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Biden’s State of the Union falters on US foreign affairs

In his annual address to Congress, the US president spoke both as the incumbent and as the candidate up for re-election in November

Biden’s State of the Union falters on US foreign affairs
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

An incumbent US president’s State of the Union address is meant to be a report to the nation through Congress, about the current state of the union, the administration’s achievements, issues to be resolved, and a plan to resolve them in the future, preferably within the term of the incumbent.

However, when Joe Biden spoke in Congress on 7 March, Thursday, he spoke both as the incumbent president and as the candidate up for re-election in November this year.

In fact, the candidate spoke louder than the incumbent.

When Biden spoke, after a delay of nearly 20 minutes due to the blockade of roads by pro-Palestine protesters demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, former president Donald Trump was the elephant in the room. A Trump-obsessed Biden referred 13 times to his predecessor without mentioning him by name.

Biden managed not to stumble while speaking, availing the teleprompter competently. Incidentally, Biden did make a faux pas by referring to the Swedish Prime Minister as minister. Even when he corrected that mistake, he could not mention the name. The media seem to have either failed to notice or to have charitably chosen to ignore it.

Biden drew applause during his speech, mostly by the Democrats, with the Republicans not joining in. Vice-president Kamala Harris stood up a few times to applaud whereas the Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, sitting next to her, kept an expression of amused irritation.

During his address, Biden enumerated some threats as well as achievements:

Recalling the address to Congress by then president Franklin Roosevelt in January 1941, when Germany’s Adolf Hitler was on the march, Biden argued that the union was facing a similar danger. Referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden warned he will attack other countries if he is not stopped and defeated in the war with Ukraine. Biden recalled Trump’s public statement that if elected he would not go to the rescue of a European member of NATO if that member had failed to spend the agreed amount on defense.

Biden reminded his audience about Trump’s attempted insurrection on 6 January 2021 following the declaration of results, while also claiming that Biden failed to act at the time of Covid. (A person in the audience shouted “lies”.)

Biden  also vowed to protect women’s right to choose and reproductive rights if he is re-elected.

Presenting the state of the economy, Biden said 15 million jobs were created in three years; unemployment was at a record 50-year low; and 16 million Americans were starting new small businesses. With 800,000 new manufacturing jobs, America will become the manufacturing capital of the world, he said, while claiming that “Buy America”, sidelined by Trump, will be promoted.

Biden also pointed out that the prices of medicines had  been drastically brought down, while also calling on Congress to provide an annual tax credit that will give Americans $400 a month for the next two years.

The US president said the federal deficit will be slashed by $3 trillion by taxing big companies and the wealthy. He said the corporate minimum tax should be raised to at least 21%, adding that the average tax for some 1,000 billionaires was about 8%.

The incumbent pledged to end gun violence, saying an Office of Gun Violence Prevention has been set up, while also proposing an adequate law on immigration and to strengthen the set-up along the border that Trump asked his supporters to block.

The listed achievements seem impressive, with the normal US voter attaching much more importance to domestic matters, where the economy dominates, than to foreign affairs.

However, there is a disconnect between Biden’s listed claims and his approval rating, as seen from polls. Only 33% approve of his performance as against 65% who disapprove.

Coming to foreign affairs, Biden appealed to Congress to approve more money for Ukraine.

Regarding Israel and Gaza, Biden said, “Tonight, I’m directing the US military to lead an emergency mission to establish a temporary pier in the Mediterranean on the coast of Gaza that can receive large shipments carrying food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters. No US boots will be on the ground.”

The next day, Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder said a temporary pier will enable a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day, adding it would take 60 days to build the pier. The planning is at an early stage.

Israel has officially ‘welcomed’ the project, adding that appropriate checks would be conducted after the shipment has reached.

A few questions remain:

Why did Biden announce it now if it were to take two months for the shipment to reach Gaza? Does it mean that Israel is free to prevent access to humanitarian relief for two more months?

Obviously, it is the candidate speaking in response to the resistance to his candidacy in swing states such as Michigan.

If the President is keen to compel Israel to agree to a ceasefire and to let in the hundreds of trucks waiting at the Rafah border, all he has to do is stop sending arms.

It is too soon to figure out the impact of the address on voters. In any case, the voter is unlikely to remember the address in November.

Trump has challenged Biden for a debate, and the latest opinion polls (of 6 March) indicate a neck and neck race, with 46%  for Trump, and  45% for Biden.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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