US President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union Address
US President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union Address before lawmakers in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 1, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: President Joe Biden delivered his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, after a year marked by continued struggles with the coronavirus pandemic, declining electoral fortunes for him and his fellow Democrats and, now, Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

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Some takeaways:

1. Seizing on the bipartisanship of Ukraine

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin's greatest tricks has been uniting Republicans and Democrats behind one broadly shared goal: opposing him. And at the start of Tuesday's speech, Biden grabbed that opportunity to rally the parties behind their common cause.

Biden earned particularly widespread and sustained applause for a couple of related lines.

"Members of the European Union, including France, Germany, Italy, as well as countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand and many others - even Switzerland - are inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine," Biden said, adding: "Putin is now isolated from the world more than he has ever been."

Shortly thereafter, Biden pointed to the Justice Department's move to go after Russian oligarchs, as well as joint efforts with European allies to seize their assets, including yachts.

"Tonight, I say to the Russian oligarchs and the corrupt leaders who bilk billions of dollars off this violent regime: No more," Biden said. He added: "I mean it," and, "We're coming for you."

While Russia's invasion has fueled some bipartisanship, there remain some divides on precisely what to do or what should have been done - particularly about our energy supply and related sanctions on things like the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But Biden opted not to dwell on the specifics and instead focused on our sudden and rare unity of cause.

It was in line with much of the speech.

2. Speaking Republicans' language

Indeed, Biden's speech was relatively light on truly divisive issues, save for a brief list of items near the end that included abortion, immigration reform and transgender rights, and another section on climate change. And at plenty of points in his speech, he seemed to be trying to speak to issues that are dear to Republicans - and perhaps even disaffected Democrats.

He hailed the decline in school and business closures amid the pandemic, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent decision to ease guidance on mask-wearing. He noted "most Americans and most of the country can now go mask-free" - as he sat in front of two Democrats, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who, notably, were without masks.

"Let's use this moment to reset. So stop looking at covid as a partisan dividing line," Biden said. He added: "Fellow Americans: Look, we can't change how divided we've been . . . but we can change how to move forward on covid-19 and other issues that we must face together."

As in his speech to Congress last year, he made a point to say he wasn't taking his eye off the threat that China poses - particularly as the world's attention focuses on Russia.

He served notice to the relatively small portion of his party that has pushed the "defund the police" effort, saying, "We should all agree: "The answer is not to defund the police; it's to fund the police," he said, before ad-libbing: "Fund them. Fund them." GOP leaders stood and applauded.

Biden also directly tackled an issue that is perhaps his most troubling on the economic front: inflation. He said: "Inflation is robbing [people] of the gains they might otherwise feel," and he went so far as to call it his "top priority."

All of these point to fears about how Democrats have allowed themselves to be defined ahead of what looks to be an arduous midterm election cycle. And as with other elements of the speech, it seemed aimed precisely at voters who have soured on his party.

3. Whither 'Build Back Better'

There were a few words notably missing from Biden's speech: "Build Back Better."

It has been pretty clear for a while now that the signature package is going nowhere in Congress - particularly as we turn to an election year in which passing legislation is much more difficult. But the White House and Democrats have been slow to concede that. Tuesday marked a significant shift away from it.

Biden cited others bills he wanted passed, including the Bipartisan Innovation Act, the Freedom to Vote Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Disclose Act, along with some more technical changes, but not Build Back Better, a multitrillion-dollar proposal to revamp or bolster child care, education, health care and climate change programs. When it came to large-scale legislation, he focused much more on the benefits of what has already passed, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the American Rescue Plan.

Biden still spoke to the priorities contained in Build Back Better, including energy, housing, child care and cutting prescription drug costs. But it seemed this was now more of a messaging exercise than a true legislative effort. We'll see how hard he truly pushes it - and how the shift in emphasis is greeted by liberals who have been wanting to double down on Build Back Better.

4. A shouted GOP attack, as Biden broaches his dead son

It was 13 years ago that partisanship boiled over at a presidential speech - what's generally a pretty staid occasion - with a Republican congressman yelling "You lie!" at President Barack Obama.

On Tuesday night, one of the most extreme House Republicans tried to rip a page out of that congressman's playbook. She just chose a pretty unfortunate and puzzling time.

Biden launched into talking about looking into the impact of "burn pits" on American soldiers. It was clear where this was headed: Biden was going to talk about the possibility that this played a role in the death of his son, Beau Biden.

As he was getting to that point, he mentioned how "many of the world's finest and best-trained warriors in the world [were] never the same - headaches, numbness, dizziness, a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin."

It was this moment that Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado chose to register her own attempted "You lie!" moment. She attacked Biden for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan - "You put them in, 13 of them," she said, in response to his "flag-draped coffin" remark - even though Biden wasn't talking about combat deaths. The "cancer" he had just mentioned was an obvious reference to what killed his son, as the prepared remarks sent out by the White House made clear.

Boebert drew a smattering of boos, and Biden continued speaking, staring in one direction as he mentioned Beau Biden in the very next sentence.