He must recognize the fatigue, suffering and pessimism in a nation exhausted by the Covid-19 pandemic, rocked by rising inflation and high gas prices and now suddenly thrown by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into the worst geopolitical crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Then he must somehow conjure optimism about better times to come ahead of this year’s midterms as he faces ebbing confidence among Americans that he has the plans, skills and endurance to end the crises.
At the same time, the President needs to send a message of US resolve amid fears the Ukraine crisis could spin out of control and trigger a direct clash with Russia, which has the world’s most nuclear warheads. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN’s Matthew Chance on Tuesday that Biden needs to give a “useful” message during the speech.
“It’s very serious … I’m not in a movie,” Zelensky, a former comedy actor, told CNN. “I’m not iconic, I think Ukraine is iconic … Ukraine is the heart of Europe, and now I think Europe sees Ukraine is something special for this world. That’s why [the] world can’t lose this something special.”
But any further escalation with Putin, who on Sunday ordered his nuclear deterrent to higher alert, carries significant risks.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine shattered 30 years of relative peace in Europe after the end of the Cold War. The battle for Ukraine is the first real fight in the new war for dominance between autocracy and democracy, which the President has long predicted.
Biden faces a rhetorical balancing act. He needs to avoid the impression that his role as the leader of the free world is distracting him from economic pain, rising crime, and the cascade of domestic crises that he inherited and promised to fix but has not yet done so.
The unpromising political environment for Democrats – partly bequeathed by a President whose approval rating has dipped to 40% in CNN’s average of the most recent national polls – is already playing out in nascent 2022 election campaigns around the country, where Democrats are finding out that strong job growth and an economic bounce-back despite the Omicron wave are being disguised by rising prices of basic goods. The Ukraine crisis is only driving gas prices higher.
The Biden administration argues it has racked up a strong record of success, including the rollout of millions of vaccine doses, a pandemic relief plan that dramatically reduced child poverty and a bipartisan infrastructure law that eluded three recent presidents. But Biden’s sweeping social spending and climate change bill has stalled, owing to obstruction by two moderate Senate Democrats, to the dismay of progressive base voters.
Biden was never able to connect the long-term benefits of more home health care for seniors, free pre-K education and vast spending on new-generation energy sources to the immediate economic pain Americans have been facing.
The fate of his agenda may depend on Biden finally doing so on Tuesday night.
When administration officials highlight the number of months of positive job growth or other statistics showing progress, they may be making a “technically correct” case, said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican strategist and county party chair.
But he added: “It just doesn’t really reflect the mood that’s out there right now.”
And the news in Ukraine is only further complicating Biden’s efforts to connect with those everyday concerns.
Responding to Russia
As Putin faces stronger-than-expected resistance in Ukraine, US officials and their allies are warily trying to anticipate his next moves as satellite images showed a more than 40-mile-long Russian military convoy reaching the outskirts of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
After a classified briefing late Monday, several senators said they expect Russia to escalate its invasion as they called for additional military and humanitarian assistance.
The UN confirmed on Monday that more than 500,000 refugees have fled Ukraine. And the acute danger faced by those who have stayed was heightened as Russian forces bombarded a residential area in Kharkiv, killing nine civilians, including three children, according to the city’s mayor. Another 37 people were wounded.
Late Monday night, Zelensky accused Russia of war crimes as he described the attack on Kharkiv from jet artillery – noting that Russian forces have launched 56 missile strikes and 113 cruise missiles in Ukraine over the span of five days.
“Kharkiv is a peaceful city. There are peaceful residential areas, no military facilities. Dozens of eyewitness accounts prove that this is not a single false volley, but deliberate destruction of people: the Russians knew where they were shooting,” Zelensky said. “There will definitely be an international tribunal for this crime – it’s a violation of all conventions. No one in the world will forgive you for killing peaceful Ukrainian people.”
The Biden administration is hoping that the crippling financial sanctions that have now been placed on Putin, his inner circle and the broader Russian economy will accelerate a resolution to the crisis as Russia finds itself in an increasingly isolated position, largely cut off from the world banking system. By Monday, the ruble had crashed to a record low against the dollar and the Russian central bank more than doubled interest rates to 20%.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden will use his Tuesday address to highlight the global coalition that he helped build to sanction Russia, as well as the steps he has taken to “mitigate the impact of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, on the global economy and the American people.” She argued that Putin, through his actions, has become “one of the greatest unifiers of NATO in modern history,” another theme Biden is all but certain to touch on Tuesday.
