Originally published by POLITICO Playbook on March 2, 2022.
UKRAINE LATEST — NYT: “Russia’s push to seize key Ukrainian cities accelerated on Wednesday, with the Russian military claiming that its forces were fully in control of Kherson, a port city with a strategically important location near the Black Sea, just northwest of Crimea.
“The claim could not immediately be verified, and Ukrainian officials said that while the city of about 300,000 people was surrounded, the battle for it was continuing. Kherson would be the first major Ukrainian city captured by Russia since President VLADIMIR V. PUTIN launched his invasion last Thursday.”
THE STATE OF THE UNION — Five key takeaways and revealing moments that stuck with us from President JOE BIDEN’s first State of the Union speech:
1. BIDEN’S COST-FREE CONFRONTATION WITH RUSSIA — On the surface, events in Ukraine clearly upended the State of the Union speech. Biden spent the first 12 minutes of his address focused on the events there.
He said Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN “badly miscalculated” in thinking the “free world” would “bend to his menacing ways.” He branded him a “dictator,” and reiterated that he would crack down on the oligarchs propping Putin up by seizing “their ill-begotten gains,” their “yachts,” “luxury apartments” and “private jets.”
He bragged that “Russia’s economy is reeling” from sanctions.
He praised the resilience of the Ukrainian people — and used the opportunity to engineer a rare bipartisan SOTU standing ovation near the top of the speech, when the TV audience is typically at its peak.
He patted himself on the back with a quick review of his leadership throughout the crisis. “We prepared extensively and carefully,” Biden said, noting the “months building a coalition of other freedom-loving nations” and how he “spent countless hours unifying our European allies” and “countered Russia’s lies with truth.”
He announced one new policy as relates to Russia: Biden said America will follow Europeans in “closing off American air space to all Russian flights.” He then departed from his prepared remarks with a hint at additional costs to Putin: “He has no idea what’s coming.”
But there was a lot missing when he broached a question that has had Democrats chattering all week: How would Biden address the costs of this war to the American people?
There was little from Biden about how long the conflict would last, how much it would spike gas and food prices, how it would change American priorities when it comes to energy policy or our relationships with other petrostates.
There was no hint that destroying the Russian economy might elicit a forceful reaction from Putin.
There was no explanation about what it means for Americans that the Russian president has twice this week discussed his nuclear arsenal.
“To all Americans, I will be honest with you,” Biden said. “A Russian dictator invading a foreign country has costs around the world.”
What costs? He didn’t say. He promised to “use every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers” and he announced that America will release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to “help blunt gas prices here at home.” (For context: America consumes an average of 18 million barrels a day.)
If the crisis in Ukraine, like Covid-19 and inflation before it, is about to change everything for the Biden presidency and the American people, the president wasn’t ready to admit it.
2. BIDEN PIVOTS BACK TO THE MIDDLE — “Fund the police” is the new “defund the police.” Voting rights are important, but not the top issue. And BBB? What’s that?
In Year Two, the Biden administration is moving to the center — at least that’s what Tuesday night suggests. Biden talked about some progressive priorities but didn’t bang the gong.
On voting rights: His remarks on the topic — roughly 83 words in a nearly 6,500-word speech — seemed relatively perfunctory compared to the sort of “crisis” language he’s used on the topic as recently as January.
On immigration: He talked just as much about stopping drug smuggling and human traffickers as he did about immigration reform.
On policing: “The answer is not to ‘defund the police,’” Biden said. “The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”
On student loan forgiveness: He didn’t mention it.
Progressives weren’t particularly thrilled.
Rep. CORI BUSH (D-Mo.) took to Twitter to push back on Biden’s call to “fund the police.” “With all due respect,” she wrote, “You didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech. All our country has done is given more funding to police. The result? 2021 set a record for fatal police shootings. Defund the police. Invest in our communities.”
Rep. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-N.Y.) was on MSNBC after Biden’s speech, criticizing him for not going far enough on climate change. “It was a lost opportunity because there is … bipartisan support for a long-term shift away from fossil fuels,” she said. “We need to hear more about our transition to clean energy beyond weatherizing our windows.”
3. A PLAN B (C? D?) FOR BBB — If you were hoping for Biden to namecheck his “Build Back Better” agenda in the SOTU, you’re out of luck.
BBB is dead. But its component parts? Maybe not.
On Tuesday night, Biden listed some familiar policies he’d like to see stick around — negotiating prescription drug prices, mitigating climate change and investing in the care economy. But instead of labeling them as part of his BBB social-spending plan, he framed them as “Building a Better America” — an effort to “fight inflation … and lower the deficit.”
More to the point, it’s also an effort to get Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) back to the negotiating table. And by that measure, his new framework came up short.
“They just can’t help themselves. I don’t know where that came from,” Manchin said when asked about that section of the SOTU after the speech. “Nothing’s changed.”
