How Biden Missed a Chance To Use the House Gallery To Illuminate a Foreign Policy

Inviting the right guests would have helped.

Jacquelyn Martin, pool
President Biden delivers the State of the Union address on February 7, 2023. Jacquelyn Martin, pool

President Biden failed in his  State of the Union address to devote significant attention to national security issues. He uttered a few short lines reiterating support for Ukraine, the importance of democracy, and the need for America to compete with China. The only foreign policy guest referenced in the speech was the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States. 

That’s a shame, a missed opportunity to persuade the American public to support his foreign policy agenda. Hence I offer the following list of guests Mr. Biden should have chosen to better communicate the threats facing the United States today and assist in advancing his administration’s agenda.

On Ukraine, Mr. Biden erred in choosing a high-level diplomat in Washington to persuade the American public of the importance of providing military, economic, and humanitarian assistance to the Ukrainian people. Instead, the president could have honored a Ukrainian who has sacrificed directly to defeat the Russian invaders and defend his family and his freedom.

A survivor of Russian atrocities, a mother who gave birth amid horrific bloodshed and terror, a father willing to give life and limb so his children could know an independent Ukraine — any one or all of them, and there are many, could better have demonstrated the human cost of war, our shared humanity, and exactly whom we are supporting in Ukraine.

If this guest had a family connection to the struggles of the people of eastern Europe against both Nazi aggression and the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union over the decades, the president could have linked the fight in Ukraine today to the proud legacy of American and European cooperation in the face of evil and tyranny. 

State of the Union guests are not mere political pawns. They have personal stories that communicate much more about a particular issue than policy talking points. By giving voice to them from the bully pulpit, a president allows them to speak to America and the world. 

President Trump, in his 2018 State of the Union address, recognized a North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho. The president detailed the horrors of life in North Korea and then told Mr. Ji’s harrowing story of survival and his journey over thousands of miles, on crutches, to escape to freedom.

As Mr. Ji held his crutches up in dignity and defiance, the president linked his deep desire to be free to the American founding 250 years ago. Mr. Ji received uproarious applause from the entire chamber.

Mr. Trump, in his address the next year, helped emphasize the message that the United States would never allow Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and anti-Semitism, to acquire a nuclear weapon by acknowledging a Holocaust survivor who also survived the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue.  

Ukraine was not the only foreign policy area where Mr. Biden had a chance to better utilize the House gallery. On China, possible guests could have included American innovators victimized by intellectual property theft; a family that suffered several casualties from the Covid pandemic; or a small American business that was forced to close its doors forever during lockdown.

Mr. Biden could have included, say, a Chinese dissident; or an American family with several generations serving in the United States Navy. Honoring families who suffered during Covid could have been accompanied by a pledge to work in a bipartisan manner with Congress to investigate the origins of the virus and deliver answers for all who lost loved ones to the pandemic.

Recognizing an American military family could have highlighted the need for Congress to support investments in our defenses, especially the U.S. Navy, to deter Chinese aggression and prevent war. 

The president gets only one chance every year to deliver a primetime address to, in a fell swoop, a joint session of Congress and the American people. Every news network, regardless of political orientation, seeks to cover the speech.

This year, Mr. Biden missed an opportunity to garner support among both parties in Congress and among the American people for his foreign policy agenda. House gallery guests are often the best communicators on an issue. Future presidents should let them be heard.

The New York Sun

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