Biden ran for president touting his ability to repair and rebuild alliances abroad after four years of turbulence under former President Donald Trump. Though he did not initially expect Ukraine to be a focus of his State of the Union address, he may now be able to point to the united front of the US and its allies against Russia as evidence of the fruits of those labors.
Though it is still too early in the conflict to predict how voters will assess Biden’s handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, only 42% of Americans in a new CNN/SSRS poll say they trust him at least moderately to make the right decisions regarding the situation in Ukraine – a number that is both in line with his overall approval rating and the deep polarization of the country.
Even though his address is now expected to be more foreign policy focused, the President still needs to show how he is trying to shepherd the nation out of the Covid-19 pandemic while contending with the sour mood of voters hit by inflation and high gas prices – a problem that may only get worse as Goldman Sachs predicts that oil prices are likely to spike to $115 a barrel following the Russian invasion. In another ominous sign for Biden after consumer prices rose to a near-40-year-high in January, the investment bank’s economists warned in new report Sunday that “the inflation picture has worsened this winter” and “how much it will improve later this year is now in question.”
One positive note for Biden is that the third spring of the pandemic is looking like its brightest. In the days ahead of the prime-time address, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new Covid-19 metrics suggesting that only about 28% of Americans live in a county where they need to wear masks indoors – a signal that the pandemic is waning and that people are resuming their normal lives.
State of the Union coincides with 2022 election kick off
The Biden agenda faces its first test even before he speaks Tuesday, as Texas voters head to the polls in the first congressional primaries in the nation.
Anthony Trejo, a 39-year-old Houston bartender who voted for Biden in 2020, said the President has handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine well because he has avoided direct military involvement.
“As much as we want to help, there are consequences of helping that can be pretty bad,” Trejo said. Biden, he said, “is in a no-win situation.”
No one expects the midterms to be waged over Ukraine and foreign policy issues, but Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who represents West Houston and its suburbs, said Americans have witnessed “really skilled, thoughtful and engaged diplomacy” and that “there is an opportunity for Americans to come together here around this issue.”
Still, the drag of Biden’s low approval rating will be felt by Democrats even more acutely in red states like Texas, where Trump defeated Biden by 6 points, a slightly narrower margin than he posted four years earlier. But few are expecting those Democratic gains to hold in November, particularly when Trump – who alienated many voters in the suburbs – is not on the ballot.
Voters in key swing states who are looking for someone to blame for the pinch in their pocketbooks give voice to the President’s precarious position. Texas voters from both parties told CNN they thought Biden and the Democratic Congress handed out too much Covid-related aid and benefits – even though earlier aid packages began under Trump and were supported by Republicans.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel told reporters on a pre-State of the Union rebuttal call Monday that Democrats were to blame for pain in the checkout line and at the pump, as well as what she called “muddled” Covid-19 guidance and rising crime in cities.
“Republicans have the wind at their back at the moment,” said Mackowiak. “We’ll see how voters evaluate this Ukraine situation – we’re in the early hours of that still. But one of the risks the Dems have is that more happy talk about the economy risks them looking really out of touch. Unless you’re really, really, wealthy already and you’re using your capital in a creative way, there are very few people who are doing really well right now, who feel like the economy’s going great.”
But James Aldrete, a Texas Democratic strategist, noted that there are risks for Republicans in this moment, too, as the GOP continues to test the limits on culture war issues – which have been wielded as a torch by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott as he fends off challenges from his right.
“There’s no doubt that Biden’s numbers across the country are struggling. There’s no doubt that Democrats are concerned about that (potential) backslide out of the suburban vote,” Aldrete said. But he said he’s closely watching whether Republicans can hang on to college-educated voters as GOP candidates continue to embrace Trump-like rhetoric.
As Biden addresses the nation, the few competitive races in Texas are offering some evidence of how Democratic candidates may navigate the President’s troubles this year.
Beto O’Rourke, the top Democrat challenging Abbott who narrowly lost his 2018 bid, has kept a laser focus on last year’s power grid failures that left millions of Texans without electricity or running water in the midst of below-freezing temperatures. He has blamed Abbott for higher electricity costs and utility bills, shifting the focus to pocketbook concerns more tied to Austin than Washington, DC.
“No one’s really asking me about Congress or President Biden or federal issues,” O’Rourke said in a recent interview in Brownsville as he knocked on doors. “They want Texas to get on the right track,” he said.
Eric Bradner contributed to this report.