President Joe Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that he “will pay a continuing high price” for “unprovoked and premeditated invasion” of Ukraine.
Delivering his first State of the Union (SOTU) address to the joint session of Congress on Tuesday under the shadow of the Ukraine crisis, Biden said that Putin had badly miscalculated when he launched the invasion “seeking to shake the foundations of the free world”.
“He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never imagined,” Biden said.
Biden said that he had prepared for the invasion by getting a united front of the European and other allies to confront Putin.
Paying a tribute to the Ukrainian people and their President Volodymyr Zelentskyt for “their fearlessness, their courage, their determination” which inspires the world, he asked his audience to rise in solidarity with them.
Ukraine’s Ambassador Oksana Markova, who was in the chamber, received the standing ovation.
Many of those attending brought along Ukrainian flags, and some dressed in its colours, blue and yellow.
“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,” he said.
Biden categorically ruled out US troops fighting in Ukraine.
“Our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine,” he said.
But if “Putin decides to keep moving west,” he said, “the United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory of NATO countries.”
While he listed the economic sanctions against Russia through which “we are inflicting pain on Russia”, he said, but also added that the invasion also has “costs around the world”.
To blunt that impact, which will be first felt in petroleum prices, he said that the US and 30 other countries will release 60 million barrels of oil from their reserves around the world.
Vinay Reddy, who is the chief speechwriter for Biden, was the prime architect of the SOTU address that sets out the president’s priorities and agenda before Congress.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who presides over the Senate, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi who were seated behind him on the rostrum in the chamber of the House of Representatives rose several times to applaud him.
With his popularity at its lowest and the RealClear Politics aggregate polls showing an approval rate at 40.6 per cent and a disapproval rate at 54.4 per cent, Biden faced a nation that is riven by polarised politics and is ground down by the highest rate of inflation in almost half a century.
On the domestic front, Biden called for immigration reform, which has been stalled.
“Revise our laws so businesses have the workers they need, and families don’t wait decades to reunite. It’s not only the right thing to do — it’s the economically smart thing to do,” he said.
As an antidote to inflation, Biden gave his version of ‘Make in America’ that would make everything from guardrails for roads to aircraft carriers in the US.
“Instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America,” Biden said.
With the making of everything from automobiles to smartphones hobbled by a shortage of chips, Intel would make the largest investment in manufacturing in US history putting up $100 billion for chip manufacturing, he said.
“To compete for the best jobs of the future, we also need to level the playing field with China and other competitors,” he said.
Promoting his plan for rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, he said, “It is going to transform America and put us on a path to win the economic competition of the 21st Century that we face with the rest of the world — particularly with China. As I’ve told (China’s President) Xi Jinping, it is never a good bet to bet against the American people.”
In a speech where foreign policy was dominated by Russia, those were the only mentions of China and there were no references to the Indo-Pacific or the rest of Asia or of the Middle East.
In a sign of the waning of Covid-19 most in the audience did not wear masks, but they had to undergo rapid tests to enter.
The SOTU is usually given in January or February but was delayed this year.
Security was beefed up around the Capitol in expectation of a Canada-style protest with trucks and trailers, but it did not materialise.
Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of Iowa state who is considered a rising star in her party, gave the traditional opposition party’s response to the SOTU and although it wasn’t in the House chamber, it was televised nationally.
She faulted him for policies that she said created the runaway inflation that officially stands at 7.5 per cent but is much steeper in the prices of everyday goods.
She also said that Biden had not prepared adequately for the Russian invasion and taken pre-emptive steps.
Taking up one of the divisive issues — the response to the Covid pandemic — she asserted that she had done a better job of dealing with it in her state by avoiding complete shutdowns, especially of schools.
But highlighting the deep divisions within Biden’s own party the leftist group was to give its own response to be delivered by Representative Rashida Tlaib.
Biden riled the left by repeatedly saying, “Fund the police”, a riposte to their slogan of “Defund the police”, which has led to a backlash because of the rising crimes across the US.
Another point of difference with the left was Biden calling for securing the country’s borders.
By Arul Louis