In 2021, when President Joe Biden delivered his first joint address to Congress, in-person attendance was drastically cut back, capping the number of attendees at 200. This year, Capitol Hill dropped its mask mandate ahead of the speech and invited all 535 members of Congress to attend the State of the Union address. But the changes didn’t make the scene feel any less strange. Lawmakers still couldn’t bring guests. Some announced “virtual” guests, who would watch the address from home while their hosts watched from the House chamber.
A year after the attack on the Capitol, excessive security has remained the norm. The controversial fencing around the Capitol complex went back up for the event, despite the fact that there were no credible or specific threats made ahead of the president’s speech. And there were cops everywhere. Capitol police swarmed in and around the various Senate and House office buildings. Hundreds of National Guard troops were stationed throughout the Capitol itself to back up Capitol Police, which requested additional backup from other law enforcement agencies. The Secret Service was present, as well.
Representative Lou Correa, a Democrat from California, told me and a couple reporters that the occasion would mark his first time sitting up in the chamber’s balcony since January 6, the day a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol. “How do you feel?” we asked. “I feel like my plan would have worked,” he replied. (His plan, he told us, was to throw the attackers off the balcony.)
“Don’t worry—I’m armed,” Correa joked, slowly opening his jacket to take out a plain blue pen.
But some things, like the time-honored tradition of drinking at a boring work event, never change. “Do you have any wine or champagne?” Representative Veronica Escobar of Texas asked in the House gallery, adding that she might have to take some wine in her purse.
Washington’s imperial ambitions are just as timeless. No pandemic, crisis, or political development can shake lawmakers’ commitment to war. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden’s team reworked the speech, which is typically centered on domestic policy, to try to unite the nation around “the battle between democracy and autocracy.”
Inside the House chamber, lawmakers wore yellow-and-blue dresses, ties, scarves, and pins in a display of support for Ukraine. Biden was especially on theme, dedicating the first 12 minutes of his hour-long speech to Ukraine. He praised Ukrainians’ “wall of strength” against Putin and called out Russian oligarchs to bipartisan applause. (Just Russian oligarchs, not American ones.) But he showed little interest in de-escalation or peace. Instead, he declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “pay a price” for invading Ukraine, and touted the destruction of Russia’s economy. Strangling the economy of a nuclear-armed power during a geopolitical crisis, Biden argued, is a good thing.
“He has no idea what’s coming,” Biden said. “The ruble has already lost 30 percent of its value, the Russian stock market has lost 40 percent of its value, and trading remains suspended. The Russian economy is reeling, and Putin alone is the one to blame.”
Biden then pivoted to domestic policy, offering a list of policy priorities—a $15 minimum wage, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, lowered prescription drug prices—that have all died in Congress under his watch. Build Back Better, basically. But without ever mentioning Build Back Better, because we all know how that turned out.
Throughout the speech, Biden also attempted to get ahead of the Republican Party’s main lines of attack: its obsession over rising crime rates, “open” borders, inflation fearmongering, and the baseless accusation that Democrats are anti-police. “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police,” he said, drawing strong applause from House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and minority whip Steve Scalise. “The answer is to fund the police. Fund them! Fund them!”
But the progressive flank of his party was not having it. Missouri Representative Cori Bush, a leader in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in St. Louis after the police killing of Michael Brown, is sticking to the call to defund the police. “All our country has done is given more funding to the police,” she tweeted after the speech. “The result? 2021 set a record for fatal police shootings.” Representative Rashida Tlaib, who gave the progressive State of the Union response on behalf of the Working Families Party, also contrasted with Biden on police reform. “We can’t police away homelessness, poverty or our mental health crisis in our country,” Tlaib said. “Care, not more criminalization is how we ensure lasting safety for all.”
Bush attended the address in a bright red shirt with the number 18,000 written across it, in hopes of pressuring the administration to start granting clemency to those whose petitions have been backlogged by the criminal justice system. “We just need it signed by the president,” Bush told me before Biden spoke. “Those are 18,000 bodies, 18,000 human beings.” Last year’s increase in the number of people entering the federal prison system was the first increase in eight years, she added, so things are “going backwards.”
On the way out, every Democratic lawmaker I walked by praised the president’s speech. Republicans also stayed on script. “As far as I can tell, no willingness to change gears from the extreme left-wing agenda,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz told reporters. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer have chosen to advance a “hard left agenda from the socialist wing of the party,” Cruz continued, “and I heard nothing today from President Biden that he intends to change course.”