Build Back Never

In 2021, when 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 mandates 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 building itself to backup Capitol Police, which requested additional backup from other law enforcement agencies. Secret Service was present, as well.

Representative Lou Correa, a Democrat from California, told me and a couple reporters that the State of the Union 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 topic, 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 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.

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