President Biden will step into the House next Tuesday to deliver his first State of the Union address. That’s when America will find out how he has chosen to address the defining moment of his presidency.
Read More Opinion Coverage of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine
There will be time aplenty to plumb the West’s misjudgment and mishandling of Vladimir Putin up to now. But the failure can bluntly be summed up as a lack of seriousness. Mr. Putin spent years offering bloody proof of his intention to expand “Mother Russia” —in the Crimea, the Donbas, Abkhazia, South Ossetia. The US and Western Europe tsk-tsked, then returned to slashing military budgets, debating new welfare handouts and handing their energy security over to Russia for the cause of “decarbonization.” Mr. Putin amassed an army on Ukraine’s border while the US debated mask mandates and personal pronouns.
The costs of this frivolousness are now being borne by a sovereign Ukraine under attack, and by a world at dangerous new threat from authoritarianism. The two opposing Biden paths are clear. He can reorient his presidency around this threat, using his State of the Union to prepare the American people for a new geopolitical reality, and follow in Truman’s footsteps to establish a new global architecture to confront a new Cold War. Or he can tsk, ladle out a few more sanctions, and return to Build Back Better and the Green New Deal. Watch to see how those State of the Union minutes are divided.
Mr. Biden — and the world — has everything to gain from the first path. The West has the ability to impose crushing costs on Russia that could lead to Mr. Putin’s ouster. But European nations remain divided — and focused on their Prada pocketbooks. On Thursday Mr. Biden announced more US sanctions on Russian banks but was forced to admit that certain European nations (Germany and Italy) remain opposed to the obvious step of kicking Russia out of the Swift banking system. Europeans also remain pathetically unwilling to provide for their own security, or to untether themselves from Russian gas.
This is a moment for US leadership, not diplomatic round robins. Nothing stops Mr. Biden from unilaterally blocking Russia from Swift, a move that could shame Europeans into action. A Biden commitment to rebuild US defense budgets and bolster the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would allow the administration to pressure European nations for the same. So would a US plan to double down on domestic energy production, coupled with a promise to increase energy exports to European countries that follow suit and cut ties with Russia.
This is also the president’s chance to reset his domestic standing. Key Senate Democrats (New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, Virginia’s Mark Warner) have already signaled they have his back on tougher Russia measures. And Russia has inspired most Republicans to re-embrace their national-security bona fides. Some 80% of GOP senators co-sponsored ranking Foreign Relations Committee member Jim Risch’s Russian sanctions package, and even Missouri populist Sen. Josh Hawley this week mustered some anti-Putin outrage. This provides Mr. Biden a huge opening to build bipartisan alliances on national security (in the process neutralizing criticism), and to make good in part on his campaign promise of unity. So would a domestic energy plan, which would get GOP support and play well with a US public fearful of rising fuel prices.
If the policy and political benefits of this all seem obvious, don’t underestimate the ability of Mr. Biden’s progressive wing to lead him down the wrong path. Progressive groups are already arguing (surreally) that Mr. Biden’s response to Russia should be to double down on their unpopular agenda. According to the Center for American Progress, the US should “press Europe to engage in a wartime-like mobilization to decarbonize.” Progressive groups are wailing about “military escalation,” while Congressional Progressive Caucus Chairman Pramila Jayapal bemoans the “hundreds of millions of dollars” flowing to “lethal weapons” rather than her ambition of free child care.
Mr. Biden will be reluctant to alienate this crazy minority, but the policy and political ramifications of taking their dictation at this moment would be catastrophic. Any hint of Biden weakness will lead to more aggression and crises abroad. At home, it will increasingly put him at cross-purposes with his party’s more serious foreign-policy voices. His embrace of a progressive agenda would feed inflation, especially energy prices, and further erode public confidence in Democrats’ ability to handle national security. Republicans — while currently more than willing to work with Mr. Biden on Russia — are also more than primed to make national security a defining midterm issue if he blinks.
Mr. Biden’s first Thursday response to the Ukrainian invasion offered a mixed bag — tough talk on Russia, but also progressive talking points (such as pre-emptively demagoguing oil and gas producers for any price hikes). Yet he can’t have it both ways, and by Tuesday he’ll have had plenty of time for the choosing. Will it be an emboldened, reset Biden presidency? Or more progressive puerility, as per usual?
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Appeared in the February 25, 2022, print edition as ‘Biden’s Time for Choosing.’