Biden’s speech to the nation on Thursday evening was a campaign speech that we’re going to be seeing a lot more of in the coming months.
It appears that the president is looking to center his 2024 re-election campaign on foreign policy. It’s a risky move that could either pay big dividends for Biden or cost him the White House.
If the war in Ukraine goes badly for Kyiv or the Israelis fall short of their goal to eliminate Hamas, Biden could easily be seen as a failure. And there’s always the danger of other foreign policy crises — especially Taiwan — that could be amplified if Biden concentrates on the numerous troubles in the world instead of domestic concerns.
Most presidents choose not to make their campaigns about foreign affairs because the voters aren’t particularly interested unless Americans are directly involved in the conflict. “We’ve got our own troubles here in America, so who cares what’s happening to people elsewhere,” is an argument sometimes heard in Republican circles.
It’s a myopic view of the world born in an age when America was protected by two oceans and any potential enemy was thousands of miles away. Of course, that worldview has been inoperative since the invention of the jet engine and ICBMs. But for many Americans, foreign wars still seem very far away and none of our concern.
It’s a healthy attitude to cultivate. Unfortunately, it rarely plays out that way.
In the 2024 presidential election, the president has a built-in advantage thanks to the Constitution. Biden is not just the chief executive. He’s also commander in chief of the armed forces and head of state. These three roles grant the president extraordinary powers in forming and Implementing foreign policy.
No matter who Biden’s GOP challenger is going to be, he or she can’t match that. But Biden’s gamble in making this a foreign policy election is one that has backfired twice in the last 60 years for other sitting presidents.
There was the extreme case of Lyndon Johnson, who resigned over the failures in Vietnam. But no American soldiers are fighting or dying in Ukraine and Israel. The closer analogy is George [H.] W. Bush, the last president who loved foreign policy and knew as much about it as Biden does. Bush won the Gulf War with minimal American casualties and expertly managed the end of the Cold War — and was then defeated by a 46-year-old governor from a small southern state whose most well-known foreign experience was not inhaling marijuana while he was a student in England.
This is a cruel fact of American presidential politics: A bad economy will beat standing up for the liberal international order almost every time. Unless Americans are directly threatened, it can be a tough sell for a president.
Biden doesn’t have to sell aid to Israel. But aid to Ukraine is an entirely different story. It’s a very hard argument to make that risking the peace of the world to save Ukraine is worth it. Saving the “liberal international order” is hardly a battle cry to send our soldiers off to fight Russia — if, God forbid, it came to that.
But perhaps Biden believes he has no other choice. He can’t run on the economy. He’s angered more than half the country over his green policies and culture war issues. Maybe he thinks his only change is to run on his foreign policy expertise to win the election.
In some ways Wednesday’s historic visit and Thursday’s Oval Office address could be viewed as a kind of reopening of Biden’s already troubled re-election campaign. Above all, the 80-year-old Biden is trying to change the narrative on what has become his biggest liability, his age, which polls have shown may be the top concern of both Democratic and Republican voters. The internet is rife with memes and clips of Biden shuffling, falling and misspeaking. His campaign wants to turn that vulnerability into a strength by arguing that only Biden has the experience and wisdom to handle what is becoming one of the most perilous international landscapes since World War II, campaign aides say.
One can see the logic of Biden’s handlers in trying to turn Ukraine and Israel into a political plus. But as history has shown, it’s just as likely to boomerang and cost Biden the presidency.