Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.
In the span of one remarkable week, President Joe Biden unfurled the most aggressive and unified sanctions ever leveled against Russia, watched as President Vladimir Putin shrugged them off and invaded Ukraine anyway, and the American leader delivered the most consequential speech to Congress of his five-decade career.
As the week unfolded and the fallout from Russia’s invasion continued, I chatted by email with two longtime strategists and pals who launched their own consulting firms. On the left, Christy Setzer has been in some of the highest-stakes rooms over the last two decades, including working for three presidential campaigns and two of the nation’s biggest unions. She is a frequent guest on the cable circuit, often taking the invites most Democrats bypass for sessions sparring with Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs.
On the right, Alex Conant has been mainstream Republicans’ go-to hand for stable communications and competent media strategies. A veteran of two presidential campaigns and dozens of congressional campaigns, he’s also a former Republican National Committee and Bush 43 White House spokesman. He has never been accused of sugar-coating advice to clients.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: Diving right in: How do you prepare for tomorrow’s State of the Union given the unresolved situation in Ukraine? Do you let Putin overtake what historically has been a domestic speech? The Axis of Evil rhetoric from the 2002 SOTU comes to mind as an iconic creep of foreign policy into such a speech. Should we be watching for something similar? Or does President Biden just plow through with a posture indifferent to Putin?
Alex Conant: The goal of any SOTU is to make the case for the Administration’s record and build support for the agenda. To what extent a SOTU should focus on domestic versus international priorities depends entirely on what the President’s top priorities are.
Christy Setzer: I envision a two-part speech: leaning-in hard on Ukraine first, then shifting to domestic priorities, but in a way that connects the two—how we’re standing up for American values at home and abroad.
Elliott: If you’re a member of Congress watching this unfold, how much of tomorrow’s response is tempered given the foreign consideration? Or do constituents just not care at this point?
Conant: Biden will likely find Ukraine to be one of the few areas where both sides of the aisle stand in enthusiastic applause. Expect to see a lot of blue-yellow ties, scarfs, and lapel pins in the audience. Considering how important the information and images are in this war, in many ways the image of a unified U.S. government will be more important than any policy that Biden can announce. Biden should and will lean into that.
Setzer: On Ukraine, President Biden needs to connect the dots on why we care: not just because there’s a potential for nuclear war—though, to me, that is admittedly compelling—but also because of what we stand for as Americans. It’s the same things the Ukrainians stand for. Democracy over authoritarianism. Standing up for the little guy. Collective action, sacrifice and selflessness, coming together in the face of an enormous uphill battle.
Conant: Biden’s domestic agenda has mostly stalled, and I’m sure he will try to use this speech to build some momentum. But one of his problems is that Democrats have so many priorities that they actually have no priorities. For political reasons he will want and need to give equal attention to inflation, infrastructure, education, climate change, voting rights, union priorities, his new SCOTUS nominee, and COVID—and I’m probably forgetting something. Assuming that the politically divisive laundry list comes after the emotional, unified Ukraine section at the top of the speech, it’s really hard to imagine that his domestic agenda builds any momentum.
Setzer: State of the Union addresses are supposed to make us feel united. “The state of our union is strong.” No better way to do that than in the face of a common enemy, and a reminder of our core beliefs. Then he needs to carry the metaphor through when talking about domestic priorities. Common enemy #2: COVID.
There’s a lot Americans should feel good about right now, and don’t. (See also: Biden’s approval ratings.) So after reminding us what it means to be American, what it means to be in a thriving democracy, he has a lot of dot-connecting to do on the economy. Record job growth. Emerging from a pandemic. We’re not there yet, but we’re very much on the right path.
Elliott: We’re only a few minutes into this speech. Is it me or is Biden bringing some vengeance to this SOTU? I feel like the President is delivering a sermon on Ukraine more than a political speech.
Setzer: Definitely. He’s leaning on that Senate Foreign Relations Committee background. And from a purely political perspective, why wouldn’t you stay as long as possible on the topic that gets you bipartisan standing Os?
Conant: Totally agree. Biden won the election precisely because primary and general election voters thought he’d be better in a crisis like this. He needed to seize the moment and use it to put maximum pressure on Putin. He said the right things, and that will be the headline tomorrow. But the transition to a divisive and stalled domestic agenda was so awkward. You could feel the air leaving the room (and the viewers switching to Netflix).
Elliott: So, where does the White House go from here? Where does the Senate go?
Setzer: Here’s the problem: Biden seemed to do very well with independents and the soft middle with that speech, but he may have actively hurt himself with progressives. That laundry list of domestic agenda items? I would’ve spent that valuable real estate on thematics: more on who we are and why it matters. Pivot to accountability. Where was January 6th in his speech? When we decide to “look forward, not back,” when the rear view mirror has a lot of criminality and treason, you send the message that we’ll look the other way on active crimes in the name of bipartisanship. That’s a terrible message.
Some of my clients were also angry today about “fund the police,” which seemed like a stick in the eye of Black voters who delivered the Senate to Dems last January. And why was Manchin sitting on the Republican side? Bottom line: Biden may have brought in the middle at the expense of the left, making real accomplishments in Congress even more challenging.
Elliott: So, as we wrap up this week, I’m grateful for your time and candor. Heading into the next week, what should we be watching more closely? What are you flagging for clients?
Conant: The biggest news next week will be whatever happens in Ukraine. It’s an incredibly volatile and tragic situation that will continue to dominate Washington’s agenda for the foreseeable future. There’s other stuff going on—the government-funding bill and the SCOTUS nomination—but none of it will capture much attention as long as there’s a war in Europe.
Setzer: Top news this week is, of course, any developments on Ukraine, and this continued odd experience of unity in Congress. Second, whether Biden can leverage the great new jobs report to address the disconnect between how Americans feel about the economy and how the economy is actually doing.
Elliott: This has been really helpful. I’m very glad we were able to chat.
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