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News brief: Biden speech, Ukrainian civilian casualties, Texas primary

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Each of the next three stories says something about democracy in the year 2022 - an election in Texas, the war in Ukraine and last night's ritual of democracy at the U.S. Capitol.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The setting was the chamber of the House of Representatives. President Biden gave his State of the Union speech to Congress and the nation. In a change from his speech a year ago, the two women behind him did not wear masks. Vice President Harris and House Speaker Pelosi gave a visible reminder that pandemic restrictions are easing. But the president acknowledged that much of his audience does not feel like things are better.

(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: Biden faces pressure to address those issues as elections for Congress begin.

INSKEEP: We're joined now by NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow, who watched the speech. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How did the president frame his agenda?

DETROW: You know, when it comes to domestic policy, he declared inflation his top priority, even reframing things like his big climate and energy push as a way to help lower home costs for Americans, talked more about dealing with inflation by keeping wages high, doing things like cracking down on overcharged corporate profits, and all in all, there was a lot of economic populism in this speech. And he also kind of channeled Bill Clinton, in a way, of reframing areas where Republicans criticize him as areas of agreement, saying, you know, at this moment in time, he supports masks coming off as COVID drops, speaking very bluntly later in the speech 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: And at this moment, where Republicans think that particular issue is one of their most potent tools in the midterm elections, you had Republican leaders like Kevin McCarthy standing and applauding. Biden also made a point to talk a lot about bipartisan bills throughout this speech, really reaching for areas where he and the Republicans who bitterly oppose him could all agree on the same thing.

INSKEEP: Interesting you mention masks. There was a minute there where state officials, even Democratic state officials, seemed ahead of the White House on dropping mask mandates and so forth. That's no longer the case.

DETROW: Yeah. You know, Biden's been so cautious all along, purposely modeling caution even as many Americans have moved on from COVID precautions. And I was thinking, this is the biggest speech he's given since he started - you know, since March 2020, he's really been giving speeches to limited audiences, and there he was last night speaking to a full House chamber, maskless, hugging, shaking hands in a crowded room. When it comes to what he talked about, he framed an end point for COVID for the first time, touting the CDC guidelines that say 7 in 10 Americans can go mask-free and projected more will get there in the coming weeks. He was careful not to fully declare victory, like he kind of did last year. Biden said the country will keep fighting COVID-19. But, he kept saying, you know, it's time to get back to school, get back to work. Again, many Americans have been doing that for a very long time. And I think more than anything else, Biden - it was the images, more than what he said, that he wanted to project when it comes to COVID.

INSKEEP: The opening passage of the speech, the opening 12 or 13 minutes - very emotional. The president was talking about Ukraine.

DETROW: Yeah. At a time of deep partisan division, both he and the lawmakers of the chamber were presenting a united front. He took a defiant tone, framing this as a battle of freedom versus Putin's autocracy. A lot was what we've heard from Biden before, just on a bigger stage, stressing that - international unity and tough sanctions, announcing new steps of a ban on Russian flights in U.S. airspace last night, supporting Ukrainians but making it clear he has no desire at this point for a direct war between NATO and Russia. He also addressed the anxiety in the country about two things - the energy prices going up and the fact that this unsettling (ph) war could lead to some surprising places. So Biden told Americans things are going to be OK in the long run and said this is a moment for unity and standing up for what's right.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Scott Detrow. Thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Now, the president was able to celebrate the resistance of Ukraine's elected government to the Russian invasion.

MARTINEZ: That's despite continued violence by Russia. Twenty-one people have been killed in Kharkiv, Ukraine, as a result of what appeared to be a Russian rocket attack. Russia's advance on the Ukrainian capital appears to have stalled about 20 miles north of Kyiv, with the 40-mile convoy, military convoy, having food and fuel problems. Kyiv's main TV tower was hit by a projectile on Tuesday, and nearby at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, that was also struck. Ukraine's President Zelenskyy said at least five people in the area were killed.

INSKEEP: How does all of that look to the people who are defending Ukraine? Our MORNING EDITION co-host Leila Fadel is in Ukraine. Hey there, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Where are you, and what are you seeing?

FADEL: So I'm in Lviv. It's the largest city in western Ukraine, a cultural hub. It's often referred to as the soul of this nation. And so far, Russian troops, bombardments, they've not arrived here. But this is a city on edge. Just an hour ago, the air raid sirens started. We were here in our hotel, and all of us made our way down to the basement bunker of the hotel - usually a casino - to wait it out. A lot of people here in our hotel are internally displaced from places that are under Russian bombardment right now. So the city is a base for war preparation.

