President Joe Biden’s task, as he looked America in the eye from the Oval Office, was to explain why a nation wearied by its own foreign quagmires and political estrangements should send $100 billion to help other people fight their wars.
His answer was that Israel and Ukraine were fighting existential struggles and that their wars were not just their own but were critical to the security of each American watching his primetime speech on Thursday.
But the most profound takeaway from what was only his second Oval Office address was this: While Biden scheduled the appearance to discuss two nations fighting for their survival against outside attack, his real topic was America itself – and perceived threats to its foundational values in a volatile political age.
He implored his country to honor the global role that has cemented a stable world order since World War II and to reject the appeasement of terrorists and tyrants. And in remarks that foreshadowed a reelection bid that will help decide the character of America and its place in the world for years to come, he sought to inspire it to reject intolerance as bitter politics rage at home.
Biden delivered his speech hours after returning from Israel and meeting victims of the Hamas terror attacks that killed more than 1,400 civilians, and months after his daring trip to another war zone in Ukraine. Even as his spoke, the first signs of an expected Israeli incursion into Gaza began to unfold, suggesting a crisis he sought to contain with his trip on Wednesday is about to get far worse.
“I know these conflicts can seem far away, and it’s natural to ask – why does this matter to America?” Biden said. “So let me share with you why making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security.”
The president beseeched Americans to understand that if the “pure unadulterated evil” of Hamas and the attempt by Russian President Vladimir Putin to “erase” Ukraine’s independence prevailed, terrorism emanating from the Middle East would threaten Americans again and Russia would imperil global peace.
Biden’s address is likely to be seen by historians as a signature moment in his presidency because of the messages he sent to American allies and foes abroad and how he sketched his vision for his own deeply divided nation.
Biden’s words did not unfold in a vacuum. They came against a backdrop of a looming election in which he is likely to face former President Donald Trump. In 2024, as in the previous two elections, the nation will likely face a choice between the internationalism and conventional statesmanship of Biden – and all his recent predecessors bar Trump – and the “America First” nationalism of the “Make America Great Again” movement, which disdains foreign alliances and a traditional US global leadership role. Pro-Trump Republicans do not begrudge defending Israel, for reasons partly rooted in the importance to evangelical voters, but would leave Ukraine defenseless against one of those tyrants.
Biden sought to make sense of confusing and frightening events overseas, diagnosing the danger and suggesting a path forward consistent with American leadership, values and status as the world’s “indispensable nation.” He is asking Congress to approve $100 billion to help Israel and Ukraine defend themselves – a current impossibility with one half of the legislative branch essentially frozen without a House speaker and the narrow GOP majority in chaos.
Global chaos, however, is Trump’s friend, as he promises to restore strongman leadership and argues only he can keep Americans safe. The ex-president is warning that Biden risks triggering World War III and has signaled he’d seek an accommodation with Putin rather than defend Western style democracy in Ukraine.
Soon after Biden’s address, Trump’s campaign released a video featuring turmoil in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, hitting US aid for Ukraine and highlighting the recent attack in Israel. It finished with a caption. “Joe Biden. Foolish. Incompetent. Weak.”
The very first point that Biden made in his address – that the world is at an “inflection point” – is borne out by events that threaten to play into Trump’s conceit. A gathering front opposed to US power was encapsulated this week as Putin traveled to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in North Korea, and Israel reeled from attacks by Hamas, which receives funding and weapons from Iran.
The ex-president would also change the fabric of America by vowing to reinstate his ban on Muslim immigration from some nations if he wins back the White House – a move his critics see as an infringement of the same constitutionally enshrined religious tolerance Biden argued was quintessentially American. Days after the horrific fatal stabbing of a six-year-old American boy of Palestinian descent in Chicago, Biden warned, “Here in America , let us not forget who we are. We reject all forms, all forms of hate, whether against Muslims, Jews or anyone. That’s what great nations do. And we are a great nation.”
While he rooted his argument in lofty appeals to America’s purpose, Biden faces a vexing political problem. Support for maintaining Ukraine’s multi-billion dollar lifeline – to which he wants to add another $60 billion – is waning in a nation still suffering the after-effects of the pandemic, high inflation and the punishing impact of high interest rates. Republicans are increasingly opposed to arming Ukraine any longer – a stance that threatens Kyiv’s ability to prolong its resistance to Putin.
While there is broad bipartisan support for sending more vital aid to Israel ahead of its expected offensive against Hamas in Gaza, Congress is paralyzed. The meltdown of the Republican House majority is offering a preview of what a potential full return to power by MAGA forces in Washington might look like.
The failure of the GOP to agree on a new speaker after the ouster of Kevin McCarthy more than two weeks ago is not just casting doubt on vital US aid to bolster the fights of Israel and Ukraine. It is sending a message of dysfunction and internal US weakness to rivals like Russia, China and Iran, whose foreign policies are both rooted in challenging the US-led international order and weakening American power.
Biden’s decision to combine aid requests for Israel and Ukraine will trigger a fierce political clash in Washington. As will his contention that both are US allies engaged in a similar fight for their survival and for US-style democratic values. The president said his emergency budget request was actually to “fund America’s national security” by supporting “critical partners including Israel and Ukraine.” The administration has also informed lawmakers it plans to seek $14 billion for border security in its new funding package, CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez reported Thursday evening.
Biden faces resistance from Republicans – especially in the House – who are happy to finance Israel’s struggle against Hamas but who don’t see Ukraine as a critical US interest. While there is a majority in the Senate GOP for aiding Ukraine, Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance encapsulated the pro-Trump wing’s views on the war with a social media post after the president’s address. “What Biden is doing is disgusting. He’s using dead children in Israel to sell his disastrous Ukraine policy to skeptical Americans,” Vance wrote on X. “They are not the same countries, they are not the same problems, and this effort to use Israel for political cover is offensive. Hell no.”
Polls show that Americans do not necessarily buy Biden’s position that the threats to Ukraine and Israel are the same. In a CNN/SSRS survey released in August, 55% of respondents said Congress should not authorize more funding to support Ukraine. In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks in Israel, however, 76% of Americans in a CBS/YouGov poll said the US should send humanitarian aid to Israel with roughly half backing the dispatch of weapons and supplies.
Biden’s address, with the familiar backdrop of US and presidential flags in the Oval Office felt like a throwback to an earlier age — when presidents would interrupt primetime on the handful of TV channels at a moment of national crisis. In the age of TikTok, and a fractured and partisan media where conspiracy theories reign, the idea that a commander in chief can convene a moment of national unity seems quaint.
Like many of Biden’s speeches, this one looked better on paper than as a political spectacle. While his arguments stood comparison with classic presidential statements of the past, his address had none of the inspirational cadence, for instance, of President John F. Kennedy vowing America would “pay any price, bear any burden” to secure the survival of liberty abroad. Biden’s frequent verbal stumbles, a nagging cough and eyes narrowed by age meant this was far from a stirring appeal — and will only fuel the debate over whether he could fulfill the duties of a possible second term that would begin when he is 82.
Like President Harry S. Truman, Biden’s trips to the bully pulpit are marked more for simple truculence than linguistic eloquence. But there was still the sense of a president taking his country into his confidence at a moment of national peril.
The coming months will tell whether sufficient numbers of Americans are prepared to listen to a president whose low approval ratings reflect his struggles to make good on his 2020 promise to restore normality and global stability.