State of the Union: Biden assails Putin as US Congress cheers for Ukraine

US president says Putin 'badly miscalculated' in Ukraine -- but US voters generally care little about foreign policy

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US President Joe Biden said Russia's Vladimir Putin had "badly miscalculated" when he attacked Ukraine and predicted the conflict would enfeeble Russia while helping to unify the rest of the world.

Mr Biden's State of the Union speech late on Tuesday was an opportunity for him to try to reset the narrative of a presidency that a majority of Americans disapprove of amid soaring prices, the lingering Covid-19 pandemic and the Democratic Party's inability to pass key legislation.

He said Mr Putin "sought to shake the foundations of the free world" when he invaded Ukraine.

"But he badly miscalculated. 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."

Mr Biden led a standing ovation for the embattled Ukrainian people, sending "an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world".

Often polarised along partisan lines, Democrats and Republicans rose to applaud his support for Ukraine, many waving Ukrainian flags and cheering in the chamber of the House of Representatives.

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

"When the history of this era is written Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger," Mr Biden said.

But even as Mr Biden spoke, Russian forces were escalating their attacks in Ukraine, having bombarded the central square of country’s second-biggest city and Kiev's main TV tower, killing at least five people.

The Babi Yar Holocaust memorial was also damaged.

Mr Biden said the US is following Canada and the European Union in banning Russian planes from its airspace and said the Justice Department was launching a task force to go after crimes of Russian oligarchs, whom he called “corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime.”

Mr Biden then turned to domestic issues, acknowledging the country's rising energy prices and soaring inflation that has seen costs rise for everything from petrol to food, effectively wiping out any pay increases over the past year.

While the geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe may have helped to cool partisan tensions in Washington, it didn’t erase the political and cultural discord that is casting doubt on Mr Biden’s ability to deliver on his pledge to promote national unity.

His speech to Congress last year saw the rollout of a massive social spending package, but Mr Biden this year largely repackaged past proposals in search of achievable measures he hopes can win bipartisan support in a bitterly divided Congress before the midterm elections in November.

The president also highlighted investments in everything from internet broadband access to bridge construction from November’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law as an example of government reaching consensus and delivering change for the nation.

He also appealed to politicians to compromise on rival competitiveness bills that have passed the House and Senate, both meant to revitalise high-tech American manufacturing and supply chains in the face of growing geopolitical threats from China.

“Instead of relying on foreign supply chains – let’s make it in America,” Mr Biden said, to loud applause.

Mr Biden was speaking to an American public that is frustrated with his performance.

A February AP-NORC poll found that more people disapproved than approved of how he is handling the job — 55 per cent to 44 per cent. That's down from a 60 per cent favourable rating last July.

White House officials acknowledge the mood of the country is “sour”, citing the lingering pandemic and inflation.

US voters generally care little about foreign policy and after last year's ignominious end last year to the two-decade long Afghanistan war, they care even less.

Mr Biden came into Congress unmasked, in a sign of the abating pandemic and easing of restrictions. But he also spoke from within a newly fenced Capitol, with security ramped up after last year's insurrection.

Security fencing surrounds the US Capitol on the morning of President Joe Biden's first State of the Union address. EPA

Time is running short for the president, who needs to salvage his first-term agenda to revive the political fortunes of his party before November’s elections.

House Republicans say the word “crisis” describes the state of the union under Mr Biden and Democrats — from an energy policy that lets Russia sell oil abroad to challenges at home over jobs and immigration.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: March 02, 2022, 3:53 AM
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