The Russian invasion of Ukraine will loom over all else when President BidenJoe BidenRubio skipping SOTU over COVID-19 testing mandate: ‘I don’t have time’Arizona GOP asks court to strike down vote-by-mail systemUS sees Putin nuke threat as posturingMORE steps into the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday evening to deliver his first State of the Union address.

There are other issues that Biden wants and needs to speak about, given that his approval ratings are at a low ebb and the nation is polarized and weary.

But the Ukraine crisis is of such magnitude that it will dwarf every other topic. One of the biggest military clashes in Europe since the end of the Second World War, it is being brought home in a visceral way, minute-by-minute, on Americans TV screens and cellphones.


The scope and intensity of the story has eroded the earlier hope harbored by Biden allies that he could use the speech to reset his political fortunes. Such a reset appears badly needed. 

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this weekend, the presidents job performance earned the approval of just 37 percent of Americans and the disapproval of 55 percent. It was his lowest rating to date in that poll.

White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiUS sees Putin nuke threat as posturingOvernight Defense & National Security Ukraine stands as Russian frustration growsUS expels 12 Russian diplomats for ‘espionage activities’MORE acknowledged during an MSNBC interview Monday that the Ukraine crisis had changed the atmosphere in which the State of the Union will be delivered.

But Psaki also argued that other presidents have had to grapple with similar dynamics. 

Bidens proposed path forward against Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinMcCarthy criticizes GOP members who spoke at white nationalist conference: ‘Unacceptable’Overnight Defense & National Security Ukraine stands as Russian frustration growsUkrainian leaders press lawmakers to back no-fly zoneMORE is a part of what people will hear in the speech. That wouldnt have been the case three months ago, Psaki acknowledged to Kristen Welker and Peter Alexander.

But she added: If we look back at history, President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaA promise kept: How Biden can come away with a win this SOTUUS expels 12 Russian diplomats for ‘espionage activities’Supreme Court wrestles with EPA power to regulate climate changeMORE gave a speech during the worst financial crisis of our lifetime. President Bush gave a speech shortly after the worst terrorist attack on our homeland ever. Its always about expressing how youre going to lead the country, and I think people will hear that from the president.

Both the situations Psaki cited were different from the one confronting Biden, however: Obamas speech was not about a military matter; and Bushs joint address, delivered just nine days after 9/11, was solely about that event.

Bidens challenge is to address a major international crisis while also showing himself to be responsive on a host of other issues facing the nation, from inflation to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even many Democrats acknowledge its a very tough task.

I was trying to think of the last time a State of the Union was delivered with these kinds of worldwide events going on all around us, said Jerry Austin, a Democratic strategist whose big-league political experience stretches back to his days as the national campaign manager for Jesse Jacksons 1988 presidential run.

This is obviously unusual, obviously different, Austin told this column Monday. Anybody who tries to compare tomorrows State of the Union to any other State of Union is an idiot.

The problem for Biden is multifaceted. But one challenge is to articulate a compelling and coherent plan for how the Russian invasion might ultimately be rolled back while also giving due space to the domestic concerns that are more politically potent.

Right now, the Number One story in the world is Ukraine, said Austin. It is very difficult to break through that and talk about what inflation means to the American people, or what the infrastructure bill means to communities across the country.

Other Democrats see some silver linings amid such a dark cloud, however.

The crisis has enabled Biden to cast himself in a statesmanlike role, which draws on his strengths and offers a stark contrast to his predecessor, they say. 

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpArizona GOP asks court to strike down vote-by-mail systemMcCarthy criticizes GOP members who spoke at white nationalist conference: ‘Unacceptable’First jury trial against accused Jan. 6 rioter beginsMORE, who was impeached on the first of two occasions for his dealings with Ukraine, drew enormous criticism in recent days by praising Putins genius.

Trumps remarks have, once again, complicated the GOPs political calculus, highlighting the split in Republican opinion. That deepens the uncertainty about what the GOP would do about the Ukraine crisis, even as its members excoriate Biden for his supposed weakness.

One of the most closely watched elements of Tuesday nights event will be how Republicans in the House chamber react to whatever Biden says about Ukraine.

Bob Shrum, a veteran of numerous Democratic presidential campaigns, said that the days of bipartisanship when it comes to foreign affairs are long gone.

Noting the rancid atmosphere of polarization around every topic, Shrum predicted, I think you will see a lot of Republicans sitting on their hands.

But Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee, argued, in essence, that the media focus on Trumps comments was distracting from the fact that most members of the GOP support a very hard line against Putin and would therefore welcome rhetoric from Biden that points in the same direction.

He has an opportunity to start with something where most of Congress is on the same page, said Heye, referring to Ukraine. After that, it gets decidedly more difficult.

Biden faces one more challenge: Events are changing so rapidly in Ukraine that his big speech will likely be being rewritten up until the last moment.

The president will be guaranteed a huge TV audience, at least. His address to a joint session of Congress last April was watched by almost 27 million people.

An even bigger audience is almost certain to tune in Tuesday evening. 

They will be watching a president trying to thread an extraordinarily fine needle.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.