Putin pushes Biden to walk a State of the Union tightrope

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., April 28, 2021.  Melina Mara/Pool via REUTERS

For weeks, President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address was viewed as an opportunity to change the conversation around the economy and communicate to the American people how a recovering economy is getting stronger. But the opportunity to change the domestic narrative has been upset by Russian President Vladimir Putin. And now, Biden’s speech must balance critically important messages on dramatically different topics.

On Tuesday night, the president can not take for granted that every American understands and supports the need to intervene. Therefore, his pitch must focus as much on the “why” as the “what.” President Biden has made it clear that he does not intend to put American boots on the ground. For political elites, the response of the U.S. and our allies to defend Ukraine and to hobble Russia is an obvious choice. However, that choice is likely not as obvious to some number of everyday Americans. There has always been an isolationist current in American politics that finds homes in both the far-right wing of the Republican Party and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party. Other more moderate Americans may wonder why we are so concerned with the events of foreign countries thousands of miles away, while so many problems still exist at home.

So, the first objective in the State of the Union must be to explain why these efforts are important. President Biden must highlight both the importance of stable democracy in Eastern Europe and the interconnected economic and security interests the United States has in that region. He should speak clearly and powerfully about our shared interests with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people and how the American response is about more than just Ukraine; it is about democracy, sovereignty, and the integrity of people across the world. The internationalists will be skeptical that sanctions can work; the isolationists will think that any residual pain is too much. But the president must do all he can to convince as many Americans as possible that these issues are essential to the American cause at home and abroad.

In some ways, Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine presents President Biden with an opportunity to bring Americans together. As he deploys multiple rounds of stiff sanctions against Russia and coordinates similar sanctions with allies across the world, President Biden can rededicate America’s leadership on the world stage as a defender of democracy. At the same time, while the initial tranche of sanctions were met with some opposition among Republicans in Congress, expanding sanctions should provide a basis of unity across political parties and branches of government. There has been near-universal condemnation of Putin’s unprovoked war, with the exception of former President Donald Trump, who has now firmly established himself among the ilk of fringe political and media voices.

President Biden’s second objective must be to explain the sanctions and what they will mean for Russia’s near-term economic and long-term military strength. President Biden should build on his Thursday afternoon speech in which he specified both the sanctions and their impacts for Russia. For example, on Thursday, he noted, “we have now sanctioned Russian banks that together hold around $1 trillion in assets and have cut off their largest bank, which holds more than one-third of their banking assets by itself … we are also blocking four more major banks, meaning every asset they have in American will be frozen.” He continued, “On Tuesday we stopped the Russian government from raising money from U.S. or European investors. Now we will apply the same restrictions to their largest state-owned enterprises, companies with assets that exceed $1.4 trillion.” The president explained how these moves and others will impact Russia and its people. He said, “Some of the most powerful impacts of our actions will come over time as we squeeze Russian access to finances, technology, strategic sectors of their economy, and degrading its industrial capacity for years to come … it will strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military, degrading their aerospace industry, including their space program.”

Understanding not only what sanctions are, but how they impact the sanctioned country and targeted entities is complicated policy. President Biden must, in his address next Tuesday, boil it down the complexities in precisely this way, so that every American—not just international financial experts—can understand what this will mean for Russia and Putin.

However, Biden’s third objective may well be his most difficult. He will need to explain that economic sanctions against Russia may be felt in the pockets of all Americans. Uncertainty in markets, disruptions to the global energy supplies, additional increases in the cost of goods, travel disruptions to some parts of the world may all arise as a secondary effect of our and our allies’ decision to sanction Russia. Once again, it is imperative that the president explain why that temporary challenge in America is critical to maintaining democracy around the world. He should draw parallels to other periods in our history, most notably World War II, during which Americans made sacrifices because another dictator was marching across Europe annexing democratic countries wherever he felt entitled to the territory.

Those sacrifices will be a hard sell to many Americans who just endured a significant economic recession because of COVID-19. Those same sacrifices also disrupt the general message the president wants and needs to present to the broader public; that the American economy is robust and growing rapidly. Job creation is at record levels, GDP growth is soaring (Q4 was revised up to a 7% growth rate this week), and other indicators of economic health offer the president an important platform for claiming success. However, decades-high inflation has hurt and continues to worry many Americans, and economic sanctions may make those challenges even harder. The president, then, faces a tricky task that requires a speech not from Joe Biden, Washington insider, but from Scranton Joe, the Everyman from Pennsylvania and Delaware. He must find a way to highlight his administration’s public health and related economic successes, speak starkly about the challenge that inflation presents and how it is holding many Americans back, lay the foundation for the ways the administration will deal with inflation and its fallout, yet ready Americans for the need to prepare for fallout from the necessary Russian sanctions. That’s a tall order for any president, and if President Biden can manage it, he can use the current domestic and international uncertainty as an opportunity to build support at home. If he fails, the risk exists for a further decay in his already low approval ratings.

This year’s State of the Union address was supposed to be an opportunity for President Biden to reset the conversation around the American economy, lay out a plan to combat inflation, highlight the infrastructure projects happening as a result of his signature legislation, reassure Americans that we are entering a more encouraging phase of the pandemic, and discuss the resume of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Vladimir Putin’s march into Ukraine has thrown this plan out the window. And so, this speech is a major test of whether our nation’s most experienced sitting president can balance numerous policy and geopolitical challenges, while unifying, motivating, and preparing the American public for what may be difficult days ahead.