How the Ukraine crisis could benefit Biden | The report
President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda is stalled, his polls are rock bottom despite a booming economy, and he has a limited window to push things through Congress ahead of a much-anticipated GOP takeover in the House – and possibly the Senate – this fall. So when Russian President and Biden enemy Vladimir Putin began gathering troops on Ukraine’s border, threatening all-out war in Europe, it seemed like just another unnecessary crisis for an American president with a plate. already cluttered with problems.
No one wants a war, or even the economic fallout that might well come if the United States and its NATO allies impose the promised sanctions against Russia, if the remnant of the Soviet empire does indeed invade Ukraine. But as crises go, experts say, it’s the one that could benefit Biden.
Putin and Russia are familiar topics for Biden, who knows Putin personally and served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during Putin’s rise to power. While senators from Biden’s own party deny his national wish list, the question of how to handle Russia won’t involve arm-twisting senators like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
For a president who has repeatedly cast the current historic era as an inflection point between democracy and autocracy, confronting Russian aggression allows Biden to underscore a long-heralded role for the US president: leader of the free world – the emphasis on “freedom.”
“I think this is a defining moment, not just in Biden’s presidency but in Joe Biden’s long political life,” said Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. on foreign policy. “To his credit, in his campaign and afterwards, he defined this moment as an inflection point in the systemic struggle between democracies and autocracies. Now he has the challenge to execute against this diagnosis.”
Photos to see – January 2022
Biden has centered most of his first year in office on domestic issues, such as tackling the pandemic and its economic impact on Americans, passing massive infrastructure repair legislation, and promoting suffrage legislation and a sweeping domestic spending bill that are stalled in the Senate.
But throughout, he also emphasized his foreign policy credentials.
“We are living in the most dangerous moment of a generation, our world strained by an erratic and unstable president. Dictators and tyrants are praised, our allies cast aside,” said a Biden TV ad in the first months of his campaign. Photos of then-President Donald Trump, Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un were on display. “This is a time that requires strong, steady and stable leadership,” the announcement continued.
Likewise, Biden as president has discussed threats to democracy around the world, including in the United States. But the Russia-Ukraine crisis gives Biden a chance to show that conflict in real time, foreign policy analysts say. Biden could also use a foreign policy win after a disastrous pullout from Afghanistan last August.
“This is an opportunity for President Biden to show what he’s doing on the foreign policy front. He knows his stuff inside out,” said Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official. from the United States specializing in Russian and European affairs. recent webinar sponsored by The Common Good.
“In a weird way, Putin recognizes that and thinks Biden is the guy” he could work with, said Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. While Putin had a much more comfortable relationship with Trump — a fact that alarmed Democrats — the Russian leader found it “deeply frustrating” that Trump had little knowledge of the region’s history or geography, Hill said. while “Biden knows all of this. “
And unlike some domestic issues or more nuanced foreign policy issues, Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine is an easy matter for Americans to digest, especially those with a Cold War memory, says Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.
“He can talk about the traditional tropes of American foreign policy rhetoric that are impossible to refute. He can say, ‘You can’t appease dictators,'” Engel says. Just as George HW Bush drew a clear line with Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Ronald Reagan said, “Tear down this wall,” referring to the Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany, Biden has , with Russia and Putin, a way to present the situation as a battle between good and evil, he says.
“This is a defining moment, not just in Biden’s presidency but in Joe Biden’s long political life.”
Comparisons to World War II — as Biden obliquely did earlier this week when he said a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be the biggest invasion since that war and “would change the world” — work at advantage of the American president, says Engel.
“There are very few slam dunk arguments in American politics, and foreign policy in particular,” Engel says. Sitting against Hitler, a genuinely useful analogy, is a “winner.”
Biden is still recovering politically from the chaotic and violent withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. While strong majorities of the American public had favored the withdrawal from the costly war, the actual withdrawal from the 20-year conflict was disastrous, with a terrorist bomb killing 13 American servicemen at Kabul airport.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis has its own complications, Hill and others said, as Biden must manage dissenting opinions abroad and a divided country at home.
One of the reasons Putin chose this time to act on Ukraine, Hill said, is that America will be distracted this year ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. 2024 — both the U.S. presidential election and Russia’s nominal election — also complicate political factors, she said.
NATO is also a question. While several members of the security alliance have pledged to respond to any Russian incursion – Biden has put 8,500 troops on “high alert” – the enthusiasm of key alliance member Germany is murky.
Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has said Russia will face “high costs” if it invades another sovereign nation. But Germany has been less definitive on a major issue – whether to shut down the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany.
It is in Putin’s interest if he can divide Europe – or Europe and the United States – as he plots an invasion of Ukraine.
“The real key for President Biden is to bring everyone with him,” Hill said. “It’s a test of Biden’s ability to reach out to NATO allies.”
Biden could also face a blowback at home if things get worse, says Chris Miller, assistant professor of international history at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
“I think if we go into a war, the administration will respond with sanctions that will be economically costly for Europe and for the United States,” Miller said. And while Biden framed the conflict as a test of the free world’s commitment to democracy, “every president always views foreign policy through a domestic political lens.”
For Biden, domestic political fallout may not be part of his calculus, Kempe says.
“Real leaders don’t watch popularity polls,” although their campaign agents do, Kempe says. “They’re looking at history — and they’re looking at their own (place in) history. That’s why this is such a defining moment for Biden.”
And a decisive moment also for the future of Europe and the democracies of the world.