President Joe Biden speaks on the March jobs report at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 1, 2022.
Anna Rose Layden
President Joe Biden speaks on the March jobs report at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 1, 2022.

The White House is facing its latest enormous challenge: Balancing President Biden’s global leadership in face of Russia’s war on Ukraine, while showing he’s also focused on domestic issues eight months before midterm elections that so far appear to be an uphill battle for Democrats.

Biden will hit the road this week in a series of appearances focused on his efforts to counter inflation and high gas prices, both of which have risen considerably since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. 

During his travels to rural parts of Iowa and North Carolina, Biden is expected to announce efforts to reduce the impacts of high prices at the pump for Americans following weeks in which he’s had to lead the world in its response to the Kremlin’s brutal war.

Biden hasn’t traveled beyond trips to his home in Delaware since he was in Europe last month, which involved three days of engagements with allies and working to coordinate leaders in isolating Russia and supporting Ukraine.

“The president’s most precious commodity is his time and his calendar. I think from a foreign policy, national security, and public policy perspective in the whole gambit of things, I think the president made a read a month ago that the crisis in Ukraine was the single most important issue, including its impact on the economy,” said William Antholis, director and CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. 

Biden’s trips this week are to two pivotal states for Democrats, who are at risk of losing the majority in both chambers of a closely divided Congress in November. The president lost North Carolina in 2020 to former President Trump by just over 1 percent. He also lost Iowa that year and is visiting a decisively Republican county there this week.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed the notion that Biden was visiting Menlo, Iowa, “through a political prism.”

“I think the president is not making this trip through a political prism, he’s making this trip because Iowa is a rural state in the country that would benefit greatly from the president’s policies, including the policies that he’ll be talking about tomorrow on his trip,” Psaki said.

“When he was running, I think many of you heard him say and convey, he wanted to be the president for all people, whether you voted for him or not, and this is certainly an example of his effort to do exactly that,” she added.

The trip to Iowa aligns with the release on Tuesday of monthly data from the consumer price index (CPI), a key gauge of inflation. Psaki said that officials are preparing for “extraordinarily elevated” inflation numbers and laid that blame on Moscow’s invasion on energy prices.

Biden on Monday met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to further project American leadership in the global response to the war in Ukraine, while India is coming under pressure from the U.S. and Western countries to take a tougher position with Russia.

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said Biden’s foreign and domestic policy experience from his decades as a senator and then as vice president is a testament to his handling of both issues converging at once.

“I think President Biden in many ways should be more prepared for this than most because I don’t think there’s ever been a president that has had as much domestic policy and foreign policy experience going into office,” Grumet said.

Recent polling shows that rising prices are the most pressing issues facing Americans – more than foreign policy issues.

Thirty percent of Americans considered inflation the most urgent issue facing the country, compared to the 14 percent who found the war in Ukraine to be the most urgent, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released at the end of March.

A recent ABC News poll found a majority of Americans blamed oil companies and Russian President Vladimir Putin for the spike in oil and gas prices.

A contingent of those surveyed, at 68 percent, said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of gas prices.

“This is an inherent challenge for any national leader, whether it is president or members of Congress. The horrible things happening outside of the U.S. that threaten us demand attention from our leaders and voters just don’t care as much about things that are happening to other people,” Grumet said.

The challenging balancing act comes as Biden’s approval rating has fallen to 42 percent, which is its lowest point yet, according to the latest CBS News and YouGov poll.

“My sense is if the White House is paying attention to the political reality, the two things they will focus on—as much as they can between now and the midterm elections—are the war in Ukraine, which is very much on voters’ minds, and the economy and inflation,” Antholis said.

Biden started this week focused on domestically focused announcements that help advance some top issues for Democrats. 

The president on Monday named a new nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and introduced new actions toward gun violence prevention. 

The White House is also just coming off a much-needed victory with the Senate confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court.

“Somehow, they’ve got to address all three lanes — they have to grapple with the essential threats to liberal democracy that are playing out globally, they have to address the dominant question on voters’ minds, which is the economy and the price of gas and food, and they have to see the opportunity to accomplish a major domestic policy priority. In that agenda, what likely gets squeezed is domestic policy priorities,” Grumet said.

Biden’s trips this week continue an effort from before the war in Ukraine to tout the bipartisan infrastructure law, the White House’s biggest legislative accomplishment so far, in an attempt to keep it on the top of mind for voters across the U.S. The latest tour will send officials into rural communities in states like Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Washington and West Virginia.

Antholis compared Biden’s balancing act to former President George H.W. Bush dealing with the Persian Gulf War while the U.S. also faced economic issues at home at the time, noting that Bush lost his reelection campaign.

“He didn’t pivot back quickly enough to the domestic economy and he lost the election in ‘92 to Clinton,” he said.

“We are going back to the Cold War where people’s fear of nuclear war was the single overriding concern that would often suppress domestic concern about the economy. But I don’t think we’re there yet,” he added. “I think Biden does need to weigh this balance and it will affect the midterm elections.”

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