Just to give you a sense, we went to an abandoned factory that used to be a place for parties, and now a bunch of young Ukrainians are there mass-producing Molotov cocktails. They told us they've been sending them to the front lines and arming local checkpoints. We visited an outdoor defense training session with hundreds of people learning how to use weapons. And then a military enlistment center, where we met Yulia Cravats (ph) and her little brother, and they were weeping and hugging their father, and I asked her why she was crying.

YULIA CRAVATS: It's our father. He was in Donbas, Donetsk, in 2013, '15, and now he's going to the war again. And I hope that it will finish soon because we need our fathers here in our homes. And we hope that our father will come back alive.

INSKEEP: Leila, there seems to be a change in the war in the last couple of days. From the earliest moments, civilian buildings have been struck in what would seem to be incidental attacks, but in the last day or so, there have been some buildings that have been exploded by, clearly, precision munitions, nothing accidental at all. How concerned are people about civilian casualties growing?

FADEL: I mean, they're concerned. Already Ukraine says civilians are being killed in the attacks. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused Russia of war crimes. And many people are really worried that because the Ukrainian forces had put up such a resistance in the face of the Russian attack, that Russia will resort to indiscriminate weaponry that will cause mass casualties, mass destruction.

INSKEEP: And Russia certainly does have the weaponry. What do Ukrainians want from outside?

FADEL: It's a hard question to answer. Everyone we spoke to wants the invasion to stop. Zelenskyy gave a virtual speech to the EU Parliament yesterday asking that they be part of the EU, and they hope that gives them defense from the members.

INSKEEP: Our colleague Leila Fadel in Ukraine, where a democratically elected government remains in power. Leila, thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And now let's check in on democracy in Texas, where voters took part in the first primaries of the 2022 midterm elections.

MARTINEZ: While some of the final matchups aren't yet set, the match for governor is. Democrat Beto O'Rourke easily won his primary. Here he is in Fort Worth last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETO O'ROURKE: We have got to get past the incompetence, the corruption and the cruelty of Greg Abbott. Are you with me on this?

(CHEERING)

MARTINEZ: Greg Abbott, the Republican incumbent governor - here he is speaking to supporters in Corpus Christi.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREG ABBOTT: Where we have protected your constitutional rights, they threatened to take them away. Where we have promoted exceptionalism, they stoke fearmongering. We will not let them win this state.

(CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider is covering this primary. Hey there, Andrew.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Well, you've got an interesting matchup coming up for governor.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, this is definitely what was expected. Abbott's popular with conservatives. He had several challengers from the far right, but he was able to dispatch them easily. This sets up a high-profile governor's race. Beto O'Rourke - of course, a former congressman and presidential candidate - made waves in Texas with his challenge to Senator Ted Cruz that was ultimately unsuccessful. He gained a lot of supporters and established an organization then. But pre-primary polling has found Abbott besting O'Rourke, and Texas hasn't elected a Democratic governor in more than three decades.

INSKEEP: What are some of the other races of interest? And I mention this just because Texas is such a huge state that some of the down-ballot offices are still races that get national attention.

SCHNEIDER: Right. Another statewide race with an incumbent Republican getting challengers - Attorney General Ken Paxton. He's a prominent Trump supporter and a foe of the Biden administration. But he's been dogged by legal investigations, and so he drew three challengers. He did get the highest vote share, but Texas operates with a runoff system. So if a candidate doesn't get more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters go to a runoff, which will be in May. His opponent in the runoff is George P. Bush, the state's land commissioner and son of Jeb Bush.

INSKEEP: Hmm, another generation of the Bush family trying to rise. A lot of the congressional seats that will decide control of the House this year are in Texas. How do those things shape up?

SCHNEIDER: Well, one of the big races that I was looking at was actually on the Democratic side in South Texas. It's a battle between longtime relatively conservative congressman Henry Cuellar and 28-year-old progressive Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar actually beat Cisneros two years ago, so this was a rematch. In January, there was an FBI raid on Cuellar's home and office that really affected this contest. There aren't many details about the investigation, and Cuellar says he's done nothing wrong. But it recast the race in its final weeks. And now Cuellar and Cisneros are also heading to a runoff.

INSKEEP: How easily did people vote given that this was the first test of Texas' new voting laws, one of many new voting laws passed by Republicans in the past year?

SCHNEIDER: The law made about - a lot of changes. One that was kind of under the radar required Texans seeking to vote by mail to include their driver's license or Social Security number in multiple places on the application and ballot. And a lot of people have been neglecting to fill out one or both of these. They're putting the wrong number, and the result is thousands of ballots were flagged for rejection.

INSKEEP: Yeah, we've had some reporting on this. If you put in one number and then put in a different number in a different form, they reject it even if both of the numbers happened to be correct. Andrew, thanks so much.

SCHNEIDER: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "PARANOID ANDROID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.