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Joe Biden is a product of the Cold War era. With Russian tanks rolling across Ukraine, that fact is starting to seem less like a relic and more a reward after five decades in Washington.
Elected to the Senate during Leonid Brezhnev’s time as the Soviet Union’s leader, Biden spent much of his career in Washington hanging out on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, climbing in seniority and eventually becoming its top Democrat. By the time he was in his second term, Biden was in talks with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping about Soviet nukes and later in Moscow to discuss the same weapons with the Kremlin. What Biden lacked in book smarts about foreign policy, he compensated for with hustle and his broad grin. “There’s an old Chinese saying: better to travel 10,000 miles than read 10,000 books,” Biden would say frequently during his 2020 presidential campaign. And voters, after four years of Donald Trump’s isolationist approach to foreign policy, were ready to buy what Biden was selling.
In recent months, that hustle and a Rolodex built over the decades has served Biden and his team well as they’ve coordinated one of the most unified sanctions packages against Russia in history. And as Biden heads to the Capitol tonight for his first State of the Union address, his familiarity with foreign affairs is sure to be on display during a speech that in typical years is as much about the domestic agenda as the one abroad.
Biden is heading back to the Hill facing plenty of political problems at home. Polls show Biden underwater—more disapprove of his job performance than approve of it—and a public deeply pessimistic about the direction of the country. His numbers are at a new low for his first term and his work building a coalition to sanction Russia is, at least for now, paying him no political dividends. His domestic Build Back Better plan remains parked in the Senate, previous attempts to overhaul policing seem dead for the rest of this year, and a climate package seems to be shrinking rapidly. Even his nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court hasn’t sparked much of a sizzle in the polls.
So Biden is expected to illustrate his core competency of the presidency during this evening’s speech, which will unfold with members of Congress in the chamber but none of the typical guests watching from the gallery one floor above. Biden’s deeply personal touch in negotiations may have failed to get the likes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to climb aboard his domestic agenda, but it did land foreign allies behind a unified raft of sanctions against Moscow, including against some individuals in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
The sanctions chase wasn’t easy. Congress failed to finish work on a pre-invasion sanctions package, leaving it to the Administration to pursue one of its own. While some lawmakers in Congress urged Biden to just impose sanctions on his own to deter Putin from invading Ukraine, Biden resisted the calls and ignored the punditry, telling his team that pre-emptive sanctions would only provoke the Russian President further. Instead, Biden rearranged U.S. forces in Europe to have the backs of NATO members—a move that goaded other nations to follow. And the quick clip of declassification of intelligence about Putin’s strategy was meant as a soft nudge to Russia, the spycraft equivalent of a parent telling a child, I see what you’re doing.
But just off the screen, Biden’s team built a scaffolding of sanctions that effectively cut off Russia’s access to a ton of Western capital once Putin advanced into Ukraine. Many of the sanctions architects on Biden’s team were veterans of the 2014 series of moves imposed after Russia invaded Crimea, which had little real effect on Putin’s policies. This time, Biden wants to go tougher and with a coalition that could lock Putin out of accessing dollars, pounds, euros or yen.
Americans tend to rally around its wartime Presidents. That hasn’t happened yet, but the non-stop news coverage is impossible to miss. And, in an era of social media, images purporting to be Russian targeting of civilians—and Ukrainian civilians’ willingness to fight back—have spread the story of Ukrainian resilience and Russian belligerence better than any Soviet-era propaganda.
To be sure, there is still plenty of risk for Biden’s sanctions gambit to go badly. U.S. forces are not fighting in Ukraine, but their technology and dollars are engaged. Putin has shown he’s more than willing to launch cyber attacks on the United States. And don’t discount Putin’s appetite for revenge by proxy; just ask Hillary Clinton about her stolen emails as retribution for her tougher line against Moscow as Secretary of State.
Democrats are also bracing for the economic hit at home. Inflation already has become a campaign issue, as TIME’s Abby Vesoulis writes in a great story about how it’s unfolding in one Iowa House race. And Russia’s isolation from the world is all but guaranteed to lead to a surge in energy costs as its oil and gas become more valuable, especially for its European customers. Add to that the costs of funding the reboot of such Cold War efforts and deficit hawks can have their day. (Bashing Biden, of course, would require those same hawks to ignore the tax cuts and profligate spending that came under Trump.)
Finally, the sanctions don’t bear fruit immediately. It takes time for sanctions to have teeth, and study after study has found their utility is limited. Sanctions are a tool but not a solution, despite their rapid expansion. (A Treasury Department review last year found the number of sanctions on the books grew tenfold between 2000 and 2021, with more than 9,400 groups or persons facing penalties; few would argue the world is a safer place as a result.)
Still, Biden knows how to tell a story. He doesn’t channel Irish poets for fun; he does it because it works with his crowds. For Biden, looking to restore the public’s faith in his competency argument, traveling back to the U.S.S.R. may be a one-way ticket to a second act. And with Congress increasingly unable to act on much else this year, pivoting to how he’s helped restore America’s role in the world may prove wise for Biden in tonight’s speech—especially if Washington isn’t going to let him pass any major domestic policies before the midterms.
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