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President Joe Biden at the State of the Union address in the Capitol on March 1, 2022

Washington (AFP) - It was an address by a man who appears absolutely clear that his greatest strength is in bringing people together.

As US President Joe Biden took his place at the front of the House of Representatives for his first State of the Union speech, his most pressing concern was to bring the chamber to its feet in a poignant gesture of solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

"The Ukrainian ambassador to the United States is here tonight," the president said as he launched into the 60-minute address, acknowledging the guest of honor, diplomat Oksana Markarova.

"Let each of us here tonight in this chamber send an unmistakable signal to Ukraine and to the world. Please rise if you are able and show that, yes, we the United States of America stand with the Ukrainian people."

Tears in her eyes, Markarova struggled to compose herself in her spot alongside First Lady Jill Biden as lawmakers packed into the chamber for the annual keynote clapped and cheered with one voice.

Sixty minutes later, the call for unity ended as it had begun, with the president seeking to galvanize "the only nation on Earth that has always turned every crisis we have faced into an opportunity."

As Ukraine entered its seventh day under attack from Vladimir Putin's Russia, many of the lawmakers present echoed Biden's gesture, sporting the yellow and blue colors of the flag of America's embattled ally.

Biden was the ringmaster for numerous hearings of great import in that very building, a 19th century neoclassical shrine to Western liberal democracy at the east end of Washington's National Mall.

As he ran for president in 2020, the Democrat would often wax lyrical about his days in the Senate, talking up his record as a breaker of barriers and a reacher across the aisle.

But the avuncular grin dropped away as Biden assumed the role he is less known for: policeman, enforcer, the autocrat's worst nightmare.

"We are joining with our European allies to find and seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets," he said of Russia's corrupt billionaires.

"We are coming for your ill-begotten gains," he warned them, earning a rare round of approving claps from the Republican benches.

Togetherness

The rare show of togetherness over the Ukraine crisis may have left less cynical Congress watchers hopeful for a more unified, productive relationship between Democrats and Republicans in the future.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Genuine bipartisanship is something of a holy grail in deeply divided Washington, of course, and the wing of the opposition party loyal to Donald Trump for the most part could only blink, unmoved.

There are still no shortage of conservatives in Washington -- followers of the last White House occupant and more traditional establishment foreign policy hawks -- who call Biden "weak" on foreign rivals like China and Russia.

The administration needs to do much more, they argue, to secure US energy independence so that oil and gas-rich autocracies are unable to hold Americans to ransom.

Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert, an unserious carnival barker to her critics but a darling of the far-right, eschewed the Ukrainian colors to turn up in midnight black shawl emblazoned with the pro-fossil fuel message "drill baby drill."

One of Biden's harshest critics on Tuesday though was not from the so-called MAGA caucus at all.

Ukrainian-born US representative Victoria Spartz, who was embraced by many of her colleagues as she entered the chamber Tuesday night, had made a speech a few hours earlier that would have made for difficult listening in the Oval Office.

Describing the plight of her 95-year-old grandmother, pinned down under the Russian aerial bombardment in northern Ukraine, Spartz accused Biden of doing nothing to help.

"It is not a war, it's a genocide because we have a crazy man that believes that he has the whole world hostage," she said of Putin.

"And now that we have a president that talks about, talks about -- and doesn't do things... Is he going to wait when millions die and then he's going to do more?"

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