The opening of Joe Biden’s State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday was dominated by the war in Ukraine, which has consumed his presidency in recent weeks.
But Bidend spent far more of the speech touting his domestic policies ahead of what is expected to be a Republican onslaught in the November midterm elections, when both houses of Congress are up for grabs.
On everything from inflation and the economy to his handling of Covid and crime, the US president was forced on to the defensive.
It was a far cry from a year ago, when he was laying out a vision to transform the economic and social fabric of America that earned comparisons with Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s.
Biden’s ambitions have been stymied by his Republican opponents but he has also struggled to convince voters.
Some polls put his approval rating at an all-time low and many pundits predict that Republicans will take back control of Congress.
High prices have become the biggest political liability for Biden and his Democratic party, which he acknowledged on Tuesday night.
“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’s main solution to the problem had been for Congress to pass its $ 1.75tn “Build Back Better” Act, a mix of tax increases and new spending on education and climate.
But that legislation has died on Capitol Hill, leaving Biden searching for other ways to tame prices. On Tuesday, he appealed for more domestic production of goods and urged Republicans who are blocking the confirmation of his Federal Reserve nominees to drop their opposition so that policymakers could concentrate on the job of fighting inflation.
He also called for the passage of specific measures that had been part of Build Back Better, including a push to lower prescription drug prices, subsidize cleaner energy and reduce child care expenses.
“My plan will not only lower costs to give families a fair shot, it will lower the deficit,” he said.
The president also put business on notice for price gouging and anti-competitive behavior, warning that the “watchdogs” that had been defanged in the previous administration were “back”. He added that he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate fraud in the disbursement of pandemic relief funds.
Biden has been under pressure to shift his messaging to the center after embracing many of the priorities of progressive Democrats both during the 2020 election campaign against Donald Trump and in the first months of his presidency.
The clearest evidence of that during his speech came when he sought to distance himself very clearly from the “defund the police” movement that is popular on the left of the Democratic party. Instead he called for more federal money for law enforcement.
“We should all agree: the answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities. ”
The line prompted applause from Democrats as well as several Republicans, who had sought to blame the governing party for a rise in violent crime in several big US cities.
Biden also made it clear that he wanted to keep schools open and not impose overly harsh Covid restrictions in the education system, after being battered by Republicans on the issue for months.
“Our schools are open. Let’s keep it that way. Our kids need to be in school, ”he said.
On the pandemic, Biden declared that with cases tied to the Omicron variant declining, a “new moment” had arrived that could yield “more normal routines”.
The president was speaking to a room where the majority of the audience was not wearing a face covering, just two days after the US Congress lifted its mask mandate.
But he shied away from declaring a full “victory” over the pandemic. “We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard. ”
Apart from fending off Republican criticism, Biden has had to grapple with the disappointment of his base, particularly over the lack of progress in passing legislation to protect voting rights.
But he did tout his recent nomination of Ketanji-Brown Jackson to be the first black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, and called on Congress to confirm her quickly.
Republicans lambasted his message and compared his tenure to the one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter.
“It feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time to the late ’70s and early’ 80s,” said Kim Reynolds, the Iowa governor who delivered the Republican rebuttal to his remarks.
“When runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing on our cities, and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map.”