State of the Union: Russia-Ukraine war shifts President Biden’s domestic priorities

Russian invasion has forced President Joe Biden to refocus his speech on foreign policy, rather than his embattled domestic agenda before US midterms

US President Joe Biden puts on a mask after speaking at a February 28 event to celebrate Black History Month. AP
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President Joe Biden had hoped to use Tuesday's annual State of the Union address to set the tone for his domestic priorities as Democrats brace themselves for the midterm elections, but Russia’s attack against Ukraine could dash that plan.

The war has forced the president to redraft his speech to put more emphasis on Ukraine, the latest foreign policy crisis to face the Biden administration.

"There's no question that this speech is a little different than it would have been just a few months ago and there's always national security in every State of the Union speech," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday.

"Every State of the Union speech also reflects a moment of time. And so the President will lay out the efforts … he has taken his lead on to rally the world to stand up for democracy and against Russian aggression."

Mr Biden will reportedly emphasise the importance of defending democracies, even as he has to address domestic issues such as inflation, Covid-19 and rising crime rates, which could help the Republicans to take control of Congress in the November elections.

Mr Biden has responded to the Ukraine crisis with unprecedented financial and export sanctions on Russia in concert with allies in Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

"He will talk about the steps we've taken to not only support the Ukrainian people with military and economic assistance, but also the steps he's taken to build a global global coalition imposing crippling financial sanctions on President Putin, his inner circle and the Russian economy," Ms Psaki said.

"And he will talk about the steps he's taking to mitigate the impact of President Putin's invasion of Ukraine on the global economy and the American people."

He has shored up Nato’s eastern flank by sending more US troops, and has provided lethal aid to Ukraine. But he has pledged not to intervene militarily in the crisis for fear of starting a war between two nuclear superpowers.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found that only 33 per cent of Americans approved of Mr Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis while 47 per cent disapprove.

That poll also found that the president's already falling approval rating has continued downwards, with only 37 per cent of Americans approving of the job he is doing — a record low since he took office.

Mr Biden’s approval rating largely started to plummet last August amid the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and a surge in Covid-19 cases due to the Delta variant, despite his administration’s robust vaccination campaign.

Republicans have capitalised on his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal amid the bipartisan backlash, giving the president little incentive to devote much time, if any, to the Taliban-held country in his speech.

It is also unclear whether he will spend time addressing US efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal with its interlocutors, including Russia, given that the accord has domestically become yet another partisan issue.

But Mr Biden is nonetheless expected to address domestic issues throughout much of the speech, which could touch on Americans’ wariness of dealing with Covid-19 restrictions as the Omicron surge continues to fall.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention drastically revised its mask guidance on Friday.

The revised guidance says that masking is unnecessary for about 70 per cent of the American population given its new emphasis on hospital admission rates instead of case numbers.

Republicans have been criticising mask and vaccine mandates as well as school closures in the lead-up to the elections.

They have also sought to draw attention to the 40-year high record inflation under Mr Biden, something that the Ukraine war, coupled with the harsh sanctions on Russia, could only exacerbate before the election.

At the same time, Mr Biden can easily promote the rapid turnaround in employment. The US unemployment rate is 4 per cent – down from 6.4 per cent when former president Donald Trump left office in January 2021.

He can also promote investments spurred by badly needed infrastructure repairs that Congress passed on a bipartisan basis last year after negotiations brokered by the White House.

Still, Democrats face a bumpy electoral map that favours Republicans this year. And Republican control of even one house of Congress would be enough to hamper Mr Biden’s domestic agenda.

Conservative and centrist members of his own party, namely senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have blocked the president’s massive Build Back Better spending package.

That package would include funds to fight climate change and investments in green energy technology needed to reach his stated goal of halving US carbon emissions by 2030.

Mr Biden said last month that he intended to get out of Washington more this year to advance his agenda.

To that end, he will travel to the key swing state of Wisconsin on Wednesday to discuss his infrastructure law and the stalled Build Back Better legislation on Capitol Hill.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will doubtless continue to cast a long shadow over that visit.

Mr Biden boldly declared that “America is on the move again” during his first address to Congress as president last year.

However, he will have little choice but to highlight how much work remains to be done abroad and at home during this year’s State of the Union.

Updated: March 01, 2022, 7:36 AM