‘A crisis usually improves a president’: Ukraine gives Biden chance to lead State of the Union address as his poll numbers wane

On Tuesday night, Biden will once again deliver a primetime address to the nation, this time after a difficult first year in office where the possibility and opportunity he promised was tempered by two deadly variants of COVID that have prolonged the nation’s battle against the virus.

There is always a danger in the persistent pandemic and high inflation for decades. A crisis is raging in Ukraine. And Biden has faced setbacks in the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and his mostly stalled legislative agenda that have driven his approval rating to record lows.

But the State of the Union address offers him the opportunity to reset his struggling presidency, analysts said, and divert the conversation from the issues that have plagued his first year. The war in Ukraine gives Biden the chance to rally the nation against Russian aggression while his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court on Friday opens the door to a historic political victory that could energize Democratic voters ahead of the midterm elections. – November mandate.

“Biden has a moment here to make the pandemic and inflation secondary and really talk about how he represents the democratic nations of the world…and no matter what, we have to trump the authoritarians in whatever form. whatever,” said Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice. University.

“Momentum is everything in presidential politics and a crisis usually makes a president better,” he said. “You have to put all your chips on this speech.”

The Ukraine crisis allows Biden, who has expertise there and served for years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to demonstrate his strength as a leader, said John Anzalone, who was a top pollster for the Biden’s 2020 campaign.

“It’s Biden’s wheelhouse,” Anzalone said of foreign policy. “I don’t think he sees this as an opportunity. I think he watches it because that’s what presidents do, they step in and lead.

Biden desperately needs positive momentum as the nation struggles to get back to normal, as he promised. His popularity rating in some polls has fallen below 40% since last summer as COVID cases have risen again in recent months and it has faltered in two areas touted as its strengths: foreign policy and getting deals with Congress .

“His main promise was that the other guy is a clown and hired ‘The Addams Family.’ I’m a professional and I hire professionals and we’re not going to make those mistakes,” Republican political consultant Doug Heye said of Biden’s campaign message against Donald Trump. “Afghanistan really blossomed on that. He’s a genie that’s hard to put back in the bottle.

A Washington Post/ABC News survey released over the weekend showed the depth of Biden’s problems. His overall approval rating hit a new low of 37%. Just 36% of Americans said they thought Biden was a strong leader and just 40% said he had the mental acumen to be an effective president.

But the poll also pointed to an opportunity for him in the Ukraine crisis. Two-thirds of those polled said they supported economic sanctions against Russia by the United States and its European allies. And eight in ten said they viewed Russia as hostile or an enemy of the United States.

Political historian Allan Lichtman of American University said Biden needed to be more forceful in drawing a line against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression and needed to convince the American public of the importance of standing up to him.

“It’s not just a distant war in a place you couldn’t plot on a map. It directly affects our well-being,” Lichtman said. He thinks Biden is up to the task, calling him of “fairly effective communicator”.

“He’s not Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, but he’s not bad,” Lichtman said.

Rep. Katherine Clark, the Reverend Democrat who is the Deputy Speaker of the House, said she hoped Biden would highlight his successes — including passing a sweeping COVID relief package and the bipartisan 1.2 trillion dollars. infrastructure bill.

“It has been a historically difficult time for Americans and he has met this historic challenge with historic progress,” she said. “I hope he will explain this to the American people, about how far he has come in the first year of his presidency and his commitment to seeing it through and addressing the ongoing challenges that families face with solutions. “

Biden will likely highlight progress on COVID as the nation emerges from the worst effects of the Omicron variant. In a sign of hope for a return to normality, Biden will address a chamber of the House without a requirement for social distancing or a mask after the revision of guidelines last week from the Centers for Disease Control that classified Washington and the most of America as low-risk areas. .

But addressing the Ukraine crisis should be a crucial part of the discourse, Brinkley said, and would allow Biden to redefine himself as a wartime president even if U.S. forces aren’t fighting there. He noted that the public did not view Reagan as strong on foreign policy at the beginning of 1984, but he reversed that with an inspirational speech in Normandy, France, on the 40th anniversary of D-Day.

“He skyrocketed in public estimation because of the way he spoke about the liberation of Europe, democracy and our armed forces,” Brinkley said. “Reagan became foreign policy president without going to war.”

Biden could do the same during the Russian invasion of Ukraine by highlighting the stakes for the United States and other democracies and demonstrating that he is “ideally suited to be commander-in-chief at a time of peril. where we must avoid World War III,” Brinkley mentioned.

“What Biden has going for him is that he’s not hated, but there’s a creeping feeling that he’s too old and maybe incompetent,” he said. “He must therefore present himself as the vigorous Joe Biden, who is the right voice to promote our democratic values ​​at a time when authoritarianism is rearing its ugly head in Eastern Europe.”

Many Republicans have criticized Biden’s handling of war preparations in Ukraine, arguing that he was not aggressive enough in his dealings with Russia and emboldened Putin by mediocrity in the United States. managed the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, President Biden has always chosen appeasement and his tough rhetoric on Russia has never been followed by strong action,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and others GOP leaders. said in a joint statement last week after the invasion began.

Heye doesn’t think Biden has much to gain politically by showing leadership now on Ukraine given the invasion happened on his watch. But he said Biden needed to project strength in his State of the Union address.

“He needs voters to look at him and say, ‘I’m comfortable with this man leading us through this crisis,'” Heye said.

Jim Puzzanghera can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.

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