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Ukraine topped Biden's State of the Union but domestic politics dominated the rest

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on March 1, 2022.Saul Loeb / Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... President Biden heads to Wisconsin the day after his State of the Union. ... NBC’s Benjy Sarlin looks at how Biden retooled the legislative agenda formerly known as Build Back Better. ... In Texas’ primaries, Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke cruise to victory and will face off in general election. ... GOP AG Ken Paxton gets pulled into May 24 runoff vs. George P. Bush. ... Rep. Henry Cuellar and progressive Jessica Cisneros might also be headed for a runoff in Texas-28 (or maybe not). ... Ditto GOP Rep. Van Taylor in Texas-03. ... And Russia escalates its attacks on Ukraine cities.

But first: Tuesday night's State of the Union address didn’t reflect a president who believes his job has redefined by the war in Ukraine. At least not yet.

Yes, Biden began his speech on the war, but it represented less than 20 percent of his remarks last night (see our breakdown below).

He retooled his pitch for his stalled social-spending agenda. (NBC’s Benjy Sarlin has more on that.)

He talked about the rising inflation numbers. (“[M]y top priority is getting prices under control.”)

He attempted to bring his party back to the middle on policing (“The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police”) and the border (“We need to secure the border and fix the immigration system”).

And maybe most jarring of all — at least from an image standpoint — Biden and his fellow Democrats ditched their masks as the president argued that Covid no longer needs to control Americans’ lives. (“Because of the progress we’ve made, because of your resilience and the tools we have, tonight I can say we are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines”).

As NBC’s Peter Alexander observed on “Today” this morning, Biden’s address last night was a tale of two speeches.

And the second part (on domestic politics) was longer and more detailed than the first (on Ukraine).

Data Download: The number of the day is … 11 minutes

That’s about how long President Biden talked about Ukraine during his one hour and two minute State of the Union address.

With Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova sitting in the gallery, Biden celebrated the “wall of strength” that met Russians as they invaded the country, ran down how his administration has responded and called for Americans and the international community to stand together.

“I want you to know that we are going to be okay,” he told the American people.

“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.”

Other numbers you need to know today:

18: That’s how many times President Biden said “Russia” in last night’s State of the Union address (as we pointed out yesterday, he said the name of the country only twice last year).

5: The number of members of Congress who tested positive for Covid ahead of the State of the Union (guests had to test the day before the speech).

21: How many Trump-endorsed Republicans (mostly incumbents) won their primaries in Texas, per NBC projections.

2: How many Trump-endorsed Republicans are headed to runoffs in Texas so far, per NBC projections. Those include Attorney General Ken Paxton and state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, who is running for Land commissioner.

Tweet of the day

Talking policy with Benjy: Biden’s legislative reset

There was no big new substantive proposal to replace Biden’s deceased Build Back Better plan in last night’s State of the Union address. Even the name got only a minor tweak: Biden called his combined agenda “building a better America.”

But Biden’s domestic agenda runs through one man for now, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and the meat of the president’s speech was at least rhetorically tilted his way. While Manchin has yet to renew negotiations, he has said he’s deeply concerned about inflation and hinted he might be interested in a bill that raises taxes on the rich and corporations to bring down deficits.

To that end, Biden pitched many individual elements of BBB as simple cost-saving measures for families worried about rising prices rather than an FDR-style transformation. And he called for new taxes on corporations to pay for them, and then some.

“My plan will not only lower costs to give families a fair shot, it will lower the deficit,” Biden said.

Biden mentioned prescription drug reform, home care for the elderly and disabled, universal pre-K, child care, and a boosted Affordable Care Act. While it’s highly unlikely all or even most of these priorities pass, Democrats hope they can convince Manchin to take up some. The Child Tax Credit, a tougher lift with Manchin, notably got only a brief mention.

Manchin, for his part, sounded unimpressed: "I've never found out that you can lower costs by spending more," he told reporters.

But the most significant action on Tuesday might have been on energy, when Biden called for a suite of new tax incentives to build out clean power, electric vehicles, and efficiency measures. And it wasn't just because of Biden's speech.

Climate and energy policy are considered the core of any effort to revive a major Democratic reconciliation bill. But it’s also an issue that’s drawing renewed attention this week as America manages a spike in energy prices set off by oil-rich Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which could provide a new selling point.

Among those who brought it up on Tuesday? Manchin. Shortly before the State of the Union he put out a statement calling on the U.S. to ban imports of Russian oil, step up production at home, and pursue “complete energy independence by embracing an all-of-the-above energy policy to ensure that the American people have reliable, dependable and affordable power without disregarding our climate responsibilities.”

Midterm roundup: Texas primary edition

Votes are still being counted in the first primaries of 2022 in Texas, but here’s a rundown of the races we’ve been watching:

Governor: GOP Gov. Greg Abbott easily won the Republican nod after spending millions to fend off his primary challengers. He’ll face former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke in November.

Attorney General: GOP Attorney General Ken Paxton has been forced into a primary runoff against Land Commissioner George P. Bush (son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush).

Texas-28: The Democratic primary between Rep. Henry Cuellar and attorney Jessica Cisneros could be headed to a runoff, but NBC has not yet called the race. As of 7:30 am ET, Cuellar was right at the 50 percent mark (remember: he'll face Cisneros in a runoff unless he wins the majority of the vote). With 99 percent of the vote in, Cisneros was at 45 percent.

Texas-03: GOP Rep. Van Taylor — who voted for the independent Jan 6 commission — could also be forced into a runoff. As of 7:30 am ET,Taylor was just below the runoff threshold with 49 percent of the vote, with former Collin County Judge Keith Self in second place by about nearly 6percentage points.

Texas-35: NBC News projected that former Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, a staunch progressive and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, won the Democratic primary in the deep blue district with 61 percent of the vote.

Texas-15: Trump-endorsed Monica de la Cruz, who also had the backing of GOP leaders, won the Republican primary in one of the state’s few competitive seats.

Texas-08: It’s still not clear whether this GOP primary is headed to a runoff. Veteran Morgan Luttrell, who had the backing of a GOP super PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had 53percent of the vote as of 7:30 am ET. Conservative activists Christian Collins trailed Luttrell with 22percent of the vote.

Ad watch: Arizona attack

Arizona Republican candidate for Senate Jim Lamon is up on the air with a new ad attacking Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.

“Fool us once, shame on you,” Lamon, an energy executive, says before a clip of a recent ad from Kelly. “Trying to fool us twice? You must be Mark Kelly,” he adds.

Lamon is facing multiple Republican opponents in a contentious primary contest, but instead of attacking them he is going straight for Kelly, who will face the eventual Republican nominee in a general election.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

A former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice is floating the possibility of the state Legislature trying to decertify the 2020 election in the state after an investigation authorized by the state House speaker.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell forcefully rejected NRSC Chairman Rick Scott’s 11-point policy plan, which has drawn sharp Democratic criticism.

Major League Baseball will cancel some regular season games as owners and the players union can’t agree on a new deal.