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National View: The left braces as Biden struggles to make his case

From the column: "If Tuesday night's speech boosts Biden, it will likely stem from the vigorous case he made for the way his leadership has united Western nations in punishing Putin."

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Pat Bagley / Cagle Cartoons

President Joe Biden gave two distinct State of the Union speeches this week. The first one was better.

Biden drew repeated bipartisan applause with a vigorous denunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked Ukraine power grab and a vow that "freedom will always triumph over tyranny."

But the night largely lapsed into familiar partisan divisions when he returned to domestic issues, defending his administration's progress in spurring the economy and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, outlining steps to curb inflation, and again touting his stalled environmental and social legislation.

As a result, it's an open question if Biden was able to strengthen public perception of his leadership at a time his negative poll numbers suggest Democrats are headed for substantial losses in November's elections.

Disapproval of his performance has outweighed approval for months and recent polls show the public with a negative view of his handling of most major issues. Historically, a president's job approval is a predictor of midterm results.

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If Tuesday night's speech boosts Biden, it will likely stem from the vigorous case he made for the way his leadership has united Western nations in punishing Putin for invading Ukraine and his vow to help the Ukrainians "defend their country and help ease their suffering."

One potential problem is continuing uncertainty whether, even with additional Western aid, the Ukrainians can survive the Russian onslaught, despite the far greater resistance than their invaders probably expected.

Biden again ruled out direct U.S. intervention, declaring "our forces are not engaging, and will not engage, in the conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine." He said the thousands of American troops he has sent to Europe are there "to protect countries including Poland, Latvia, and Estonia."

But he warned the Russian president that, if he seeks to go beyond Ukraine's borders into other Eastern European countries, "The United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory that is NATO territory with the full force of our collective power. Every single inch."

And he said that while Putin "may make gains on the battlefield, he will pay a continuing price over the long run," drawing standing applause when he announced the United States is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from its strategic reserve and closing American airspace to all Russian flights.

The bipartisan cheers for those and other Ukraine comments came as a new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed rising support for Biden's actions in helping the former Soviet republic and mobilizing the West.

Even some Republicans who initially praised Putin — like former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — have joined in the widespread condemnation of the Russian invasion.

But in Tuesday night's official GOP response to Biden, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said that, while "standing in solidarity with the brave people of Ukraine," Americans "shouldn't ignore" Biden's prior moves such as "waiving sanctions on Russian pipelines while limiting oil production here at home, focusing on political correctness rather than military readiness, (and) reacting to world events instead of driving them."

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Biden's Ukraine comments comprised just 12 minutes of the hour-long speech. When he segued into the more standard laundry list of proposals that he had planned before the Russian invasion, divisions re-emerged. Democrats frequently cheered while Republicans largely sat on their hands — erupting with boos when he criticized Trump's 2017 tax cut as largely benefiting "the top 1% of Americans."

Exemplifying the contrast were the visages television viewers saw of each party's top congressional leader. An enthusiastic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was frequently shown smiling and leading the cheers, while a glum Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was seen several times, looking as if he were in pain.

The partisan divide was even evident when Biden hailed his major bipartisan achievement of the past year, the infrastructure bill, which passed with 19 Senate Republican votes. GOP applause was sparse, reflecting that most House Republicans opposed it, though some later touted its benefits.

The domestic portion was largely an effort by Biden to persuade Americans that his policies have succeeded in taming the COVID-19 pandemic and creating a vigorous economic recovery, despite the highest inflation in four decades. Recent polls show that up to half of those sampled believe the economy is in a recession, despite low unemployment and the addition last year of 6.5 million jobs — more "than ever before" in a president's first year, as Biden again noted.

Looking ahead, he said, "My top priority is getting prices under control;" he called for lower costs rather than lower wages and urged enactment of the broad House-passed package of climate and social programs that two fellow Democrats blocked in the Senate.

He listed its many popular proposals, like lower prescription drug prices, expanded federal support for day care, and increased Obamacare subsidies, and he seemed to scrap the words "Build Back Better" in describing the bill. "I call it building a better America," he said.

Also looking toward November, Biden sought to bury the slogan that Republicans have used successfully against many Democrats, declaring that the answer to fighting crime "is not to defund the police; it’s to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them."

And he displayed typical Biden optimism, declaring, "The state of the union is strong," but "we'll be stronger a year from now than we are today."

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Unless more Americans believe that, Biden and his party won't be.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf

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