The nation faces the most tumultuous times since World War II. Here’s what the president had to say about meeting the challenge.
President Joe Biden is not, technically speaking, a wartime president.
But his first State of the Union address, delivered to the backdrop of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, sounded as if he were.
Biden talked about resolve — first the resolve of a besieged Ukrainian people and then the resolve of the American people — as if it is ultimately the answer. Of course, things are more complicated than that, but for a leader who’s fashioned a successful political career out of being a survivor, it makes a great deal of sense.
“I know the news about what’s happening can seem alarming to all Americans,” Biden said Tuesday night as he spoke at the US Capitol. “But I want you to know that we are going to be okay, we’re going to be okay.”
This last part the president almost whispered into the microphone. This was like President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats” in the midst of the Great Depression, but in front of Congress.
America is not a monolith. There is no one thing America needs right now. The pandemic has exposed yawning fault lines in the economy, racial justice, and health care. And let’s be clear. They existed before Covid-19.
But if it sought to be anything, Tuesday’s State of the Union, authored in arguably the most tumultuous times since World War II, sought to be a balm.
Here are my 5 takeaways from a night that had to be a lot of things for a lot of folks:
No War Without NATO
While the president struck an aggressive tone on Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden sought a middle ground here, promising support for Ukraine and sanctions for Russia. But he also committed to no military action unless the United State’s NATO allies are attacked by Russia.
For background, NATO is an alliance of nations formed after World War II to provide mutual security against aggressors.
Most at risk would be the Baltic states that might or might not be in Putin’s crosshairs.
For a state with the third-most military personnel in the nation, including more than 100,000 active duty and reserves service members, North Carolina is watching. Thousands of North Carolina troops from Fort Bragg and fighter jet squadrons from the US Air Force’s Seymour Johnson Base in Goldsboro have already been dispatched to the region to protect NATO allies against Russian incursion.
On Tuesday, Biden also laid out a plan to narrowly target the wealthy Russian oligarchs connnected to Put who might be less inclined to follow his imperialist aims.
“The US Department of Justice is assembling a dedicated task force to go after the crimes of Russian oligarchs,” the president said. “We are joining with our European allies to find and seize their yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains.”
Containing the Economic Fallout
Gas prices, for better or for worse, are how so many Americans gauge the economy. It’s mostly for worse right now. Gas prices are more a reflection of how the oil cartels price crude oil. But prices in North Carolina today are about $3.55 a gallon and likely to go even higher as Russia, the second-largest oil producer in the world, invades Ukraine.
Biden announced plans Tuesday to release 60 million barrels of the nation’s oil reserves to blunt the rising costs.
“A Russian dictator, invading a foreign country, has costs around the world,” he said. “And I’m taking robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at the Russian economy. And I will use every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers.”
Build, Build, Build
One of President Biden’s biggest wins of his first year was infrastructure.
The president and Congressional Democrats forged a bipartisan deal on roads, bridges, highways and other key items of lagging American infrastructure. North Carolina is sorely in need of it. Infrastructure and building projects are one surefire way to create jobs and rejuvenate the economy, even if the accompanying inflation is a real problem.
“America used to have the best roads, bridges, and airports on Earth,” Biden said. “Now our infrastructure is ranked 13th in the world. … We’re done talking about infrastructure weeks. We’re now talking about an infrastructure decade.”
Make Life More Affordable
Facing significant inflation — a good chunk of which is related to economic recovery and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions — Biden seemed to say Tuesday there is no single solution.
The president said his administration will focus on rebuilding the economy with infrastructure, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and pushing a plan to lower the cost of prescription drugs.
Biden will have obstacles. In particular, Republicans have been bullish on blocking minimum wage boosts. They were also largely opposed to the Covid recovery built into the American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure plan and unanimously opposed the popular extension of advance child tax credit payments that had a drastic impact on childhood poverty.
“With all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills,” he said. “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they thought otherwise would be able to feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control.”
The Pandemic’s End
Hopefully the optimism of this moment in the pandemic is not a mirage.
The CDC is rolling back restrictions. So are states like North Carolina and the local governments within.
Public health experts are split on the wisdom of dropping mask requirements, but Biden said Tuesday night that slowly climbing vaccination rates, declining infections, and the relatively lesser symptoms of Omicron means Americans should feel emboldened.
“Our schools are open,” Biden said. “Let’s keep it that way. Our kids need to be in school. And with 75% of adult Americans fully vaccinated and hospitalizations down by 77%, most Americans can remove their masks, return to work, stay in the classroom, and move forward safely.”