Media Coverage of the State of the Union Address

From The Poynter Report with Tom Jones:

The first State of the Union address by President Joe Biden was unlike anything we’ve seen since, perhaps, World War II. As Russian troops continued a savage attack on Ukraine, Biden spoke to the country.

And to the world.

While he delved into many of the topics you typically hear in a State of the Union address — the economy, health care, immigration — and while he spent a good chunk of time talking about the major story of the past two years (COVID-19), it was Biden’s remarks about Vladimir Putin’s war with Ukraine that resonated and drew a rare bipartisan ovation.

“Freedom will always triumph over tyranny,” Biden said in his speech. “President Putin thought he could roll into Ukraine — and the world would roll over. Instead, he met a wall of strength he never imagined.”

And with that, Republicans joined Democrats in a rousing standing ovation that showed support for Ukraine. On the Washington Post live blog, opinion columnist Eugene Robinson wrote, “Shouldn’t be remarkable, but in today’s political environment it is.”

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny called the applause “thunderous” and said that many Republicans he spoke to after the speech praised Biden’s comments about Ukraine.

Zeleny said, “For all of the bitter divide in the chamber, it’s very clear that on Ukraine and the anti-Putin message, this is something that Republicans and Democrats can both agree on.”

CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel followed up that by saying she texted with several Republican leaders and donors and said that she didn’t want to “overstate” it, but there were several occasions, including on Ukraine, where Republicans liked what Biden had to say.

“I think the headline,” Gangel said, “is Republicans didn’t sit on their hands.”

Biden spent the first 12 minutes of his 62-minute speech on Ukraine and those remarks seemed to receive mostly positive responses. MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace said, “I don’t think that President Biden gives soaring speeches, but the Ukraine section was soaring. To call out Zelensky and talk about what the Ukrainian people are doing, groups of citizens blocking tanks with their bodies, from students to retirees, teachers, to soldiers defending their homeland. I mean that is the moment, that is the history being made as we speak.”

Reportedly, the speech was rewritten several times in the past few days as events unfolded in Ukraine. It’s quite possible that even a month ago, Ukraine would not have been mentioned at all. Many media outlets noted that Tuesday night’s speech felt a little like two speeches. A short speech on Ukraine and then the speech that was originally planned to be the entire State of the Union.

NBC News’ Chuck Todd said, “I thought he would spend more time on Ukraine, spend a little more time explaining why it is our fight. As you said, good versus evil, explain a little bit more and a little bit of the history of the defense of Europe, and a little bit about why we’re in this position, why we have these alliances, what it all means. And it just felt like an abrupt end after the 12 minutes of that. It felt like, boy, we could have had more. There was more to say.”

How might it go over in Ukraine and Russia?

ABC News Matt Gutman, who is in Ukraine, said on air, “The speech happened in the middle of the night, but they will certainly be watching this on Twitter (and other social media) in the morning. I think they’re going to like it. It’s very rare to see so many Ukrainian flags, the flags of any other nation in the chamber. They’re going to like what they heard from the president, that he wants to choke off Russia, inflict pain on Russia, deprive it of its funds.”

Reporting from Moscow, ABC News foreign correspondent James Longman said, “There was a mention of it on the radio. … The presenter’s interest was piqued by President Biden’s announcement about releasing some oil reserves. That got his interest because of energy supremacy, that is the way that Russia kind of bullies the world. It is able to use its energy supremacy as a way of getting away with what it wants. The idea that an American president might raise the possibility of releasing some of his own oil in order to help gas prices back in the United States and also stop Russia being able to hold the world hostage, that is scary to, I think, any Russia regime. It’s a small amount, it’s a drop in the ocean at the moment, but raising the possibility is scary here.”

Adding up the numbers

According to a rough breakdown by CNN White House reporter Kevin Liptak, Biden spent 12 minutes of the 62-minute speech on Ukraine, but actually spent more time (25 minutes) on the economy. Seven minutes were spent on COVID-19.

While many tuned in to hear Biden’s remarks about Ukraine, it should be noted that polls showed most viewers were more interested in Biden’s comments about the economy. A CNN poll showed that when asked which topic was most important to them, 64% said the economy as compared to 36% who said Ukraine.

An ABC News poll said 59% of Americans considered inflation most important to them.

Oddly, with so much else going on, COVID-19 almost felt like an afterthought. But it clearly remains a huge story in the U.S. and Biden did spend nearly 10 minutes talking about it.

CBS News’ Gayle King said, “I think he’s giving us a pass to say, ‘Let’s move on to the next phase of COVID and get back to our normal lives,’ and I think a lot of people feel that way.”

ABC News White House correspondent Cecilia Vega said, “We’re about to hit this point in the country where most of the country will be able to take off their masks and he’s talking about it in a partisan way, saying we have been partisan, we don’t have to be partisan on this anymore. So, a little bit of hope.”

No surprise here

As you would expect, Biden’s speech didn’t go over well with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who said, “As expected, it was an unmitigated, predictable disaster.” Hannity added, “Filled with smoke and mirrors. Detached from reality. Seemingly written, to be honest, by a kid in kindergarten, maybe first grade if we are generous. Delivered by someone in a steep mental decline.”


Republican lawmakers Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado reportedly had a moment or two of heckling Biden during his speech. Check out this photo from Reuters photojournalist Evelyn Hockstein.

At one point, Biden was talking about how American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan developed cancer from exposure to toxic smoke from massive burn pits. Biden called it a “cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”

That’s when Boebert reportedly yelled out, “You put them in, 13 of them” in an apparent reference to 13 American military members killed in a bomb attack in Kabul as the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan last year. Biden then brought up his son, Beau, while Democrats shushed and jeered Boebert’s remarks. One reportedly said, “Show some respect.”

Pushing back

MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell was rather critical of the Republican response by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, saying that unless there’s a new powerful COVID-19 variant, the speech would be “increasingly odd.” O’Donnell said, “She’s talking about a world in which students are prevented from going to school. That doesn’t exist anymore. She’s talking about kids being masked forever. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

O’Donnell also mentioned how Reynolds said that Democrats want to defund the police even though Biden specifically said in his speech, “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.”

O’Donnell said, “The Biden ‘fund the police’ line was obviously in anticipation of, no matter what, they’re going to try to stick him with that.”

O’Donnell continued, saying, “The best line in the Biden speech was written by the other president: ‘Light will win over darkness.’ That was President Zelensky’s line.”

All by myself

One of the more amusing moments of the speech was when majority leader Chuck Schumer from New York rose to applaud something Biden said and, well, no one jumped up with him.

Oliver Darcy of CNN tweeted out the moment had a good line when he said, “We’ve all been there.”

This will end up a meme, right?

What else?

A few other notable moments from the speech:

  • Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was in attendance as Biden said, “​​We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit. It’s time to strengthen privacy protections, ban targeted advertising to children, demand tech companies stop collecting personal data on our children.”
  • Donald Trump’s name wasn’t uttered once.
  • Biden mentioned, but didn’t spend much time on topics such as Roe v. Wade, the LGBTQ+ community, voting rights and the Supreme Court. Although he did acknowledge the upcoming retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer, who seemed genuinely humbled and grateful by his mention.
  • How fitting that on the first day of Women’s History Month, there were two women — Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — behind Biden during his speech. NBC News correspondent Yamiche Alcindor said on NBC News NOW, “Politics aside, they have the most power in politics that women have had in a generation and it’s still striking to see them standing there.”

Click here to read PolitiFact’s fact check of the State of the Union.

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