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State of the Union: Biden says Putin ‘badly miscalculated’ by invading Ukraine

Biden’s speech, however, largely focused on domestic worries as his administration prepares for mid-term elections this fall that favor the Republican Party

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Vladimir Putin “badly miscalculated” with his invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden said in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday, calling the Russian leader a “dictator” and warning that the war will leave his country weaker.

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In a show of solidarity with Ukraine, Biden asked the audience for his speech to stand. Many lawmakers and guests held Ukrainian flags.

“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,” Biden said.

Additionally, the U.S. and its allies were prepared for the invasion, Biden said, and have succeeded in isolating Russia and exacting an economic toll on the country.

“He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us at home,” Biden said. “Putin was wrong. We were ready.” 

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, was invited to the address, and Biden also announced that the U.S. will close its airspace to Russian airlines, following the lead of more than a dozen European countries.

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The war in Ukraine forced the White House to recast part of what is traditionally a speech focused on domestic issues. Biden warned that without imposing harsh punishments on Putin, his expansionist ambitions could extend even further into Europe.  

“Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson – when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos,” Biden said. He warned wealthy, politically connected Russians that the U.S. is preparing with its allies to track down their assets “and seize your yachts, your luxury apartments, your private jets.”

“We are coming for your ill-begotten gains,” he said, calling them “oligarchs.”

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Tuesday night’s speech was not the first time Biden has called Putin a dictator. He slapped the label on the Russian leader as a presidential candidate in May 2019, and has also called him a “killer” and an “autocrat.” But the comments will take on new weight given the war in Europe. 

Looming over Biden’s domestic woes are fears that the war could spiral into a wider conflict. During his campaign, the president said his decades of foreign policy experience made him best equipped to guide America’s role in the world. But the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan shook public confidence in his leadership, precipitating an erosion of his approval rating.

“I want you to know that we are going to be okay,” Biden said. 

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The president briefly walked through his campaign to try to deter Putin from attacking Ukraine, including the sharing of U.S. intelligence about the Russian leader’s plans with allies and the public.

“We countered Russia’s lies with truth,” Biden said. “And now that he has acted the free world is holding him accountable.” 

Biden’s speech, however, still largely focused on domestic worries as his administration prepares for mid-term elections this fall that favor the Republican Party. He spent roughly 10 minutes speaking about the Ukrainian conflict before pivoting to economic policy. 

Biden wanted to signal to the nation it was time to return to normalcy. He said Americans need to return to their offices after working at home during the pandemic. “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” he said. “People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office.”

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The speech, Biden’s second to a joint session of Congress, comes at a perilous moment for his presidency. Most Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the direction of the pandemic-weary country and state of the economy, and harbor doubts about his leadership and that of and his fellow Democrats, polls show. 

The president outlined a new economic plan to replace an earlier proposal, “Build Back Better,” that was rejected by Republicans and a key Senate Democrat, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. The measures in his rebranded plan, largely similar to  are aimed at two issues at the front of mind for most Americans: rising consumer prices and the still-lingering pandemic.

“One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer,” Biden said. “I think I have a better idea to fight inflation. Lower your costs, not your wages.”

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He called for moves to boost U.S. manufacturing, shore up supply chains, lower costs for health care and elder care and reduce the federal budget deficit. It’s a set of policies that may be aimed at appealing to moderates like Manchin, who has cited deficit and inflation concerns for his opposition to Build Back Better. 

While Biden’s political standing has taken a beating over the past six months, he defended his handling of the economy and the pandemic and brushed back criticism that his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan caused inflation to spike. He said the virus aid package helped the economy achieve its fastest job growth in American history and the fastest growth in output in nearly 40 years.

“We needed to act, and we did. And it worked. It created jobs. Lots of jobs,” Biden said.

At the same time, the president sought to recognize Americans’ suffering, likening the economic pain and uncertainty many Americans are feeling to when his father lost his job. 

“The pandemic has been punishing,” Biden said. “I understand.” He vowed that getting inflation under control would be his “top priority.”

“With all the bright spots in our economy, record job growth and higher wages, too many families are struggling to keep up with the bills. Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel,” Biden said.

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