Biden turns his focus from Ukraine war to kitchen table issues at home as midterms loom

Even as the Bucha atrocities unfolded on television screens around the world this week, even in the West Wing, where an outraged Biden and his team watched in horror, there were no specific events to address the grim images.

The change comes as Biden and his team assess a troubling political landscape complicated by the domino effect of harsh economic sanctions imposed on Moscow. Other recent developments, including the decision to lift pandemic-era restrictions on the border, have contributed to heightened unease among Democrats about the November election. And a recent spike in Covid-19 cases among Biden’s inner circle has acted as a reminder of the virus’s continued presence.

Biden’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has done little to boost his flagging political position, despite generating unprecedented unity among Western allies. As the White House prepares for what officials believe will be a protracted conflict, there has been a clear effort to try to break the cover of wall-to-wall war with Biden’s domestic priorities.

“We can do more than one thing at a time,” a senior administration official told CNN. “We have a story to tell at home and it’s only natural that we focus on that as much as possible.”

It’s a move in line with seemingly simple advice from President Barack Obama to Democrats this week.

Obama, making a triumphant return to the White House to celebrate his landmark healthcare bill alongside his previous No. 2, offered a prescription for Democrats who fatalistically anticipate a drubbing in this year’s midterm elections.

“We have a story to tell,” the former president said. he said matter-of-factly as he walked out of the East Room. “We just have to tell it.”

Yet how to tell the story of economic revival amid a grueling war that has rattled the global economy and worried the administration’s time has become a defining challenge for Biden as he warns the conflict in Ukraine will not end. early.

A shift to focus on the home front, but Ukraine remains a priority

The change is intentional, according to White House officials, and in direct response to concern from Democrats in Congress seeking midterm elections at a time when Biden’s approval ratings are at an all-time low. of his presidency.

The newfound attention to domestic issues is unlikely to change any time soon, an official said, with Biden tentatively scheduled to hit the road at a regular pace over the next few weeks to highlight issues that have been central. for White House messaging efforts over the past two weeks.

Yet that was the plan weeks ago after Biden delivered his State of the Union address, a speech that was heavily revised to include a 12-minute opening section on the crisis in Ukraine. Biden visited Duluth, Minnesota and Fort Worth, Texas, but plans for a stronger sales tour were overwhelmed by events abroad.

When Biden spoke to a construction trade group at a Washington hotel this week, he began his remarks by denouncing “major war crimes” underway in Ukraine. But he didn’t spend time in an event dedicated to the set of sanctions he was revealing that day, opting instead to announce them to builders.

“This war could continue for a long time, but the United States will continue to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the fight for freedom. And I just want you to know that,” Biden told the crowd of unionized workers, adding. an aside as he transitioned into a speech on the economy: “By the way, if I have to go to war, I’ll go with you.”

Behind the scenes, aides say much of Biden’s daily schedule remains taken up by events unfolding in Eastern Europe, including briefings from aides and secure phone calls to foreign leaders. Biden, a longtime foreign policy expert, has become intimately involved with the crisis and conceived of last month’s in-person summits in Brussels himself, deciding it was important to meet face-to-face with his counterparts.

This week a new round of sanctions was implemented, the result of intense negotiations and coordination with the allies of the G7 and the European Union. New lethal aid arrives every day, with Biden moving to meet a direct request from Ukraine for $100 million in new Javelin anti-armor systems this week.

However, it has been mainly Biden’s top cabinet officials and deputies who have become the face of the US response at press conferences and briefings. That has left Biden focused almost entirely on his domestic agenda.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, briefed reporters with the latest US intelligence assessment of Russia’s evolving military objectives and a clear message to allies that what appears to be a protracted crisis requires a lasting united front.

“Bucha’s images reinforce so powerfully that now is not the time for complacency. Ukrainians are courageously defending their homeland and the United States will continue to support them with military assistance, humanitarian aid and economic support,” Sullivan told reporters on Monday.

The Biden administration, Sullivan added, is “working around the clock” to meet requests for security assistance from Ukraine, detailing the response from the United States and its allies so far and hinting at “additional military assistance in the coming days.” “.

Biden himself did not schedule an appearance to speak about Russia on Monday. Instead, he delivered a minute-long impromptu statement to reporters as he returned to Washington after a weekend in Delaware.

“I have a comment to make before the day begins,” he said, making it clear he was not interested in a lengthy exchange of views on Russia. “You may remember that I was criticized for calling Putin a war criminal. Well, the truth of the matter: you saw what happened in Bucha. This justifies it: he is a war criminal.”

Kitchen table problems rise to the top after European trip

The attempt to limit Biden’s public focus on Russia is not by accident, aides say.

While the American public has shown broad approval for supporting Ukraine, their main focus remains on the pocketbook issues they feel comfortable with. And while Biden enjoyed a small boost in his approval ratings in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the bump fizzled out after a few weeks as Americans turned their attention to domestic issues.

A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed that 30% of Americans said inflation was the most urgent problem facing the country. Less than half that number named the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Other polls have shown that rising prices and inflation are overwhelmingly on the minds of Americans and not the conflict in Ukraine.

Upon his return to Washington from Warsaw, Biden’s public agenda has reflected that reality, with events ranging from a carefully calibrated budget rollout to try to unlock key components of his agenda to remarks highlighting the achievements of his first year, including the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the $1.9 trillion US Bailout Plan.

The only event with a direct link to the Ukraine crisis was designed for a national audience: the announcement of a historic release of one million barrels of oil per day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over the next six months.

The move was a direct response to market instability fueled by one of the world’s largest oil producers launching a war against a Western ally. In his comments, Biden used the phrase “Putin’s price gouging” four times.

“Our prices are rising because of Putin’s actions, there is not enough supply,” Biden said. “And the bottom line is: If we want lower gasoline prices, we need to have more oil supply right now.”

Biden’s monthly jobs report comments last week highlighted an economic recovery that is still humming, despite headwinds from inflation at 40-year highs and the market effects of Russia’s stocks.

There was an event highlighting the administration’s efforts to support the trucking industry, with Biden’s podium surrounded by large trucks on the South Lawn.

And then there was Obama’s first return to the White House since the day Donald Trump took office to highlight a host of efforts by Biden to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. The event was conceived by Biden advisers to announce the now-popular healthcare bill while also bringing in a popular former president to inject a spark into White House messaging.

White House officials billed it as a “celebration” of the law, but conspicuously it was not tied to any particular date or anniversary. The event marked 12 years and 13 days from the moment Obama’s landmark legislative achievement was signed into law.

The war in the Ukraine did not come about just once, despite both men’s complex histories with the crisis.

As Biden left the East Room after meeting with his former boss, he tried to stay on message. When asked when war crimes could be labeled genocide, he demurred.

“Let’s talk about health care,” he said before leaving.

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