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Biden addresses issues, such as Ukraine and inflation, in State of the Union speech

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden spoke to a world grappling with a perilous war last night, as well as a country facing rising prices and still trying to get back to normal from the pandemic, as he delivered the State of the Union address.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We meet tonight in an America that has lived through two of the hardest years this nation has ever faced. The pandemic has been punishing, and so many families are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to keep up with the rising cost of food, gas, housing and so much more.

MARTINEZ: So what did he proposed to fix some of those problems? We're going to hear from two people coming up in just a bit. It'll be Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary but, first, NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow. Scott, inflation - front and center for voters. Biden has not gotten one of his biggest priorities through Congress. How did he frame his agenda to tackle those issues?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: You know, he really declared inflation as his top priority, even reframing things like his big climate and energy push as a way to help lower home costs for Americans. And this is a real shift from that sweeping and, at times, ambiguous Build Back Better push that took up most of last year. Biden talked about dealing with inflation by keeping wages high, doing things like cracking down on overcharged corporate profits. All in all, there was a lot of economic populism in the speech. Politically, Biden channeled Bill Clinton a little bit, in a way, of reframing areas of Republican criticism as areas of agreement, saying, you know, at this particular moment, he supports masks coming off as COVID drops. Also, talking at another point - pushing back against calls from the left to defund the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

BIDEN: We should all agree the answer is not to defund the police; it's to fund the police.

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: Fund them. Fund them.

DETROW: So at this moment where Republicans think that is one of their most potent midterm issues, you had Republican leaders standing and clapping for what Biden said on that - on those two issues.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, and the speech was given in a roomful of people who were not wearing masks. What did he say about where the pandemic is heading?

DETROW: Biden has been so cautious, purposely modeling caution, even as many Americans have moved on from COVID precautions. This was, by and large, the far - the biggest crowd he's spoken to since he was president. And it jumped out to see Joe Biden maskless, hugging, shaking hands in a crowded room. He tried to frame this as an endpoint for the first time. He talked about this new CDC guideline saying 70% percent of the country can go mask-free, saying that that number is going to keep growing at the moment, unless a new variant pops up. And on that note, he was careful not to declare victory, saying there's still work to do; there's still treatments to push and expand and lower the cost of. But, you know, Biden at the same time was making this big call to get back to work, to fill our downtowns again, to keep kids in school. And I think more than anything else, the White House wants Americans to think of that image of a full House chamber, just like it was before COVID began.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Scott Detrow. Scott, thanks a lot.

DETROW: Sure thing.

MARTINEZ: All right. Let's bring on Washington Post personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary. Michelle, first, let's get into inflation. What are your thoughts on what the president had to say on that?

MICHELLE SINGLETARY: Well, he certainly was aggressive in recognizing inflation is a real issue for lots and lots of Americans. We've had an economy where people have profited. Their retirement plans are up. And then we have the other half of the country that is still struggling, living paycheck to paycheck, facing gas prices up, housing prices up. And they are still struggling.

MARTINEZ: The U.S., Michelle, does very little direct trade with Russia, but could this invasion in Ukraine impact Americans' retirement accounts? How could that be the case, maybe?

SINGLETARY: Well, you know, short term, yes. I mean, I talk to financial experts - they talk about, yeah, you know, people are skittish and scared, and some people, you know, are pulling out. But after - you know, when things like this happen, the market tends to rebound anywhere from six months to a year or sooner right after it. So what they're saying is just hold tight. Don't panic sell. If you have a long-term plan, stick with that because, over time, your retirement funds will do well. What happens is people panic, they sell, and then they lock in those losses, and you want to avoid that.

MARTINEZ: Michelle, I'm not even logging into that retirement account.

SINGLETARY: Right.

MARTINEZ: I don't even want to look 'cause I don't want to ride the wave. I don't have enough Kleenex, I don't think, that it would take to soak my tears up.

SINGLETARY: That's exactly right. Don't look. Just don't.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

SINGLETARY: Yeah.

MARTINEZ: So what else did the president say about the economy that stuck with you?

SINGLETARY: You know, there was one thing that he said that I really liked. What he said - he talked about trickle-down economics and that the better way to build the economy is from the bottom - you know, from the middle out, not from the top down. And I think that really struck with me, that when you help the people, you know, who are struggling in the middle, we all profit. And that - I tell you, I wrote it down. I tweeted about it 'cause that's exactly what has been happening with the stimulus payments. It's like, let's make sure that we help the most vulnerable of our population, and everybody will do better.

MARTINEZ: What do you think will happen to the federal minimum wage, quickly, Michelle?

SINGLETARY: You know, I would hope that it does increase because we know people need a living wage, but we've got a Congress divided. And, you know, getting anything through has been so difficult, and I just hope in this next year that Congress can come together with a plan to increase federal wages so people can have a way to live and not struggle.

MARTINEZ: That's Michelle Singletary with The Washington Post. Michelle, thanks.

SINGLETARY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.