Tuesday, April 9

The rise and fall of US enemies and allies in State of the Union speeches – a visual guide | Joe Biden

Joe Biden’s speech on Tuesday mentioned Russia 18 times – more than any other State of the Union Address since the tradition started in 1790.

Biden condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the first 11 minutes of his speech, painting the war as a global ideological fight. “In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising at the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” he said.

Among presidents who mentioned Russia or the Soviet Union in their State of the Union addresses, Biden already ranks in the top 10 after just two speeches.

Bar chart of the number of times US presidents have mentioned Russia or the Soviet Union in their state of the union addresses

Since the beginning of State of the Union speeches, presidents have used the opportunity to shift America’s consciousness onto its allies and enemies.

The first few presidents in the early 19th century talked often about America’s fraught relationship with European powers. In the early 20th century, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt focused on China after the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreign influence. And in more recent decades, particularly after the 9/11 attacks, presidents’ focus has been on Middle Eastern countries.

A series of line charts showing the countries presidents mentioned the most during their state of the union over time

In the past two decades, presidents have generally preferred to start their speeches by focusing inward – talking about economic struggles, growing political polarization and bringing troops back to the US.

But growing threats from Russia and China have shifted America’s gaze back outward.

The last time a president focused largely on foreign matters was the speech after the 9/11 attacks and the American invasion of Afghanistan. George W Bush started his 2002 speech saying: “As we gather tonight, our nation is at war; our economy is in recession; and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers.”

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But the last time a president used a large chunk of his speech to condemn Russia or the Soviet Union was more than 40 years ago. In 1981, Jimmy Carter mentioned the Soviet Union 62 times, largely in response to its “illegal invasion” of Afghanistan. It was the most any president talked about Russia or the Soviet Union.

Line chart showing mentions of Russia and Soviet Union in state of the union addresses over time

Much like previous presidents, Biden didn’t talk about the foreign affairs in a vacuum. Rather, I have used the opportunity to talk about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the broader context of how he views America’s role in the larger arc of global geopolitics.

He ended the Russia section of his speech by saying: “Putin may circle Kyiv with tanks, but he will never gain the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people. He will never extinguish their love of freedom. He will never weaken the resolve of the free world.”


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