WASHINGTON — With the final nine unscripted words of an impassioned speech about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, President Joe Biden created an unsettling distraction, undermining his effectiveness as he returned home to confront restless Americans who strongly disapprove of his performance on the issues that matter most to them.
His comment that Russia’s Vladimir Putin “can’t stay in power” – a claim his aides were forced to quickly clean up – overshadowed his broader message of solidifying the Western coalition that faces Moscow.
It punctuated another moment of frustration for an administration struggling to regain its footing — and the support of the American electorate — in the face of an ongoing pandemic, rising inflation and a growing foreign policy crisis. complicated which raises the specter of a nuclear conflict.
Although he forged a united front to punish Russia with sanctions for invading Ukraine, polls show Americans feel no better about his leadership as the bloody war continues. Meanwhile, Democrats risk losing control of Congress in November’s midterm elections, leaving Biden with limited opportunities to advance a stalled progressive national agenda.
The president is set to get confirmation from the first black woman, Ketanji Brown Jackson, to the U.S. Supreme Court, but there’s no clear path for him to deliver on other campaign promises. on voting rights, criminal justice reform and the fight against climate change. While polls show Jackson has broad American support, that hasn’t helped Biden’s standing with voters less than eight months before the midterm elections, which Republicans hope to cast as a referendum on President.
The war in Russia has consumed much of the White House’s messaging bandwidth, but Biden is looking to shine the spotlight on some of his domestic priorities this week.
He is expected to unveil a new budget proposal on Monday, which includes a renewed focus on federal deficit reduction and a populist proposal to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
If approved by Congress — far from a certainty — households worth more than $100 million — a measure of wealth, not income — would have to pay a minimum tax of 20% on their earnings.
The extra revenue could help bring the deficit under control and fund some of Biden’s national priorities, including expanding safety net programs. There are little to no signs of Republican support for the proposal so far, and even some Democrats have been lukewarm to the idea.
Biden’s case is not helped by his approval ratings. According to a poll released Thursday by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, a slim 34% of Americans think Biden is doing a good job of handling the economy, which is normally the top issue for voters over the past of an election year.
His controversial assertion about Putin in his Warsaw speech did little to help matters. The White House was quick to clarify that Biden was not actually calling for ‘regime change’, but the next day it became clear the dramatic statement had produced some of the first overt cracks in unity between the countries. of NATO who had just met in Brussels. for an emergency meeting.
Some prominent allies in Western Europe, including France and Germany, tend to be more cautious than the United States about how to confront Russia. Until Saturday night, Biden had carefully calibrated his words.
French President Emanuel Macron said Biden’s remarks could make it harder to resolve the dispute.
“I wouldn’t use those terms, because I keep talking to President Putin, because what do we want to do collectively?” he said. “We want to stop the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, without waging war and without escalating.”
In Berlin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday that neither NATO nor Biden were seeking regime change in Russia. Asked about Biden’s remarks during an appearance on ARD television, Scholz also said Biden had not made a dangerous mistake. “We are both in complete agreement that regime change is neither the object nor the goal of a policy that we are pursuing together,” the Chancellor said.
Biden has enjoyed rare bipartisan support for his handling of the Ukraine crisis. But some Republicans who generally supported his approach to the crisis chastised him for his comments.
Senator James Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dryly noted on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday: “Please, Mr. President, stay on the script”.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Biden’s latest comment “plays into Russian propagandists and plays into Vladimir Putin’s favor.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was forced to continue clarifying Biden’s speech during a trip to the Middle East, where he intended to focus on cementing U.S. partnerships as the administration seeks to renew the nuclear deal with Iran.
Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem, Blinken said Biden meant that “Putin cannot be empowered to wage war or engage in aggression against Ukraine or anyone from there.” other”.
In case there was any doubt, Biden gave a “No!” emphatically. when a reporter outside the church asked him on Sunday if he was calling for regime change with the remark.
Even as Biden appeared to be going too far for some allies with his speech, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seemed to derive little comfort from it. He accused Western nations of lacking the courage to confront Russia, and he criticized their “ping-pong over who and how should hand over jets” and other weapons to the Ukrainian military.
The Warsaw speech was the third, and by far the most important, instance on the trip where Biden aides needed to clean up his comments.
At a press conference in Brussels on Thursday, he said the United States would respond “in kind” if Putin used chemical weapons in Ukraine. The next day, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the president meant “we will respond accordingly,” not that the United States would use its own chemical weapons.
And then, while speaking to members of the 82nd Airborne Division soldiers recently deployed to Poland, Biden seemed to suggest that they would go to Ukraine. Speaking of the bravery of Ukrainians, Biden said, “Look how they are mobilizing. And you’ll see when you get there.
Afterwards, the White House reiterated that Biden had no plans to send troops to Ukraine, something the president has insisted since the conflict began.
As he ran for office two years ago, Biden repeatedly told voters that “a president’s words matter,” and he promised his foreign policy background would serve the country well on the stage. international.
There is no doubt that Biden was able to maintain an unusual unity among allies during this war. But by speaking with more passion than caution — particularly in his speech in Warsaw — Biden also reminded Americans of his propensity for misrepresentation at a precarious time for his presidency.
According to last week’s AP-NORC poll, only 26% of Americans believe Biden can handle a crisis or the military. There has also been a mixed response to Biden’s approach to Russia. Although Americans were skeptical of getting involved in another foreign crisis, they also watched in horror as Putin continued to raze Ukrainian cities despite a series of punitive sanctions.
Only 36% said his approach was “about right,” while 56% said Biden hadn’t been tough enough on Russia.