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Biden shows decisive leadership on Ukraine; it’ll get tougher

President Biden and Vladimir Putin
Associated Press-Alex Brandon/Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

President Biden is handling the Ukraine crisis skillfully, leading a coordinated Western response, setting the public agenda, and shrewdly putting out classified intelligence letting the world know what the Russians are up to.

The president has shown a smart strength, a contrast to Afghanistan last summer, where a necessary policy was marred by a careless withdrawal.

This time the president and his top lieutenants, especially Secretary of State Tony Blinken and CIA director Bill Burns, are covering every base. It did not deter Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, from invading Ukraine — but the response has been more cohesive and far reaching than Putin likely expected. As the crisis deepens, America and the West have the high ground.

Politically, it won’t be easy to hold. 

The one-time adage that our politics stop at the water’s edge is yesteryear. Americans no longer always rally behind the commander-in-chief in a global crisis. In a protracted war, patience may be on the side of the autocrats. Biden won’t get much support from the Trump-dominated Republicans.

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the third ranking House Republican, who several years ago took the political temperature and switched from leading a small band of GOP moderates to a Trump sycophant, cast an early cheap shot. Stefanik tweeted: “Joe Biden is unfit to serve as Commander-in-chief.” She said the president is “weak” and “chose appeasement” of Putin.

Trump, who was impeached for his sleazy treatment of Ukraine, openly admires Putin; after the invasion, he called Putin a “genius.” He claimed this never would have happened on his watch.

Nonsense, say experts.

Fiona Hill said it was Trump who emboldened the Russians with his praise of Putin and threats to withhold assistance from Ukraine unless President Volodymyr Zelensky helped Trump’s reelection. Hill, who was the Russia expert in the Trump White House, said in a CNN interview that this conveyed to Putin that “Ukraine was a playground.”

Anne Applebaum, the esteemed historian and journalist with unsurpassed insights on this situation, says there’s a simple reason Putin didn’t invade Ukraine before: “Trump was useful to him. He thought Trump would undermine Ukraine.” Then the Ukrainians in 2019 elected a new president, and Trump was voted out of office the following year. 

Trump, however, casts a huge shadow over Republicans with two demands: praise him and/or attack Biden, whom he despises for beating him. Most Republicans will either toe the pro-Russian line of Trump and Fox News star Tucker Carlson or charge that President Biden is doing too little too late.

Back in 1970, political scientist John Mueller coined the phrase “rally around the flag” — in times of a global crisis, Americans, of all stripes, unite behind the president. That was true during both World Wars. President Kennedy’s popularity soared after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis with the Russians.

The experience of the two Bush presidents is interesting and ironic. In 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush assembled a hugely successful alliance, sent in a massive force, drove the invaders out, and achieved a quick victory. A year and half later, he was voted out of office. In 2003, George W. Bush waged a much less considered attack on Iraq, which subsequently was an abysmal failure. A year and a half later, he was reelected.

The rally around the flag was short-lived for Barack Obama after he ordered the successful assault and assassination of Osama bin Laden, who had directed the 9/11 attack on America.

Jim Gerstein, a leading Democratic pollster, agrees that “our bitter political divide may dull a rally-around-the-flag effect.” Still, he told me he believes that “Biden showing global leadership reminds voters why they chose a responsible and respected leader in 2020” which could “restore some support, particularly among those who were voting for competence after four years of Trump.”

President Biden has conveyed a resolve and clarity. I cringed for a moment when he took questions on Thursday, but he was un-Bidenesque: short, disciplined and refused to be diverted.

Yet the Russian invasion of Ukraine is likely to be a protracted crisis with a cost to Americans, including higher energy prices and shakier market and consumer confidence. That will pose political problems for Biden. Putin doesn’t have to worry about elections or much about the suffering of average Russians in his police state.

Putin undoubtedly calculates that time is on his side.

“Biden has done well with the allies thus far,” said Fred Kempe, President of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank that promotes security and economic alliances with the U.S. and Europe. He told me: “The future of Europe will be decided by whether Putin or the West is more determined and resourceful. The jury is out.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags American leadership autocrats Barack Obama Bill Burns Donald Trump Elise Stefanik Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Public opinion Republican Party Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Tucker Carlson Ukraine Vladimir Putin Western democracy Western leaders

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