“After Biden speech, Manchin says ‘no formal’ talks with administration on a reconciliation bill,” tweeted our Manchin whisperer, Burgess Everett. “Says he’s fine starting with fixing tax code but he has bigger concerns. ‘Inflation is the No. 1 enemy we have in America today.’”
Meanwhile, “there remains little consensus inside the White House on what such a debt-centric plan looks like and no willingness to publicly acknowledge exactly where the president would be comfortable paring down the BBB legislative package,” Adam Cancryn reported Tuesday afternoon.
4. DEMS RIP OFF THE MASKS — Remember a few weeks ago when seemingly everyone on Twitter dunked on STACEY ABRAMS for not wearing a mask in a photo taken indoors, amid a room full of people? Welp. So much for that.
The image of lawmakers — particularly Democrats — going maskless in the House chamber was striking after nearly two years of on-again-off-again mask mandates and subsequent punitive fines for rule-breaking. The optics — especially of a maskless 79-year-old president shaking hands, embracing members and having close conversations with scores of lawmakers after the speech — were particularly jarring. (Especially since Tuesday was the first day under the new CDC guidance.)
WaPo’s Dan Diamond: “[I] am struck that this is the most proximity that the 79-year-old president has had to so many unmasked people, indoors, in two years.”
CNN’s Isaac Dovere: “You could see the pleasure & excitement on Biden’s face as he heard the live cheers in the room, but even more as he worked the crowd for a while after he finished. He hasn’t been mask-less with that many people since the rally in Detroit on March 9, 2020 when [KAMALA] HARRIS endorsed him.”
Sure, Democrats got the “back to normal” image they wanted after polls showed the public souring on mask mandates. But we have to seriously ask: Could Tuesday night turn into a super-spreader event?
5. ‘WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES?’ — Finally, you could not have watched Biden’s speech without noticing an unusual number of verbal miscues. Sometimes, they happened when he had trouble reading his teleprompter. Other times, they came when he added something that wasn’t in his prepared remarks.
We’ve seen various explanations for this. It’s a staple of the Breitbart-Fox-MAGA media complex to suggest, without evidence, that the mistakes are a result of “cognitive decline.” On the other hand, Atlantic writer John Hendrickson argues that some of Biden’s verbal bobbles are an artifact of his childhood stutter — an idea that Biden rejected in a 2020 interview with Hendrickson, but later, during a CNN town hall, suggested was a possibility “when I find myself really tired.” Either way, there were some odd moments Tuesday night:
“Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he’ll never gain the hearts and souls of the Iranian people,” Biden said, when of course he meant the Ukrainian people. (Twitter had some fun with Harris’ reaction to that one.)
“You think the deer are wearing kevlar vests?” This line, uttered during a discussion of gun policy, wasn’t in Biden’s prepared remarks. (He’s used it before when talking about high-capacity magazines.)
“Go get him!” Biden curiously called out at the end of the speech. We were left wondering: Get whom? Did he mean Putin? Inflation? Was it a generic “Go get ’em!” like a coach tells her team before it hits the field? Was it something else? After Twitter erupted in confusion, White House chief of staff RON KLAIN seemed to embrace the line.
More headlines — POLITICO: “Biden to America: ‘We’re going to be OK’” … WaPo: “Speech saw moments of unity, with some tension” … WSJ: “Biden’s State of the Union Address Pushes Unity Against Russia, Battle Against Inflation” … NYT’s David Sanger: “Biden Emphasizes Unity in a Foreign Policy Crisis, but Questions Still to be Answered” … POLITICO Mag’s Jeff Greenfield: “A Tale of Two Speeches in Biden’s State of the Union”
On the GOP SOTU response given by Iowa Gov. KIM REYNOLDS — NYT: “Reynolds uses G.O.P. response to blast Biden over ‘runaway inflation’” … The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey: “Republicans Are Trying to Send a Message” … CNN: “GOP State of the Union response: Iowa governor says ‘enough is enough’” … And Reynolds’ response began with a gaffe of its own: An iPhone timer seems to have gone off just as she started speaking (h/t The Recount)
— Meanwhile, there was a very unofficial GOP response from Reps. LAUREN BOEBERT (Colo.) and MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE (Ga.) — and it came while Biden was still speaking. The two right-wing Republicans chanted “build the wall” when the president mentioned border security. Greene “made faces and muttered throughout Biden’s roughly one-hour speech, particularly when he spoke about administering Covid-19 vaccines to children,” per the N.Y. Post. When Biden talked about the long-term effects of burn pits on veterans, Boebert heckled him. (In response, Sen. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) appeared to say, “Shut up.”)
