World·Analysis

Biden's case for supporting Ukraine signals a united American government, but provides few details

For those wanting to hear a more detailed explanation of why the U.S. should push back against Russia's invasion of Ukraine – and the potential costs of doing so – President Joe Biden's state of the union address may have left some with lingering questions.

The address was initially meant to focus on his domestic initiatives

U.S. President Joe Biden's state of the union address provided an opportunity for him to outline in broad strokes why he believes the actions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin must be curtailed. (Jim Lo Scalzo/The Associated Press)

For those wanting to hear a more detailed explanation of why the U.S. should push back against Russia's invasion of Ukraine – and the potential costs of doing so – President Joe Biden's state of the union address may have left some with lingering questions.

Still, the 62-minute speech provided an opportunity for the president to outline in broad strokes why he believes the actions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin must be curtailed, and showed an otherwise deeply partisan U.S. government strongly united on that front.

Russia's attack on Ukraine certainly hijacked some of the president's planned agenda for his first state of the union address Tuesday evening. The address, months in the works, was initially meant to focus on his domestic initiatives, the economy, and the cost of living. The invasion necessitated some quick revisions to shine a spotlight on the events in Europe that have occupied the headlines.

A view shows the area near the Kharkiv regional administration building, which city officials said was hit by a missile attack, in central Kharkiv, Ukraine on Tuesday. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters)

Yet it still took up only a fraction of the address, with most of the speech still devoted to domestic concerns.

"I was somewhat surprised he didn't go into more depth about the situation in Ukraine," said Michael Allen, an associate professor of history and an expert on U.S. political and diplomatic history at Northwestern University. 

"It's kind of like a 10-minute addendum that had been sort of put at the top," Allen said. "I felt like the Ukrainian remarks were relatively measured and brief. And really, even though they led the speech, they weren't really the focal point of the speech."

Making the case for helping Ukraine

Earlier this week, John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute had written that Biden would need to explain why, with so many problems at home, Americans should care about the events of foreign countries thousands of miles away, and why efforts to help Ukraine are important.

"The president must do all he can to convince as many Americans as possible that these issues are essential to the American cause at home and abroad," Hudak wrote.

WATCH | Putin was wrong,' Biden says in state of the union:

'Putin was wrong,' Biden says in state of the union

9 months ago
Duration 1:02
U.S. President Joe Biden denounced the Russian invasion of Ukraine in his first state of the union address, saying Vladimir Putin thought the world could be divided, but the Russian president had been proven wrong. Jabin Botsford/Reuters

Instead, in his address Tuesday, Biden spoke more broadly about the danger of allowing dictators who do "not pay a price for their aggression," arguing that these dictators cause "more chaos" and that the "cost to America and the world keeps rising."

Biden did lay out some of the sanctions the West has imposed, which includes cutting off some of Russia's largest banks from the international financial system, and preventing Russia's central bank from defending the Russian ruble.

However there was little in terms of new measures, except announcing that the U.S. would close its airspace to all Russian flights, and that the U.S would assemble a task force to seize the luxury assets of Russian oligarchs.

The cost of sanctions

Biden also did not ask Congress for supplemental funds to help Ukraine. But he stressed again the U.S. would not risk the lives of its own soldiers by engaging in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and that it would only defend its NATO allies in the event that "Putin decides to keep moving west." 

He suggested that levelling sanctions against Russia may incur some costs to Americans, but provided few details, only that the international community agreed to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves around the world.to blunt the rise of gas prices.

By contrast, Canada's Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was more direct when she noted Tuesday that sanctions against Russia could cause some "collateral damage in Canada."

Michael Cornfield, associate professor of political management at George Washington University in D.C. said Biden struck a more comforting tone.

"He was reassuring. 'We're going to be OK. It's going to be OK.' He did not ask for sacrifice. He did not paint a dark picture of times ahead," Cornfield said.

Allen agreed that Biden didn't make a point of underscoring that this would be a long and costly struggle.

"He made some brief noises to that effect, but it wasn't something he wanted to emphasize for some pretty obvious reasons," Allen said.

"I don't think he does himself any favour by trying to sort of belabour that issue."

Perhaps the most significant part of the speech relating to Ukraine was the optics of a series of bipartisan standing ovations. This, said Hudak, in a Brookings Institute podcast following the address, signalled not 'just a united America' but a united American government, something to the level we have not seen in quite some time."

Buy American

Yet that bipartisan momentum soon dissipated as Biden turned to his domestic agenda, an agenda that put a fair amount of focus on 'Buy American,' an issue that's become a major irritant for Ottawa.

Since taking office, Biden has said that investments in U.S. companies will ensure a strong recovery from the pandemic and position the U.S. to fend off China and its more quickly growing economy.

 "When we use taxpayers' dollars to rebuild America, we are going to do it by buying American. Buy American products. Support American jobs...Every administration says they'll do it, but we are actually doing it," Biden said, which prompted chants of 'U-S-A, U-S-A' from Democratic members. 

WATCH | Fight inflation by buying American, Biden says: 

Fight inflation by buying American, Biden says

9 months ago
Duration 0:47
In his state of the union address, U.S. President Joe Biden urged his country's companies to choose American options instead of foreign ones in order to combat and lower inflation. Saul Loeb/Reuters

Biden pledged to "buy American to make sure everything from the deck of an aircraft carrier to the steel on highway guardrails is made in America from beginning to end. All of it. All of it."

Democratic strategist Kevin Walling said he was not surprised Biden decided to focus so much attention on that issue.

 "I think he (Biden) has worn a lot of attacks from conservatives ... especially on manufacturing, job loss, things like that. So it is very good politics."

 Overall, Walling said he thought Biden delivered a "powerful speech," and one of the very few times a state of the union "focused right out of the gate on international issues."

" And I think that's where the president was the strongest."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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