By Maegan Vazquez, CNN
President Joe Biden sounded an optimistic note in wrapping his first State of the Union address, citing the response of the American people and lawmakers in the House chamber to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a reason to be confident in the face of a critical moment.
In a speech that focused on the war in Ukraine before pivoting to domestic challenges, Biden said the American people are ready for the task ahead of them in keeping the world united in the face of autocracy.
“Now is the hour, our moment of responsibility. Our test of resolve and conscience, of history itself. It is in this moment that our character is formed. Our purpose is found. Our future is forged,” Biden said in closing.
“Well, I know this nation. We will meet the test. To protect freedom and liberty, to expand fairness and opportunity. We will save democracy. As hard as these times have been, I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life.”
Speaking to political leaders in Washington, Biden started his State of the Union address by sending a resounding message to the world: The West is united in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and condemns the Russian leader for his aggression. Near the beginning of the speech, Biden encouraged all in the chamber to show that support with a resounding standing ovation and said the US and its allies have “an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.”
Biden noted that Putin’s aggression had only made the world’s democracies strengthen their resolve to counter rising autocracies.
“Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated,” Biden said. “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.”
He added, “Let each of us here tonight in this chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world. Please rise if you are able and show that, yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people.”
The President also touted the West’s unanimity in the face of Russia’s aggression, saying their united front is “inflicting pain on Russia and supporting the people of Ukraine” and “choking off Russia’s access to technology that will sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.”
“Putin’s latest attack on Ukraine was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected repeated, repeated, efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber and in this nation. Putin was wrong. We were ready,” Biden said.
“We spent months building a coalition of other freedom-loving nations from Europe and the Americas to Asia and Africa to confront Putin. I spent countless hours unifying our European allies. We shared with the world in advance what we knew Putin was planning and precisely how he would try to falsely justify his aggression. We countered Russia’s lies with truth. And now that he has acted the free world is holding him accountable.”
The President celebrated the impact actions will have on “Russian oligarchs and corrupt leaders who have bilked billions of dollars off this violent regime no more.”
“We are joining with our European allies to find and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets. We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he said.
He also asserted that “Russia’s economy is reeling and Putin alone is to blame.”
Putin, for his part, was not expected to watch the speech, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. “The President usually does not watch TV addresses,” Peskov said in response to a question from CNN.
As Tuesday unfolded, the President, his administration and its allies have made it clear that Ukraine has been top of mind.
The US and its allies announced early Tuesday that they have agreed to a release of 60 million barrels from their reserves, the White House and International Energy Agency, as leaders seek to dampen the effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on gas prices at home. Vice President Kamala Harris held five separate calls with European leaders and Biden held a half-hour call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Biden acknowledged that many Americans are worried about how gas prices are being affected by the war.
“I know the news about what’s happening can seem alarming. But I want you to know that we are going to be OK,” he said. “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.”
A return to domestic concerns
The speech has evolved in recent days as a result of invasion of Ukraine. The annual speech also marked an opportunity for Biden to speak directly to the American people about his vision to build a better country, demonstrating how he’ll lead America out of the Covid-19 pandemic, into an economic recovery and through the ramifications of a war between Ukraine and Russia. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is the designated survivor for Tuesday’s address, meaning she’s the member of the Cabinet assigned to remain outside the House chamber during the State of the Union in case disaster strikes.
Despite the initial focus on the war in Ukraine, Biden pivoted for much of the rest of the speech to a more traditional State of the Union address — pitching his domestic agenda for the upcoming year and renewing his call for economic fairness for all Americans.
The President outlined his plan to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, calling for a bipartisan “reset” from the polarization of the last two years as the nation begins the return to normal.
He acknowledged that Americans are “tired, frustrated, and exhausted” with the pandemic, highlighting the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recently updated mask guidelines, which show that “most Americans in most of the country can now be mask free,” and outlining steps the US will take to “move forward safely.”
“Thanks to the progress we have made this past year, Covid-19 need no longer control our lives,” he added. “I know some are talking about ‘living with Covid-19.’ Tonight — I say that we will never just accept living with Covid-19. We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard.”
In another area that has affected everyday life, the President sought to recalibrate his economic message to acknowledge the hardships many Americans are facing, saying, “The pandemic has been punishing. And so many families are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food, gas, housing, and so much more. I understand.”
“(W)ith all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills,” Biden said. “Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel.”
In remarks meant to address a concern of Americans across the nation, Biden said his plan to fight inflation would include investing in jobs at home, allowing Americans to get back to work while also making more of the products needed domestically.
“Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And, instead of relying on foreign supply chains — let’s make it in America,” Biden said. “Economists call it ‘increasing the productive capacity of our economy.’ I call it building a better America. My plan to fight inflation will lower your costs and lower the deficit.”
Biden announced new efforts to combat identity theft and criminal fraud in pandemic relief programs, including the appointment of a Justice Department prosecutor tasked with identifying and prosecuting pandemic fraud. He’ll also announce higher penalties and more resources to prosecute fraud in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Unemployment Insurance (UI). Biden, the White House says, will sign an executive order in the coming weeks tasking federal agencies to address fraud and theft in their respective purviews.
The President also called on Congress to send him legislation combating climate change, arguing that some of the tax credits he has petitioned for would lower costs for families.
Biden highlighted efforts his administration has taken to reduce gun violence, reiterate his call on Congress to pass “common-sense gun violence legislation that will save lives,” and urge Congress to pass his proposed budget, which includes hundreds of millions in funding for community violence intervention programs and community policing, according to a White House official.
As is tradition, first lady Jill Biden has invited guests that represent policies and themes the President will talk about during the speech, her office said. This year’s invitations included Ukraine Ambassador to the US Oksana Markarova, along with educators, a union representative, members of the tech community, an organizer of Native American causes, a health care worker and a military spouse have also been invited to sit with the first lady in her box above the dais.
This is a breaking story and will be updated.
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CNN’s Kate Bennett, Kevin Liptak, Jake Tapper, Donald Judd and Harry Enten contributed to this report.