Column: State of the Union gives Biden a fleeting taste of unity

President Biden appears for the State of the Union address
President Biden delivers his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, emphasizing foreign policy more than usual.
(Shawn Thew / Associated Press)

For better and worse, President Biden’s first State of the Union address wasn’t the speech he expected to deliver.

For worse: Days into Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s deadly invasion of democratic Ukraine, Biden and his audience in the House chamber, as well as across the nation and the world, were preoccupied by grief for Ukrainians, and fear that this century could see the sort of world war we’d thought had ended in the last.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

Biden justifiably spent more time on foreign policy than is usual for these annual addresses, and more than he likely wanted to, considering his domestic agenda has gone dormant.

For better: With near-universal revulsion toward Putin, sympathy for his brave prey and pride in the United States’ leadership — Biden’s leadership — in uniting allies in economic warfare against Russia, the president got a bipartisan reception that also was unusual for presidents in recent decades. Biden, who rose to the occasion to give a good but not great speech, wouldn’t have enjoyed such goodwill even a week ago — not with his approval ratings so low that Republicans are tasting blood as the year’s midterm election approaches.

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The evening showcased the sort of American unity that the president, ever the idealist, made the theme of his inaugural address last year, even as he acknowledged then that such talk might be “foolish fantasy.” It took a crisis, but Biden indulged his fantasy. Instead of the typical ovations from just the president’s party, he could look out and see Republicans clapping and even standing with Democrats.

And yet .…

The bipartisanship seemed forced, superficial. And it will probably prove sadly ephemeral.

I was reminded of George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address, months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The bipartisanship he enjoyed then would soon be shattered by his divisive drive to invade Iraq, which had no role in the attacks. Ten days before Bush’s address, advisor Karl Rove had told party leaders that Republicans would make war a political issue against Democrats in that year’s midterm election campaigns. They did, winning Senate and House majorities but squandering national unity and lives for a misbegotten war.

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Republicans seemed only momentarily muzzled Tuesday evening, not defanged.

Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia used the televised event to further their status as the worst faces of the Republican Party. A photo of their heckling Biden went viral. Boebert drew boos by another outburst: Just as Biden was alluding to his late son Beau and other veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts whose exposure to toxic burn pits might have caused “a cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin,” she yelled, “You put them in, 13 of them” — a reference to the Americans killed by a suicide bomber during last year’s evacuation of Kabul, Afghanistan.

House Republicans’ speaker-in-waiting, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, at times was looking down, scrolling on his phone, and otherwise looking dyspeptic. Outside, fencing surrounded the Capitol as it had after the insurrectionist siege of Jan. 6, 2021, a precaution against similar trouble.


Early on, Biden got bipartisan standing ovations for declaring “freedom will always triumph over tyranny,” mocking Putin’s miscalculations about the resolve of the U.S., NATO and other democracies. Biden even ad-libbed: “He has no idea what’s coming.”

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“Putin alone is the one to blame,” Biden said to more applause. This, however, was just hours after Donald Trump, the Putin-phile who remains the unchallenged leader of the Republican Party, issued a statement blaming everyone but the Russian madman: “There should be no war waging now in Ukraine, and it is terrible for humanity that Biden, NATO, and the West have failed so terribly in allowing it to start.”

Because of the solemnity of the event, and because he’s Biden, the president mostly avoided throwing the political red meat his party’s liberals salivate for. Straight off his initial focus on the unifying theme of Ukraine, he segued to domestic affairs by contrasting the widespread benefits of the $1.9-trillion pandemic relief law he signed last year with Trump’s $2-trillion tax-cut law “that benefited the top 1% of Americans.” For that one time, the chamber’s right erupted in familiar boos.

Biden spent enough time lauding his languishing, nearly $2-trillion Build Back Better initiative to suggest he believes that package is still salvageable. He described its parts as inflation fighters, citing provisions to cut prescription drug costs, in particular for insulin, and to provide assistance for child and elder care, health insurance and clean energy investments. Yet minutes after the speech, the Democrat who’s blocked its passage in the 50-50 Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, all but gave a thumbs down to inquiring reporters.

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The war in Ukraine remains a wild card; Biden reiterated that Americans won’t join it militarily. For now, at least, he could claim he’d accomplished one promise of last year’s inaugural address: “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”

But there was another vow, regarding the domestic front: “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal.”

That goal remains as elusive as ever, notwithstanding Tuesday’s détente.