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US President Joe Biden looks delivers the state of the union address to a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington on March 1 2022. Picture: Saul Loeb via REUTERS
US President Joe Biden looks delivers the state of the union address to a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol in Washington on March 1 2022. Picture: Saul Loeb via REUTERS

Washington — US President Joe Biden led a standing ovation on Tuesday in support of Ukrainians facing a Russian siege in a state of the union speech he rewrote to assail President Vladimir Putin for what he called his “unprovoked and premeditated invasion.”

“Let each of us if you're able to stand, stand and send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world,” Biden said.

Often polarised along partisan lines, Democrats and Republicans rose to applaud Ukraine, many waving Ukrainian flags and cheering in the chamber of the House of Representatives at Biden's first formal state of the union speech.

In a deviation from his prepared remarks, Biden said of Putin: “He has no idea what's coming.”

Biden was looking to reset his presidency after a first year in office marked by rapid economic growth and trillions of dollars in new programs, but beset by the highest inflation in 40 years and a lingering coronavirus pandemic.

The annual speech to Congress gave Biden a platform to highlight his agenda, reassure fretful Americans and seek to boost his sluggish poll numbers amid dire warnings his fellow Democrats could face losses in November congressional elections.

For the first time in months, members of Congress were not required to wear masks in the chambers to guard against the pandemic, a sight that could provide helpful optics for the president.

Ahead of Biden's arrival, the Ukrainian flags were passed out. Several women members of Congress arrived wearing the flag's colours of yellow and blue.

Biden's challenge was to show Americans he is on top of the West's response to the most tense period in relations with Russia since the Cold War ended 30 years ago.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has tested Biden's ability to respond rapidly to events without sending American forces into battle.

The US and its allies have launched withering sanctions against Russia's economy and financial system, Putin himself and his inner circle of oligarchs. More sanctions are being planned.

The crisis forced Biden, whose chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 drew wide criticism, to reshape the speech to focus on uniting Americans around a global effort to punish Moscow and support Kyiv.

He launched heavy criticism of Putin in his remarks, saying the Russian leader had badly miscalculated how events would unfold and that now “Russia’s economy is reeling and Putin alone is to blame.”

“He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead he met a wall of strength he never imagined. He met the Ukrainian people,” he said. “From President Zelensky to every Ukrainian, their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, inspires the world.”

'Premeditated and unprovoked'

Biden said Putin ignored efforts to prevent war.

“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 will say. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.”

Biden announced the US will join other nations in banning Russian flights from American airspace.

In a show of support for Ukraine, first lady Jill Biden had as her guest at the speech the Ukraine ambassador to the US, Oksana Markarova, who travelled in the Biden motorcade from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Battling rising inflation exacerbated by the Russian crisis and assailed by Republicans who accused him of allowing it to get out of control, Biden called for companies to make more cars and semiconductors in the US so Americans would be less reliant on imports.

The evening was not without its partisan moments. Two far-right Republican lawmakers, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, shouted “build the wall” to show their displeasure with Biden's immigration policy. “Sit down,” shouted a Democratic lawmaker in response.

Biden himself offered some criticism of progressives in his party critical of police killings of Black men, saying: “The answer is not to defund the police. It's to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them. Fund them with resources and training … to protect the community.”

Meanwhile, Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat responsible for blocking Biden's Build Back Better spending plan, spent the entire speech seated with Republicans on their side of the chamber.

Biden had some progress to tout: The economy grew faster than it has since 1984 with 6.6-million jobs created, the government distributed hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines, and he has nominated the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“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 said. “Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let's make it in America … My plan to fight inflation will lower your costs and lower the deficit.”

Biden and his fellow Democrats face the prospect of losing control of the US House of Representatives and Senate in November 8 midterm elections. An uptick in Biden's approval ratings might help prevent that and strengthen his chances of making good on his agenda.

Public opinion polls have shown Biden out of favour with the majority of Americans for months.

Americans' approval of Biden's response to the Russian invasion rose over the past week, with 43% saying they approve in a Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Tuesday, up from 34% last week. About 47% disapproved of Biden response's to the crisis, however, and his overall popularity has held near the low point of his presidency in recent weeks.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who will deliver the Republican response to Biden's speech, will knock his handling of the Ukraine crisis and the US inflation spike.

“Instead of moving America forward, it feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. When runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing on our cities, and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map,” she will say, according to excerpts.

Republicans say the country has not moved quickly enough to ease coronavirus pandemic restrictions as case counts fall. More than 2,000 Americans are dying daily of Covid-19, the latest 7-day average shows, the most of any country in the world.

Biden said most of the country will be mask-free soon.

“I know you’re tired, frustrated, and exhausted,” he said. “But I also know this … tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines.”

“So on this night, in our 245th year as a nation, I have come to report on the state of the union. And my report is this: the state of the union is strong — because you, the American people, are strong. We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we will be stronger a year from now than we are today,” Biden said.

Reuters

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