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Biden's State of the Union address to focus on Ukraine, U.S. economy

The speech Tuesday comes at a pivotal moment for the president, both at home and abroad.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will come before Congress on Tuesday to sell his domestic and foreign policy agenda to an American public that has given him persistently low approval ratings and defend his response to Russia's assault on Ukraine.

In the prime-time remarks, Biden plans to highlight the unity between the U.S. and its NATO allies in their response to Russia's "premeditated and unprovoked" invasion, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin underestimated the strength of the NATO alliance, according to prepared remarks released by the White House.

"Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson — when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos," Biden plans to say. "They keep moving. And, the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising."

The remarks will come after another bloody day of fighting in Ukraine, where Russia hit major cities with increasingly heavy shelling as the conflict escalated on its sixth day. Meanwhile, a vast convoy of Russian forces threatened the capital, Kyiv.

On the domestic front, Biden also plans to focus heavily on the economy and inflation, which is at its highest levels in decades and has been cited by voters as a top concern. The president plans to outline ways his administration will lower costs for Americans, including by making more products in America and becoming less reliant on foreign supply chains.

"We have a choice. One way to fight inflation is to drive down wages and make Americans poorer. I have a better plan to fight inflation," Biden plans to say. "Lower your costs, not your wages. Make more cars and semiconductors in America. More infrastructure and innovation in America. More goods moving faster and cheaper in America. More jobs where you can earn a good living in America. And, instead of relying on foreign supply chains — let’s make it in America."

Biden also plans to talk extensively about efforts he has taken to improve the U.S. economy and control the pandemic, while pressing Congress to revive his stalled domestic policy agenda.

He will tie that together under a theme of "building a better America," White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told House Democrats in a call Tuesday with Cedric Richmond, director of public engagement, according to two people who participated.

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

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 a tough fight in the midterms.

Richmond told Democrats, “You can’t govern if you don’t win,” adding that the best way to keep power is to repeat Biden's message about how their accomplishments are improving the lives of Americans, according to the sources who participated in Tuesday's call.

The president’s team has been reworking his remarks in recent days to more heavily emphasize the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in an interview with MSNBC this week, compared the moment to the remarks before Congress by President Barack Obama during the financial crisis or the one President George W. Bush gave after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova, will attend the State of the Union address as a guest of first lady Jill Biden, seated in her viewing box, a senior administration official told NBC News.

But even as much of the world’s attention remains on Ukraine, administration officials said they are still hoping to use the moment to make the case for the work Biden has done on the economy and reassure Americans that the president has a plan to do more to address their economic concerns.

“The American people will hear a lot about how he’s going to lower their costs, how he’s going to continue to build a strong economy over the long term,” Psaki said.

While the majority of Americans say they disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, the president plans to argue that his administration has helped the economy achieve its fastest job growth in American history and the fastest economic growth in nearly 40 years, a senior administration official said. 

One of the top concerns cited by Americans in polls has been inflation, which is at its highest level in decades. Psaki said Biden will talk about lowering overall inflation along with reducing costs in specific areas like child care and prescription drugs with legislation he is pushing to get through Congress. 

One specific step Biden plans to announce to help address rising prices will be an agreement between the Justice Department and the Federal Maritime Commission designed to make sure that large ocean freight companies can’t overcharge U.S. customers, the White House said. 

Other new programs Biden is scheduled to announce include an effort to improve nursing home staffing, make poorly performing nursing homes accountable for improper and unsafe care, and improve publicly available information about nursing home conditions.

The president also plans to outline a plan to address the country's mental health crisis.

Biden will call for a large investment in the U.S. workforce to build capacity to meet mental health needs, a senior administration official said Tuesday. He'll call for an expansion of community mental health centers and investments in mental health resources in schools, the official continued.

The plan includes a call for action to address social media's harm to the mental health of young people, the official said, adding that the Department of Health and Human Services will launch a crisis hotline in the summer that would connect people to mental health resources.

Biden will also highlight his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, including her deep qualifications and that she is a jurist in the mold of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, a source familiar with the matter told NBC News. Jackson is not going to attend the speech, the source said.

Biden intends to continue to press Congress to act on programs in his stalled Build Back Better legislation, specifically around lowering prescription drug costs and child care costs. He also plans to ask Congress to act on other ideas he has proposed, including better housing for older adults and disabled people, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and lowering the cost of higher education, including by way of an increase in the maximum Pell Grant award by more than $2,000. 

When it comes to the pandemic, Biden will be addressing the country as it enters what public health officials hope will be a more manageable phase, where the virus can be controlled with vaccines, booster shots and new treatments.

He is expected to highlight new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week that said much of the country no longer needs to use masks in their daily lives, as well as the administration’s broader strategy for the pandemic.

Masks will be optional for members of Congress and others attending the speech Tuesday with the Capitol’s attending physician, Brian P. Monahan, pointing to decreasing Covid-19 case rates as well as the new CDC guidance.

Some members of Congress have tested positive for Covid — including Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash.; Jamie Raskin, D-Md.; and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., as well as Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif. — and won't attend the speech Tuesday night.

Covid case numbers have continued to decline across most of the country after surging earlier in the year.