Biden’s State of the Union address to focus on Ukraine, U.S. economy

The president plans to announce that the U.S. will close its air space to Russian aircraft.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks from the Cross Hall of the White House on Friday.
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is expected to use his State of the Union address on Tuesday to attack Russian President Vladimir Putin for the “premeditated and unprovoked” invasion of Ukraine, announcing that the U.S. will close its air space to Russian aircraft.

The closure of U.S. airspace to Russian planes follows a similar move by Europe and Canadian officials Sunday.

Following the sixth day of the Russian assault on Ukraine, Biden was to highlight the unity between the U.S. and its NATO allies in their response to Russia, saying Putin had underestimated the strength of the NATO alliance, according to prepared remarks released by the White House.

"Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us here at home," Biden planned to say. "Putin was wrong. We were ready."

The annual prime-time address, which typically provides a president with one of his biggest television audiences of the year, was to come after another bloody day of fighting, in which Russia hit major cities across Ukraine with increasingly heavy shelling. Meanwhile, a vast convoy of Russian forces threatened the capital, Kyiv.

On the domestic front, Biden also planned to focus heavily on the economy and inflation, which is at its highest levels in decades and has been cited by voters as a top concern. The president was to outline ways his administration was looking to lower costs for Americans, including making more products in the U.S. and becoming less reliant on foreign supply chains.

“We have a choice. One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I have a better plan to fight inflation,” Biden planned to say. “Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And, instead of relying on foreign supply chains — let’s make it in America.”

The speech comes at a pivotal moment for Biden, both at home and abroad. Among recent presidents, only his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, went before Congress with a lower approval rating, with voters giving Biden low marks on his leadership style to his handling of the economy. 

The address may mark Biden’s last opportunity to make the case for his domestic policy agenda before a Congress controlled by his own party, with many Democrats facing tough fights in the midterms.

The president’s team has been reworking his remarks in recent days to more heavily emphasize the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in an interview with MSNBC this week, compared the moment to the remarks before Congress by President Barack Obama during the financial crisis or the speech President George W. Bush gave after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, was scheduled to attend the address as a guest of first lady Jill Biden, seated in her viewing box, a senior administration official said.

But even as much of the world’s attention remains on Ukraine, administration officials said they still hope to use the moment to make the case for the work Biden has done on the economy and to make the case that he has a plan to do more to address domestic economic concerns.

While the majority of Americans say they disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, he was set to argue that his administration has helped the economy achieve its fastest job growth in U.S. history and the fastest economic growth in nearly 40 years, a senior administration official said. 

A specific step Biden planned to announce to help address rising prices was an agreement between the Justice Department and the Federal Maritime Commission to make sure large ocean freight companies can’t overcharge U.S. customers, the White House said. 

Other new programs Biden was scheduled to announce included an effort to improve nursing home staffing, make poorly performing nursing homes accountable for improper and unsafe care and improve publicly available information about nursing home conditions.

He was also scheduled to outline a plan to address the country’s mental health crisis.

Biden was to call for a large investment in the U.S. workforce to build capacity to meet mental health needs, a senior administration official said Tuesday, including an expansion of community mental health centers and investments in mental health resources in schools.

The plan includes a call for action to address social media’s potential harm to the mental health of young people, the official said, adding that the Department of Health and Human Services will launch a crisis hotline in the summer that would connect people to mental health resources.

Biden was also to highlight his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, calling her a jurist in the mold of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, a source familiar with the matter said. Jackson wasn’t planning to attend the speech, the source said.

Biden intended to continue to press Congress to act on programs in his stalled Build Back Better legislation, specifically around lowering prescription drug and child care costs. He also planned to ask lawmakers to act on other ideas he has proposed, among them providing better housing for seniors and the disabled, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and lowering the cost of higher education, including increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by more than $2,000. 

Biden, addressing the country as it enters what public health officials hope will be a more manageable phase of the pandemic, was expected to highlight new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week that said much of the population no longer needs to use masks in their daily lives, as well as the administration’s broader strategy for the pandemic.

Masks will be optional for members of Congress and others attending the speech, with the Capitol’s attending physician, Dr. Brian P. Monahan, pointing to decreasing Covid-19 case rates, as well as the new CDC guidance.

Some members of Congress who have recently tested positive for Covid — including Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., as well as Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif. — won’t attend the speech.

Covid case numbers have continued to decline across most of the country after they surged earlier in the year.

By Shannon Pettypiece

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