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Even as the atrocities of Bucha played out on television screens across the world this week — including in the West Wing, where an outraged Biden and his team watched with horror — there were no specific events to address the grim footage.
The shift comes as Biden and his team assess a concerning political landscape complicated by the ripple effect of severe economic sanctions imposed on Moscow. Other recent developments — including a decision to lift pandemic-era restrictions on the border — have contributed to growing unease among Democrats about November’s elections. And a recent surge of Covid-19 cases among Biden’s circle has acted as a reminder of the virus’ continued presence.
Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done little to boost his sagging political standing, despite generating unprecedented unity among Western allies. As the White House settles in for what officials believe will be a prolonged conflict, there has been a clear effort to try and break through wall-to-wall war coverage 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 would focus on that as much as possible.”
It’s a move in line with a seemingly simple piece of advice from President Barack Obama to Democrats this week.
“We’ve got a story to tell,” the former President said. said matter-of-factly as he departed the East Room. “We’ve just got to tell it.”
Yet how to tell the story of economic revival amid a grinding war that’s roiled the global economy and preoccupied the administration’s time has become a defining challenge for Biden, as he warns the conflict in Ukraine won’t end anytime soon.
A pivot to focusing on the homefront, but Ukraine remains top of mind
The shift is intentional, according to White House officials, and in direct response to uneasy congressional Democrats eying midterm elections at a moment when Biden’s approval ratings sit at the lowest point of his presidency.
The new-found attention to domestic issues is unlikely to change in the near term, one official said, with Biden tentatively scheduled to hit the road at a regular clip over the course of the next several weeks to highlight the issues that have been central to White House messaging efforts over the last two weeks.
When Biden spoke to a building trades group in a Washington hotel this week, he began his remarks by decrying “major war crimes” underway in Ukraine. But he didn’t carve out time for a dedicated event to the suite of sanctions he was unveiling that day, choosing instead to announce them to the builders.
“This war could continue for a long time, but the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the fight for freedom. And I just want you to know that,” Biden told the crowd of unionized trade workers, adding an aside as he transitioned into a speech about the economy: “By the way, if I got to go to war, I’m going with you guys.”
Behind the scenes, aides say much of Biden’s daily schedule remains consumed by the events unfolding in Eastern Europe, including briefings from aides and secure telephone calls to foreign leaders. A longtime foreign policy hand, Biden has engaged intimately with the crisis and conceived of last month’s in-person summits in Brussels himself, deciding it was important to meet with his counterparts face to face.
A new round of sanctions, the result of intense negotiations and coordination with G7 and European Union allies, were deployed this week. New lethal aid is arriving each day, with Biden moving to fulfill a direct Ukrainian request for $100 million in new Javelin anti-armor systems this week.
Yet it has mostly been Biden’s top Cabinet officials and deputies who have become the face of the US response in news conferences and briefings. That has left Biden to focus almost entirely on his domestic agenda.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, briefed reporters with the latest US intelligence assessment about Russia’s shifting military objectives and a clear message to allies that what appears to be a protracted crisis necessitates a lasting united front.
“The images from Bucha so powerfully reinforce now is not the time for complacency. The Ukrainians are defending their homeland courageously, and the United States will continue to back 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 fulfill security assistance requests from Ukraine, detailing US and allied response so far and hinting at forthcoming “additional military assistance in the coming days.”
Biden himself did not schedule an appearance to discuss Russia on Monday. Instead, he delivered an impromptu, minute-long statement to reporters as he arrived back in Washington from a weekend in Delaware.
“I have one comment to make before I start the day,” he said, making clear he wasn’t interested in an extensive back-and-forth on Russia. “You may remember I got criticized for calling Putin a war criminal. Well, the truth of the matter — you saw what happened in Bucha. This warrants him — he is a war criminal.”
Kitchen table issues rise to the top following European trip
The attempt to limit Biden’s public focus on Russia is not by accident, aides say.
While the American public has shown wide-ranging approval for supporting Ukraine, their primary focus remains on the pocketbook issues they are feeling at home. And while Biden enjoyed a small rise in his approval ratings in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the bump vanished after a few weeks as Americans returned their attention to issues at home.
Upon his return to Washington from Warsaw, Biden’s public schedule has reflected that reality, with events ranging from a budget rollout carefully calibrated to try and unlock key components of his agenda to remarks highlighting the achievements from his first year, including the bipartisan infrastructure law and the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
The lone event with a direct tie to the Ukraine crisis was tailored for a domestic audience: The announcement of an historic release of one million barrels of oil a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve for the next six months.
The move was in direct response to market instability driven by one of the world’s largest oil producers launching a war against a Western ally. In his remarks, Biden used the phrase “Putin’s price hike” four times.
“Our prices are rising because of Putin’s actions — there isn’t enough supply,” Biden said. “And the bottom line is: If we want lower gas prices, we need to have more oil supply right now.”
Biden’s monthly remarks on the jobs report last week highlighted an economic recovery that is still humming, despite headwinds coming from inflation at 40-year highs and the market effects of Russia’s actions.
There was an event highlighting the administration’s efforts to support the trucking industry, with Biden’s podium ringed by big rigs on the South Lawn.
And then there was Obama’s first return to the White House since the day Donald Trump was inaugurated to highlight a myriad of Biden efforts to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. The event was conceived by Biden’s advisers to herald the now-popular health law while also bringing in a popular ex-President to inject a spark into the White House’s messaging.
It was billed by White House officials as a “celebration” of the law, but it conspicuously was not tied to any particular date or anniversary. The event marked 12 years and 13 days from the time Obama’s cornerstone legislative achievement was signed into law.
The war in Ukraine didn’t arise once — despite both men’s complex histories with the crisis.
As Biden was leaving the East Room following the reunion with his former boss, he tried to stay on message. Asked when the war crimes might be labeled a genocide, he demurred.
“Let’s talk about health care,” he said before exiting.