In State of the Union, Biden Will Focus on Economy and Russia

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The speech was originally going to center primarily on the president’s domestic agenda. But the war in Europe has forced the White House to change gears.

WASHINGTON — President Biden will use his first State of the Union address on Tuesday to claim credit for a robust economy and a unified global response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even as he acknowledges the pain of inflation and the struggle between “democracy and autocracy” around the world, administration officials said on Monday.

The speech, which has been in the works for months, was originally meant to focus primarily on the president’s domestic agenda, using the rare prime-time platform as a way to jump-start his stalled efforts to pass far-reaching social spending legislation.

But the war in Europe that erupted last week has forced the White House to ensure that Mr. Biden’s address “reflects a moment in time,” as Jen Psaki, the press secretary, put it Monday afternoon. She said Mr. Biden will use part of his remarks to describe the administration’s efforts to prevent the Russian invasion and to impose costs on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“I think people can expect to hear him position that as the importance of the United States as a leader in the world, of standing up for values, standing up for global norms,” Ms. Psaki told reporters.

The president has earned mostly bipartisan support for his efforts to stand up to Mr. Putin. But there has also been some criticism from both parties that Mr. Biden’s team was too slow to impose sanctions on Russia, in part because of a desire to accommodate the concerns of European nations.

In response to that criticism, Mr. Biden will describe what Ms. Psaki called “steps he’s taken to build a global coalition imposing crippling financial sanctions” on Russian banks, industries, companies, wealthy oligarchs and Mr. Putin himself.

But even as Mr. Biden takes note of the global crisis overseas, aides said his speech will remain focused on the two most critical issues in his presidency: the economy and the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Biden will deliver his address to a joint session of Congress as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic-induced recession that caused millions to lose their jobs. The president will use the speech to highlight the low unemployment rate, the rapid growth in the country’s gross domestic product and the addition of more than six million jobs since he took office about a year ago.

The president’s feel-good message will be tempered, however, by the growing concern about inflation, which has reached levels not seen in decades. The rising price of goods is contributing to a gloomy outlook among Americans despite the otherwise robust economic news.

That gloominess has helped to drag down Mr. Biden’s approval rating just months before voters will go to the polls for congressional elections in November. White House officials and their allies on Capitol Hill fear they could lose control of both chambers if Mr. Biden is unable to turn those numbers around.

“The president will absolutely use the word ‘inflation’ tomorrow,” Ms. Psaki said on Monday, calling it a “huge issue” on the minds of Americans.

Mr. Biden will urge Congress to embrace parts of his Build Back Better legislation, which passed in the House last year but stalled in the Senate amid opposition from two key moderate Democrats. Those portions include proposals to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on child care, elder care and prescription drugs.

The president, officials said, will argue that passage of the legislation will effectively counter the inflation that is affecting people’s everyday budgets. And Mr. Biden will urge lawmakers to confirm his nominees to the Federal Reserve Board, which has signaled that it will soon take steps to slow the country’s growth in an effort to reduce inflation.

Officials said Mr. Biden will also announce new steps to confront price increases caused by a lack of competition.

The administration will turn its focus to large ocean freight companies that have formed global alliances that control nearly all of the world’s critical east-west trade lines. Those companies have significantly increased their shipping rates through the pandemic, the White House said on Monday.

The Justice Department and the Federal Maritime Commission together will crack down on antitrust violations among shipping companies, to try to bring more competition into the sector. Federal shipping regulators will also step up their oversight of certain practices by shipping companies, like unfair fees.

Mr. Biden will urge Congress to pass legislation, approved by the House in December, to increase the Federal Maritime Commission’s oversight of the shipping industry.

The president will deliver his remarks on Tuesday without a mask, on the same day that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lift many Covid restrictions for communities across the country where cases, hospitalizations and deaths have plunged.

Officials announced that mask requirements for vaccinated White House employees and visitors will be dropped starting on Tuesday, a move that will allow Mr. Biden and the first lady, Jill Biden, to host their State of the Union guests at a reception that evening — something that was not allowed under previous rules.

Mr. Biden has battled the pandemic — and its effects on American work and life — since taking office, largely by vaccinating nearly three-quarters of the population. As the impact of the Omicron variant fades, administration officials have been hoping to move into a new phase of the pandemic, where the virus plays less of a central role in everyday life.

While the White House is working on a detailed coronavirus response strategy for the next phase of the pandemic, Mr. Biden is not likely to unveil it during his speech. Instead, he is expected to speak about the coronavirus pandemic in broad strokes, invoking the same “things are getting better, but we are not out of the woods yet” tone that he has adopted in recent weeks.

A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the president’s remarks, said Mr. Biden would “highlight that the country has made tremendous progress” over the past 13 months, and remind Americans that the nation has tools — including vaccines and treatments — to prevent severe disease and to treat those who do get sick.

Mr. Biden has been criticized for prematurely declaring “independence” from the virus last summer, only to see a new wave of infection and death from the Delta variant later that year. White House officials are wary of making that mistake again.

While cases are declining and the immediate threat is waning, Mr. Biden will also note that the virus is unpredictable, and will assure the nation that his administration is taking steps to prepare for future variants.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg, Ana Swanson and Katie Rogers contributed reporting.