(WASHINGTON) — It was one of the most consequential weeks of President Joe Biden’s presidency, and it came right before his first State of the Union address to Congress.
Biden’s 9 p.m. ET speech, to be carried live on national television and seen around the world, will be delivered just days after Russia invaded Ukraine — and days after he nominated the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court.
But he’ll also be speaking to Americans suffering from historic inflation as the nation continues to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
With his job approval at an all-time low of 37%, Biden faces the difficult task of balancing their pain with his desire to reap the political benefits of his legislative wins so far — a massive COVID relief package and a once-in-a-generation investment in the nation’s infrastructure — while also demonstrating his leadership on one of the greatest threats to European stability since World War II.
Defending democracy in Ukraine
While a president’s annual address to Congress typically ticks through a laundry list of domestic priorities and accomplishments, the war in Ukraine will likely compel Biden to make foreign policy a dominant theme.
“There’s no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.
It’s a theme that Biden could use to his advantage, demonstrating his taking command as he keeps Western leaders united against a common foreign foe most Americans can recognize: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In addition to making the crisis something of personal test of wills between himself and Putin, Biden has not shied from presenting the conflict in consequential, historical terms, equating Ukraine’s defense to the fight against autocracy; he often describes the world as facing an “inflection point” during which it’s the United States’ responsibility to show that democracy can still work.
The president has made reaffirming America’s traditional relationships and strengthening international institutions like NATO a hallmark of his first 13 months in office.
Russia’s invasion has strengthened the NATO alliance, as Western nations stand together against Russia.
Biden has made working in lockstep with Europe an overarching principle of his approach, and it’s delivered results: unprecedented, punitive sanctions against Russia; preemptive releases of intelligence information; and at home, some praise from Republicans usually critical of his policies.
After struggling with the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and bringing Iran back to the agreement over its nuclear program, Russia’s invasion presents Biden with the ability to fulfill a campaign promise of returning America to a position of leadership in the world.
And it could lead to a few bipartisan applause lines from Republicans who have supported his approach — rather than the regular, one-sided standing ovations from Democrats.
Economic woes plague Biden’s presidency
But potentially overshadowing Ukraine and Russia in Biden’s speech will be his attempt to show how he’s addressing inflation, which is at a 40-year high, and an economy still struggling to emerge from the pandemic.
Economic discontent is hurting Biden and his party’s midterm election prospects, with six in 10 Americans reporting inflation hardships, three-quarters saying the economy’s in bad shape and a nearly 20-point lead for the Republican Party in trust to handle it, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
The president planned to focus on four economic themes, the White House said: increasing domestic manufacturing and strengthening supply chains; reducing costs for families while also reducing the deficit; promoting competition as another way to lower prices; and expanding access to well paying jobs.
Biden will talk about new steps to promote competition in the ocean freight industry and improve nursing home care, the White House said.
Much of what Biden will call for, though, according to the White House, will rely on a reluctant Congress to send him legislation.
Biden fulfilled a major promise last year when he pushed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, known as the “American Rescue Plan,” through Congress. And the president’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure law was a major accomplishment that will pump money into roads, bridges, airports, waterways, broadband internet, cleaning up lead pipes and more.
Members of Congress, governors and other politicians of both parties have touted the benefits of the infrastructure legislation, which garnered bipartisan support.
But it will take time for many of those projects to come to fruition across the country, and Biden has faced the difficult task of using it to boost his poll numbers in the short term.
But since then, prices for food, gas and other consumer goods have jumped. While the U.S. economy has rebounded to a large degree — with strong recent job growth — wages have not kept up with inflation for most workers.
Psaki said that Biden will “absolutely” talk about inflation, noting it’s “a huge issue on the mind of Americans.”
“He’s going to make clear that one of the best ways to lower costs over the long run is to is to increase the productive capacity of our economy, to make more things in America, with more American workers contributing and earning a good living,” she said.
Meanwhile, though, the war in Ukraine has already contributed to higher energy costs — including gas prices — a political threat for Biden.
Last week, two-thirds of Americans supported imposing economic sanctions on Russia, although only 51% backed them if it meant higher energy prices in the U.S., according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
Biden has sought to convince Americans the price is worth it and, together with European nations, has held back from sanctioning Russia’s oil and gas sector, fearing that prices could spike around the world.
“The American people understand,” Biden said earlier this month, “that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost.”
Bringing America out of the pandemic
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, a larger theme likely would have been his stressing a “return to normalcy” to try to keep Americans tired of the pandemic from making him and Democrats pay a big political cost in November’s midterm elections.
Ahead of Biden’s speech, the White House has begun a sweeping overhaul of its COVID-19 strategy that will signal the nation is moving past crisis mode and into a more manageable phase in the pandemic, ABC News has learned.
The new strategy was expected to acknowledge that the virus is less of an urgent threat to most Americans because of widespread access to vaccines, booster shots and testing, as well as increasing availability of therapeutics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased masking recommendations for most of the country last week, a major shift in the nation’s return to normalcy.
Face coverings will not be required in the House chamber where Biden will speak, a symbolic switch after the president walked in with one on for his address last year.
But the federal guidance came after governors of several liberal-leaning states moved ahead on their own with lifting restrictions. Biden’s reluctance to get ahead of the CDC — and let science lead the way, as he had promised he would do — resulted in an ad hoc shift across the country.
While the delta and omicron variants were major speed bumps to Biden’s plan to bring the U.S. out of the pandemic — and actions his administration has taken on testing and masking have appeared reactive — the State of the Union address gives the president a chance to reframe his plan to curb COVID.
Unfulfilled promises hamper Biden
Heading into the midterm elections later this year — when Republicans could retake Congress — Biden has left many promises unfulfilled.
His “Build Back Better” social plan has fallen by the wayside, after passing the House and stalling out in the Senate. It would provide hundreds of billions of dollars for child care, paid family leave, education, health care and combating climate change; without its passage, a number of Biden’s campaign pledges remain unmet.
A pair of voting rights bills that passed the House have also languished in the Senate, and efforts to reform policing and guns have not been met with success.
Biden had promised to tackle climate change and racial equity as key priorities, but he has not been able to gain bipartisan support to do so, despite his pledge to soften political divisions.
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