Opinion: Biden hit the right notes on Ukraine; but he lost an opportunity to say more to unite us
Devoting only about 12 minutes to the war during the State of the Union speech was not enough. For much of the world, Russia’s invasion is the only topic that matters.
State of the Union speeches generally fade from public consciousness quickly, as they often consist of little more than laundry lists of perceived achievements and political agendas.
President Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday, however, offered a different opportunity, with the world riveted on the senseless Russian invasion of Ukraine. The war and its tragic consequences provided him a rare moment when Americans and their allies were united and focused on a common cause.
When he spoke about this, Biden was at his best. He was forceful, resolute and reassuring. Unfortunately, he devoted only about 12 minutes to it, out of a speech that lasted more than an hour.
That was not nearly enough.
Ukraine’s plight has echoes in American history. The United States won independence with a ragtag group of patriots who, against all odds, fought and defeated a well-funded, seemingly invincible superpower. Our history should be their hope.
Biden hit so many good notes in those first 12 minutes.
“In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security — this is the real test,” he said.
But when, after 12 minutes, he abruptly turned to his domestic agenda and his list of desired legislation, the room seemed to deflate.
America and its allies wanted more.
The president ought to have spent more time explaining why Ukraine matters to the people of the United States. He should have explained how Russia has gone from a nascent democracy to what seems to be a dictatorship in a matter of only a few years, put Vladimir Putin in context and raised hope that Russia one day might again join the community of peaceful democracies.
He should have devoted more time to explaining how Russia has tried, mainly through cyber means, to divide Americans and exacerbate their political differences.
He spoke strongly about the enduring importance of NATO, an alliance that has been tested in recent years, and about the difficulties that might lie ahead. But he could have delved more into the important history of the alliance.
Perhaps more importantly, the Ukrainian people themselves needed to hear more about the reasons Americans stand behind them, and Putin needed to hear more direct talk about the misery and humanitarian crisis he has caused, and what his consequences will be. Biden should have reassured the world that the West stands ready to accept Ukrainian refugees, no matter how many cross the border.
While he did touch on some of these themes, speaking forcefully on how united the world is against Putin and announcing the release of oil reserves to counter upward pressure on energy prices, the subject deserved more. Against the grave importance of what is happening in Ukraine, domestic agendas seem far less important.
We agree with much of what the president said about uniting behind funding police departments and giving the children of undocumented immigrants a future. We agree with his emphasis on commonsense border solutions to secure the border and separate criminals from those who seek a better life.
We agree with the four issues of his unity agenda, particularly crushing the opioid epidemic and supporting veterans. We appreciate and agree with his optimism about the nation’s future.
But too much of the president’s domestic agenda belies economic reality. Inflation is at 7.5%. Gas prices are high. It isn’t enough to simply tell businesses or industries to charge less in order to reduce inflation. The president’s proposed agenda, including a mammoth “Build Back Better” Act, cannot be funded solely through taxes on corporate America and those earning more than $400,000 per year.
Unfortunately, the solutions Biden proposed in his speech were weakened by what he ignored, including alarming increases in crime, especially murder and organized smash-and-grab shoplifting sprees. Homelessness in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle have changed those communities.
Biden had an opportunity to unify the country — if not the world — and let some of his agenda be left for another day. There is still time to do that by continuing to rally support for Ukraine.