told reporters Tuesday. GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana said Biden’s policies are “begging Putin to produce more oil” as Putin sends troops over the border to Ukraine.
In an acknowledgment of the strain Russia’s war in Ukraine is putting on the global gas supply, the White House announced Tuesday that the U.S. will release 30 million barrels of oil from the strategic petroleum reserve. Biden added Tuesday night that he would be “ready to do more if necessary.”
He acknowledged that COVID-19 was still dangerous and may produce more variants. He laid out steps the Administration will take—including expanding the free COVID-19 test-by-mail program and launching an initiative to provide people who test positive for the virus at pharmacies with free antiviral pills on the spot—to continue mitigating the virus’ threat.
Biden’s best evidence, however, may not have come from the plans he discussed, but the environment in which he discussed them: a room full of hundreds of lawmakers and journalists, mostly unmasked, after two years of a pandemic that upended the economy and killed nearly one million Americans. Many Republican legislators had thrown away their masks within the Capitol halls over the past year (or didn’t wear them at all) Now, for the first time in a large public showing, most Democratic lawmakers—and the President—were united in that too.
Rep. Sean Casten, a Democrat from Illinois, tells TIME his decision to not wear a mask to the speech was made possible because Biden’s Administration was able to get so many Americans vaccinated. “We are at this point because of Biden’s leadership,” he says.
Biden ended his speech with one last note of unity. “The state of the union is strong,” he said, “because the American people are strong.” Whether voters think Biden’s performance is strong enough to reverse his political fortunes, however, remains to be seen.