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State of the Union gave Biden a chance to reset his presidency. How did he do?


President Biden's State of the Union speech sent messages through images as well as words, one was apparent in almost every camera shot. The president was addressing a substantial crowd of people in a room without masks. It's a sign of easing pandemic restrictions. Another sign was in the colors. Many people wore yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Ukraine's ambassador attended the speech, holding a little flag, and stood to acknowledge applause. In the opening passage of his speech, the president framed Russia's invasion of Ukraine as an attack on democracy.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Russia's Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking it could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine, and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. He met the Ukrainian people.

INSKEEP: And there were many standing ovations. So those were some of the images. Let's talk now about the words. Democratic strategist Karen Finney is with us. Good morning.

KAREN FINNEY: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And also, Republican strategist Scott Jennings. Welcome back.

SCOTT JENNINGS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Karen, let's start with you. How does the president's approach to Ukraine fit in with the larger themes of his presidency?

FINNEY: Well, certainly, I think he did a good job of speaking to both why his approach to Ukraine is important to democracy writ large - and obviously, strengthening our democracy here at home has been an important theme of his presidency - and why it is in our national interest to care what is happening in Ukraine. Obviously, many people in the chamber demonstrated our care as a nation. But from time to time, Americans want to know, why should - why are we engaged over there? And so I thought he did a good job of doing both of those things from both our national interests and the interests of democracy.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, I'm thinking of a Senate candidate for the Republican Party, J.D. Vance, who literally said, I don't care what happens to Ukraine. A lot of Republicans have constantly, when talking about the president, repeated the word weak. That's the buzzword. That's the whole critique. Although, other Republicans, like Mitt Romney or Bet Sasse - Ben Sasse, have been a lot more measured. How does the president's approach look now that so much of the world has, in fact, lined up to implode Russia's economy?

JENNINGS: Well, look; I think his describing American solidarity with the Ukrainian people catches a lot of support from Republicans. That's great. The sanctions are great. The fact that he is working to build alliances against Putin, that's great. Where the Republican critiques are is, did he do enough in advance on deterrence? Obviously, for all the work that he said he did in his speech, Putin still invaded. And Ukrainians are still being pounded as we sit here today. And No. 2, I think there are some questions by Republicans about whether he is doing enough. I mean, we're still importing in the United States several hundred thousand barrels of Russian oil and gas every day. And so I do think there's a legitimate question about, have we gone far enough at this point? I think J.D. Vance's comment is sort of ridiculous because, you know, it cedes the idea that the American people can walk and chew gum at the same time, when I think most of us believe that we can. I do think there's some legitimate questions about what Biden has done, but solidarity with the Ukrainian people is not in question. And I hope all Republicans would stand with the Ukrainians as they try to fight off this mad guy...

INSKEEP: Although - Karen Finney, go ahead.

FINNEY: Steve - yeah. I was just going to say, you know, the other thing that was important in that message is it is a break - I mean, J.D. Vance being one of the types of critiques. It was also a reminder, as he said at the beginning of his presidency, America is back in terms of our engagement in the world, and certainly in our engagement in NATO - and our interests in that region of the world both in standing with the Ukrainians, but in standing up to Putin and standing up to Russia and saying, you know, we are there. We are going to be there. And we are going to fight you with the full force that we can. And, look; I think he made some important announcements in terms of additional measures that the United States will be taking as part of the strategy to punish Russia for its actions.

INSKEEP: Scott, I just want to ask briefly about the Republican-Russia problem. Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, some others are pretty openly cheering on Vladimir Putin as a kind of culture war. Which parts of the party are pushing back on that?

JENNINGS: Well, I think the rank-and-file Republicans. A lot of national polling has shown that Republicans do not view Vladimir Putin in a positive light. I think you've got virtually every member of the Republican conference in the United States Senate. You have Republicans pushing for more sanctions on Putin, in fact, in the Senate in January. I think if you're playing footsie with Vladimir Putin or flirting with the idea that maybe we're on the wrong side of this, you're wrong. Public opinion is not with you. It will not be with you. And it's not going to look good for you. And I think Republicans want the Ukrainians to win this. I do not think the people that have been flirting with this stupid idea are going to look good when this is all said and done.

INSKEEP: Karen Finney, Iowa's governor, Kim Reynolds, delivered the Republican response to Biden's address. And she mentioned inflation in the 1970s. Inflation today is maybe not so bad, but it's definitely up. The president was forced to acknowledge that last night. Did you hear an answer to it?

FINNEY: I - the answer that I heard was some of the very things that the president has been talking about for some time. You know, he said, let's lower costs. Let's address the things that we - and by we, obviously he meant himself and the members in that chamber - can do to bring real relief. When you talk about - and my goodness, you know, she wanted to go back to the '70s. I remember that inflation as a kid. But I also, you know, remember a time when the price of, you know, things like prescription drugs was not, you know, such a large percentage of one's income.

And so when he talked about lowering the costs of prescription drugs, when he talked about things like quality, affordable child care so that people can get back to work - and the other piece of that equation that we don't hear people talk about enough is the fact that it's not just that people can't get back to work, it's that those businesses need those people to come back to work. So I did hear some answers, quite frankly. Unfortunately, I don't think he had very many willing participants in that strategy in that chamber. But it certainly was important because it's - those ideas are also things we know are very popular with the American people and would bring real relief.

INSKEEP: Scott Jennings, I'm going to give you the last word. Events are moving so quickly. I'd like to ask if you feel you know, of the matters discussed last night, which do you think are issues that people might still be voting on in November?

JENNINGS: Yeah. I think the domestic issues - inflation No. 1, overall economic concerns, No. 2. I mean, it's quality of life issues. I think people care about Ukraine. I think they are also - care deeply that they're paying over a hundred bucks in some cases to fill up their gas tank right now. I didn't hear a lot of answers on that last night. And until he pivots on that, he's going to have a rough ride in November.

INSKEEP: Republican strategist Scott Jennings and Democratic strategist Karen Finney. It's always a pleasure talking with you both. Thanks.

JENNINGS: Thank you.

FINNEY: Thanks, Steve.

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