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Biden uses State of the Union to blast Putin, look to revive stalled domestic agenda

The Russian leader will pay a "high price" for his actions in Ukraine, the president said as he announced that the U.S. would close its airspace to Russian planes.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden sought to revive his stalled domestic policy agenda and ease Americans' concerns over challenges from violence in Ukraine to the Covid pandemic to surging inflation in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Biden accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of unleashing "violence and chaos" with his invasion of Ukraine and warned that Putin would pay a "high price" for his actions over the long term.

He announced that the U.S. would close its airspace to Russian planes, following a similar move by European and Canadian officials Sunday, but didn't pledge any significant new assistance to Ukraine. He reiterated his position that U.S. troops wouldn't enter Ukraine to assist in the fighting.

“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.

Biden sought to highlight the unity between the U.S. and its NATO allies in their response to Russia, saying Putin had underestimated the strength of the NATO alliance and was "now isolated from the world more than ever."

"Putin’s war was premeditated and unprovoked. He rejected efforts at diplomacy. He thought the West and NATO wouldn’t respond. And he thought he could divide us here at home," Biden said. "Putin was wrong. We were ready."

The annual prime-time address, which typically provides a president with one of his biggest television audiences of the year, followed another bloody day of fighting, in which Russia hit major cities across Ukraine with increasingly heavy shelling. Meanwhile, a vast convoy of Russian forces threatened the capital, Kyiv.

But while much of the world's attention was focused on Ukraine, Biden used the majority of the speech to focus on domestic priorities and concerns.

He listed issues on which he was seeking congressional action, including gun control, immigration and voting rights, although it is unlikely lawmakers will act on any of those issues this year.

The address may mark Biden’s last opportunity to make the case for his domestic policy agenda before a Congress controlled by his own party, with many Democrats facing tough fights in the midterm elections.

The speech came at a pivotal moment for Biden, both at home and abroad. Among recent presidents, only his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, went before Congress with a lower approval rating, with voters giving Biden low marks on his leadership style to his handling of the economy. 

Biden focused heavily on the economy and inflation, which is at its highest levels in decades and which voters have cited in surveys as a top concern. He said his administration was looking to lower costs for Americans in areas such as prescription drugs and child care and to reduce energy prices by encouraging investment in clean energy technology.  

"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," he said. "Inflation is robbing them of the gains they might otherwise feel. I get it. That’s why my top priority is getting prices under control."

Biden said his plan to address inflation would include a push for more products like cars and semiconductors to be made in America and to make the U.S. less reliant on foreign supply chains.

He said he would also move to make pricing fairer in industries like meat production and shipping. However, those measures would take months, if not years, to reduce costs for consumers.

Biden continued to press Congress to act on programs in his stalled Build Back Better legislation, although he didn't mention the legislation by that name. Specifically, Biden pushed for action to lower prescription drug and child care costs, create a global minimum tax rate and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But he also proposed a "unity agenda" of four areas in which he said Democrats and Republicans could work together: beating the opioid epidemic, addressing mental health issues among adolescents, supporting veterans and ending cancer.

On the pandemic, Biden said the country is now at a point at which Americans can move back to their normal routines and Covid no longer needs to control their lives.

“We are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines," Biden said. "We’ve reached a new moment in the fight against Covid-19." 

But he rejected the idea of “living” with Covid, saying the country will continue to combat the virus as it does other diseases and stay on guard for new variants. 

Going forward, Biden said, the goals will be to vaccinate more Americans, be ready to develop new vaccines if needed for new variants and be prepared to vaccinate the youngest children “if and when” vaccines are cleared for them.

“I cannot promise a new variant won’t come. But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does,” Biden said. 

Biden said the government was also developing effective ways to distribute new Covid treatments, make more free at-home tests available and distribute more vaccines to lower-income countries.

He urged Americans to return to their offices and “fill our great downtowns again,” and he said federal workers would soon be returning to the workplace. 

“People working from home can feel safe to begin to return to the office,” Biden said. 

"We are stronger today than we were a year ago, and we will be stronger a year from now than we are today," he said. "Now is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time, and we will, as one people."