In the first of a series of CNN CITIZEN events, a panel of journalists analyzed the president’s first State of the Union.
By Ruth Steinhardt
President Joe Biden struck a strong and unifying note on the crisis in Ukraine in his first State of the Union address, even if he failed to bring together a polarized Congress on other topics, journalists said Wednesday at the George Washington University.
CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson, Brianna Keilar, John King and Abby Phillip analyzed Biden’s speech at the first of a series of in-person events to be held at GW as an expansion of the network’s civic engagement platform, CITIZEN. While CITIZEN has held dozens of virtual interactive events with journalists and newsmakers since its creation in 2020, this was the first to be held in person with a live audience as well as a virtual one. About 200 members of the GW community were in attendance at the Jack Morton Auditorium.
“Over the course of our many partnerships, our university and CNN have long shared a mission to educate, engage and convene,” GW President Mark S. Wrighton said. “Indeed, through the CITIZEN by CNN series, we are helping to inform the public, facilitating open discourse and the exchange of differing views on critical issues and giving our incredible George Washington University student leaders access to individuals who are shaping our country and the world.”
Keilar, co-anchor of CNN’s New Day, said Biden needed to and did emphasize that Russia’s invasion of a sovereign democracy marks a moment of choice between authoritarianism and self-government, “especially at a time where we’ve seen cracks in American democracy.”
“You could just see how unified the members of the House and the Senate were in reacting to it—not a lot of the rest of the speech, but certainly that part,” Keilar said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has faced worldwide condemnation for the invasion and consequent humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, in part because of the way the current media ecosystem constantly disperses both traditional media coverage and citizen reporting from the siege, panelists said.
“It has made the images and the stories of what’s happening on the ground undeniable for the world and has served to kind of thwart Vladimir Putin’s plans,” said Phillip, CNN’s senior political correspondent and anchor of Inside Politics Sunday. Real time reporting, which showed people in Kyiv and Kharkiv living normal lives until the bombing began, “helped illustrate that this wasn’t a nation prepping for war with Russia, as Putin wanted the world to believe. This was a nation peacefully going about their business and being invaded.”
Henderson, a senior political analyst, pointed out that the invasion and reactions to it also mark an inflection point for American politics, particularly for conservatives.
“We have a not insignificant portion of Americans and portion of I think conservatives who are in some ways pro-Putin, and that is a new dynamic,” she said. “It’s a bit surprising, particularly from the party of Reagan and the party of John McCain.”
Discussing a major global conflict isn’t usually the first item on the agenda for a State of the Union analysis, King said. “Normally the day after a president’s State of the Union address, we will be talking about, you know, can you get the votes for infrastructure or will the Democrats agree to this or will they be fighting again or are there any Republicans who are going to support a Supreme Court nominee. But I think we have to start the conversation with where we are in the world.”
As Keilar pointed out, reaction to the address was mixed, particularly from conservative legislators, two of whom actively heckled Biden as he spoke. To the question of whether civility could be restored to this highly divided Congress, Henderson had a blunt answer: “No.”
“It’s to raise money, it’s to raise their profiles, it’s to go on Fox News—there’s this entire ecosystem around rudeness,” Henderson said. “I’m sure they probably sent out fundraising letters…saying, you know, they’re standing up to Joe Biden. I don’t mean to sound like a pessimist, but I do think this kind of rudeness and distasteful behavior is here to stay and will likely get worse.”
The journalists agreed that Biden and the Democrats face certain headwinds in the upcoming midterm elections, including COVID-19 exhaustion, inflation and a general malaise that persists despite quantitative indicators of a good economy.
“People will remember how you make them feel, not necessarily what you do, and people don’t feel great,” Henderson said.
Panelists also discussed Veterans Affairs reform, the mismatch between the American workforce and employers’ requirements, student loan forgiveness and much more. They also examined their own roles as journalists in a country where media distrust is on the rise and in some cases even fomented by politicians in power.
“We have to learn to reach people…who think that we’re elitist in Washington, that we’re comfortable, [that] we’ve lost our ability to understand the stress of globalization, the stress of change, the stress of whatever they do for a living,” King said.
Journalists also must resist pressure from both sides to “cheerlead” for causes or public figures, Keilar said.
“It’s not our job to report good things about President Biden, or any president, for that matter. It is our job to report the facts,” she said. “I think there’s definitely discussion to be had at times about [whether] certain things get over-emphasized or under-emphasized. I think that's a really good discussion to have. But I also think the nature of what happens in Washington is that the problems outweigh the solutions, and the solutions are only popular with a fraction of the population.”