TEXAS PRIMARY RESULTS — Tuesday marked the first big primary election of the 2022 campaign cycle, as votes across the Lone Star state were tallied up. Here are the marquee results:
In the most-watched House primary in the country, “Democratic challenger JESSICA CISNEROS, a 28-year-old immigration attorney running for Congress with heavy support from progressives, has forced a primary runoff against U.S. Rep. HENRY CUELLAR in South Texas,” the AP reports. The runoff will take place in May.
Progressives notched a few big wins: GREG CASAR, a progressive backed by AOC, easily won the nod in the Texas 35th, and JASMINE CROCKETT finished first in the race to succeed Rep. EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON. Full election results
It’s a Bush-vs.-Paxton runoff for A.G.: Trump-endorsed incumbent KEN PAXTON and Land Commissioner GEORGE P. BUSH will go head to head in a two-person race after Paxton was stopped short of 50% in the primary. More from The Texas Tribune
GOP establishment prevails over MAGA type: Former Navy SEAL MORGAN LUTTRELL avoided a runoff in his race to succeed Rep. KEVIN BRADY, easily beating CHRISTIAN COLLINS. Luttrell had the support of KEVIN MCCARTHY and the Congressional Leadership Fund, while Collins had the backing of several far-right members of Congress, including Rep. MADISON CAWTHORN (R-N.C.).
The gubernatorial race is set: Republican incumbent GREG ABBOTT and former Democratic Rep. BETO O’ROURKE easily won their parties’ respective nominations. More from the Austin American-Statesman
BIDEN’S WEDNESDAY (all times Eastern):
— 9:15 a.m.: The president will receive the President’s Daily Brief.
— 10:15 a.m.: The Bidens will leave the White House, arriving in Duluth, Minn., at 1:15 p.m.
— 3:15 p.m.: The Bidens will tout the bipartisan infrastructure law and the new “Building a Better America” agenda at Yellowjacket Union at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
— 5:10 p.m.: The Bidens will leave Duluth, arriving back at the White House at 7:40 p.m.
Principal deputy press secretary KARINE JEAN-PIERRE will gaggle on the way to Duluth aboard Air Force One.
— 8:30 a.m.: The VP will leave Washington for Durham, N.C.
— 10:25 a.m.: Harris will tour the IBEW local 553 apprentice program at Durham Technical Community College.
— 11 a.m.: Harris and Labor Secretary MARTY WALSH will deliver remarks.
— 3:20 p.m.: Harris will leave Durham to return to Washington.
THE HOUSE will meet at 10 a.m. Fed Chair JEROME POWELL will testify before the Financial Services Committee at 10 a.m.
THE SENATE is in. Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG will testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee at 10 a.m.
REMINDER: Biden’s SCOTUS nominee KETANJI BROWN JACKSON will meet separately today with Senate leaders CHUCK SCHUMER and MITCH MCCONNELL as well as Senate Judiciary Chair DICK DURBIN (D-Ill.) and ranker CHUCK GRASSLEY (R-Iowa).
MCCONNELL SHIVS SCOTT — It was one of the most stunning things we’ve seen on Capitol Hill in a while: McConnell unloaded on RICK SCOTT’s (R-Fla.) new GOP agenda during a leadership presser — a rare intra-leadership rebuke that isolated the NRSC chair in the Senate.
“I’ll be the majority leader. I’ll decide … what to put on the floor,” McConnell said of the GOP agenda come 2023. “But let me tell you what would not be a part of our agenda … a bill that raises taxes on half of the American people.” Ouch. Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine have more.
There’s more here than a fight over the GOP agenda or campaign strategy. While Scott is mostly seen as a 2024 presidential hopeful, there have been growing whispers about his potential as a dark-horse candidate for Senate leadership. Anyone telling you otherwise is either not plugged in, or sees this as a threat and doesn’t want to acknowledge it.
As we scooped Friday, former President DONALD TRUMP has been trying — unsuccessfully — to recruit Scott to run against McConnell for majority leader. No one takes the idea seriously, and Scott has publicly said he supports the Kentucky Republican for leader.
But make no mistake: People watching Scott closely think he’s keeping his options open in a post-McConnell world. While would-be successors JOHN THUNE (R-S.D.) and JOHN CORNYN (R-Texas) are well-liked by their colleagues and could easily slot in to replace McConnell, if the GOP continues to move toward the MAGA wing of the party — or if Trump becomes president again — Senate Republicans might look to move in a new direction, their argument goes. Scott is building a brand that fits that mold — and, as NRSC chair, he’s making connections with MAGA-wing candidates right now.
THE WHITE HOUSE
A COVID RESPONSE REFRESH — “The White House is planning to unveil its wide-ranging strategy for the next phase of the pandemic response on Wednesday morning,” our Adam Cancryn scoops. “The Covid-19 strategy is expected to lay out how the nation can safely ease public health restrictions and restore some sense of normalcy as the U.S. enters what officials hope will be a less disruptive endemic stage of the virus.”
