If the only thing you are talking about after President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address is that he was heckled by GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, then you are missing a key takeaway. Biden’s strong, even eloquent, words made a compelling case for why America must support Ukraine and why this conflict is so significant, but he did not do enough to discuss the potential need for people in the U.S. to make sacrifices to defeat Vladimir Putin and support Ukraine.
Following a very brief introduction, Biden got right to his point on the war.
The dilemma Biden faces is that he needed to appeal to national unity around the war in Ukraine when unity seems like something from a sepia-toned film of 20th century America.
“Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated. He thought he could roll into Ukraine and the world would roll over. Instead, he met with a wall of strength he never anticipated or imagined. … Yes, we, the United States of America, stand with the Ukrainian people. Throughout our history we’ve learned this lesson: When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos. They keep moving,” he said.
Unfortunately, from a domestic political and historical perspective, that is unlikely to be enough to help Biden. During his speech, he used the words “Ukraine” or “Ukrainian” 18 times, “Russia” 18 and “Putin” 12, reflecting the centrality of the conflict to the State of the Union and indeed the world today. However, the president used the word “sacrifice” only once, and that was in reference to Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera, two New York City police officers who were recently killed.
The president missed an opportunity to explain some important realities about the conflict to the public and pre-empt political attacks that could prove damaging for Biden and the Democrats.
He has wisely and consistently stated that he would not send U.S. troops to fight in Ukraine. So the sacrifices required of the people in the U.S. will not be of the conventional military kind. Instead, they will be lighter but shared more broadly and economic in nature.
The sanctions regime the U.S. and its allies have put in place will be devastating for Russia, but it will also be likely to contribute to greater problems of inflation and supply chains that have already dogged Biden’s presidency. It is already very apparent that the Republicans will use these issues in their 2022 midterm campaign — and probably the 2024 presidential campaign. Therefore, Biden still needs to explain to voters that economic challenges, rather than losing our troops on the battlefield, is the price we will have to pay to defeat Putin. Biden left himself open to a potent political attack by failing to do that.
Given the effort he made to portray this conflict as one of global significance and Putin as a global threat — “A Russian dictator invading a foreign country has costs around the world” — asking everyone in the U.S. to rally together and make a modest collective sacrifice might even have underscored the intensity of the problem and brought the country together more.
While he did not ignore inflation or the potential for it to worsen because of the conflict, instead of framing it as part of the collective war effort, he discussed releasing strategic oil reserves. It is not a bad idea, but it may not be enough to solve the problem.
The dilemma Biden faces is that he needed to appeal to national unity around the war in Ukraine when unity seems like something from a sepia-toned film of 20th century America. In this context, inflation that arises from what is essentially an economic war on Russia will not be ignored by the GOP. This was evident by the GOP response to the speech given by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. The speech itself was somewhat a recycling of GOP talking points, but she made it very clear that Republicans do not see the war as creating a moment of national unity or even the need to rally around Biden’s sanction plans.
Despite Republican criticism and the reality of a likely rise in inflation and increased supply chain problems in the coming weeks and months, Biden’s response to the war has been quite extraordinary. Knowing from the beginning that engaging American troops with Russian troops in Ukraine could have led to a global conflict and even more loss of life — and that a still war-weary American public had no appetite for that — Biden was nonetheless able to help build a multinational coalition to impose strong sanctions on Russia. Russia is already feeling the impact of those sanctions. In turn, they may threaten Putin’s grip on leadership there.
Nothing in war, politics or life is free. The price the people in the U.S. will pay for combating Putin’s aggression will cause economic duress, albeit an exponentially less severe kind than what Russia will experience. That is a cost people living in the U.S. should be willing to pay to support Ukraine and, in Biden’s words, “send an unmistakable signal to the world.”
Had the president made this argument and linked inflation to the notion of patriotic sacrifice, he might have weakened the inevitable Republican attacks when these economic issues arise. That would not have been easy, but that, and not simply identifying Putin as a malignant actor, was what Biden needed to do.
Lincoln Mitchell is a political analyst and author. He teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.