Biden’s first State of the Union echoes Cold War themes

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Allison M. Prasch, University of Wisconsin-Madison

(THE CONVERSATION) It ​​was a familiar scene.

The President of the United States walked the aisle of the United States House of Representatives to deliver the State of the Union address, the only constitutional example of a presidential address. Usually, it serves to outline the White House’s political agenda for the coming year, as well as perceived accomplishments.

But as the nation listened to the prime-time speech on March 1, 2022, President Joe Biden needed to do more than just outline top national priorities such as easing COVID-19 restrictions for a pandemic-weary public, battling the highest rate of inflation since 1980, touting her nomination as the first black woman to the nation’s highest court and mobilizing the Democratic Party ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

On top of that, Biden also had to respond to an international crisis he didn’t choose that could define his presidency: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

With gruesome images of Kyiv and Kharkiv circulating on social media and a growing death toll of Ukrainian citizens, Biden sought to explain how the state of the union related to the current state of the world – and the ability of democracy to survive in this world.

As a scholar of Cold War presidential rhetoric, I know Biden’s choice of words echoes themes of former chief executives who spoke to Americans amid tensions in Eastern Europe.

In that first State of the Union address, Biden spoke of national unity at a time of deep political polarization. He reminded his audience that they shared “a duty to each other, to America, to the American people, to the Constitution… [and] an unwavering determination that freedom will always triumph over tyranny.

In emphasizing a shared commitment to seeing freedom triumph over tyranny, Biden tapped into a common refrain in American foreign policy rhetoric.

This theme was particularly prevalent during the Cold War. President Harry S. Truman argued that the nation had a duty and responsibility to “support free peoples who resist attempts at subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures”. Later, Ronald Reagan presented the United States as “a beacon… [and] a magnet for all who must have freedom.

Biden also celebrated the courage and conviction of the Ukrainian people.

Just as John F. Kennedy said in 1963 that “all free men” could identify as citizens of West Berlin, a city surrounded by a tyrannical government, Biden praised Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and “all Ukrainians ” for “their fearlessness, their courage, their determination, [that] literally inspires the world.

Indeed, the visual and embodied symbols of Ukrainian resistance filled the House Gallery, with some members of Congress dressed in yellow and blue – a deliberate nod to the bright colors of the Ukrainian flag. Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova sat next to First Lady Jill Biden on the balcony.

These references underscored what Biden described as Putin’s attempt to “shake the very foundations of the free world” and his belief that he could “bend it to his menacing ways.” But the Russian president miscalculated, Biden said. “He thought he could roll in Ukraine and the world would turn upside down. Instead, he hit a wall of force he never expected or imagined.

By focusing on Putin’s unprovoked attack on democracy, Biden shifted the focus from partisan infighting and political division to a unifying theme around which his entire audience could rally: a renewed commitment to defending ” free world”. Indeed, the more than hour-long speech was light on criticism of Republicans, with no mention of Donald Trump or the attempted insurrection on the US Capitol just over a year ago. Rather, much like during the height of the Cold War, Biden has chosen to emphasize the values ​​that have historically united Americans.

Concluding, Biden said “the state of the union is strong – because you, the American people, are strong.”

It was America’s “moment of accountability”, its “moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time…as one people”.

Although presidents almost always comment on the strength or health of the nation, this particular articulation also bore a striking similarity to another president, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, who a few days earlier had declared that “each of us is the president… because we are all responsible for our state.”

For Biden and Zelenskyy, the strength of the nation — and the survival of democracy — was defined by individual citizens, not by an isolated leader desperate for power and determined to elevate his own image.

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