BEYOND THE BELTWAY
TEXAS TARGETS PARENTS OF TRANS YOUTH — Texas officials “have begun investigating parents of transgender adolescents for possible child abuse, after Gov. Greg Abbott directed them last week to handle certain medical treatments as possible crimes,” NYT’s J. David Goodman and Amanda Morris report. “Among the first to be investigated was an employee of the state protective services agency who has a 16-year-old transgender child. On Tuesday, the ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal went to state court in Austin to try to stop the inquiry.”
WAR IN UKRAINE
INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE — USA Today: “The U.N. General Assembly will vote Wednesday on a resolution demanding that Russia immediately stop using force against Ukraine and withdraw its military from the country, and condemning Moscow’s decision “to increase the readiness of its nuclear forces.”
DAY SEVEN — American and European officials say Russia “may be losing [hundreds of] soldiers daily in the invasion,” NYT’s Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report. “The mounting toll for Russian troops exposes a potential weakness for Putin at a time when he is still claiming, publicly, that he is engaged only in a limited military operation in Ukraine’s separatist east.”
ON THE HORIZON — “E.U. ambassadors agreed on Tuesday to call for an initial assessment of Ukraine’s chances of joining the 27-nation bloc,” Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli and John Follain report. “EU leaders are expected to discuss Ukraine’s prospects at a summit in Paris on March 10-11.”
— The G-7 “is poised to unleash more sanctions against Russia — even at a cost to their own economies.” Our Andy Blatchford has more.
There are now Ukrainian flags on Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol.
Here’s a remarkable old clip of then-TV actor Volodymyr Zelenskyy trying to have Ukraine join the EU — and getting foiled by Vladimir Putin.
A Capitol Police officer was detained (but not charged) after allegedly getting into a fight while intoxicated in Israel.
NBC’s D.C. bureau won the night on State of the Union snacks.
Mark Warner brought a pothole to the State of the Union, virtually.
Cori Bush made a clemency statement with her State of the Union attire.
David Axelrod saw echoes of Winston Churchill in Joe Biden’s speech, but concluded that it “was more church than chill.”
IN MEMORIAM — “Michele McNally, Who Elevated Times Photography, Dies at 66,” by NYT’s Sam Roberts: “The paper won six Pulitzer Prizes for photography during her tenure as its director of photography and a trailblazing member of the newsroom’s top management.”
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK
— Anneke Green, Joshua Gilder and Anna Wellisz have launched a new firm, Reach Global Strategies. Green most recently was a senior director at the White House Writers Group, and is a Bush White House and Mitch McConnell alum. Gilder is a Reagan White House and State Department alum. Wellisz is a veteran strategist.
— Mary Owens is now comms director at Susan B. Anthony List. She most recently was comms director for Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.), and is a Mike Braun alum.
— Go Big Media is launching Think Big, a bipartisan public affairs marketing firm. Lewis Muller will be its CEO, having previously led Go Big Media’s public affairs practice.
MEDIA MOVE — Sam Sanders is leaving NPR, where he’s hosted “It’s Been a Minute,” to, among other things, get a tattoo and buy a rug before creating a new project. Announcement
WHITE HOUSE MOVE — Megha Bhattacharya is now a White House press assistant. She previously was comms assistant for second gentleman Doug Emhoff.
TRANSITIONS — Justin Ouimette will be VP of government affairs at the State Freedom Caucus Network. He currently is executive director of the House Freedom Caucus. … Caitlin Conant is now VP of policy comms at the Walt Disney Company. She previously was political director for CBS News, and is a Marco Rubio and Rob Portman alum. … Pete McAleer has joined Bombardier’s government affairs office as senior counselor for defense programs. He most recently was national security adviser to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), and is a Marine Corps veteran. …
… Isabel Sanchez is now senior policy adviser on immigration and appropriations for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. She previously was a legislative assistant for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). … Alex Howard is now lead comms and PR manager at AT&T, focusing on media relations based in D.C. He most recently was director of strategic comms and media affairs at the McKeon Group, and is a Hillary Clinton and Obama White House alum.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Ami Bera (D-Calif.) … U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar … Kevin Madden (5-0) … Brookings’ Robin Lewis … Liz Oberg … Laurie van Hall of Bee Compliance … Jason Boxt … Emily Miller … Javelin’s Dylan Colligan … Yuri Beckelman … Ven Neralla … DaVita’s Javier Martínez … Syd Terry … Caitlin McFall … Aaron Sherinian of Deseret Management Corporation … Ellie Warner … Erik Hotmire … Katherine Harris Neal … former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) … Joe Garofoli … Ashley Chang of the Rockefeller Foundation … Mikhail Gorbachev (91)