President Biden is set to deploy the bully pulpit in his push to maintain America’s support for Ukraine and lay out a vision for the U.S.’s role in the unfolding war between Israel and Hamas.
Recent polls have shown that voters are steadily souring on U.S. support for Ukraine’s war against Russia, while about half of Americans trust Biden to handle the Middle East conflict.
Biden had initially planned on a major speech aimed at convincing the public on his pledge to stand by Ukraine. But the Israel-Hamas conflict has turned it into a two-pronged address, as he seeks to rally support in Congress for a robust security package.
Experts said Biden will need to choose his words carefully on Thursday evening.
“One of the challenges of this speech is that he needs to link the conflicts in some meaningful way,” said Matthew Waxman, a former senior official at the State Department, the Defense Department and the National Security Council.
“He wants to avoid the appearance that these are kind of unrelated things and they both just happen to be coming up at the same time. He needs to, in a compelling way, link the two.”
Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine has been raging since February 2021, when Moscow’s forces flooded over the border in an attempted incursion that U.S. officials had predicted for months.
But the conflict between Israel and Hamas took the world by surprise when on Oct. 7 Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, launched terrorist attacks that left more than 1,000 Israelis dead.
Thousands more Palestinians have since been killed in ensuing retaliatory airstrikes from Israel into Gaza, and Israel is threatening a ground invasion.
Biden previously condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel in an Oct. 10 address, but polls since have shown little change to his overall approval rating. Four different national polls conducted since the speech showed his approval rating between 31 percent and 44 percent.
And despite his foreign policy credentials as a vice president and senator, he’s only faring slightly better in that realm.
A majority of respondents to an Economist poll taken ahead of his trip to Israel were uneasy about Biden’s ability to handle an international crisis. And 54 percent of people in a CNN poll said they have not much or no trust in his ability to make the right decisions on Israel — similar to his numbers on Ukraine.
Biden visited Israel Wednesday to show support and broker a deal to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. He posted on X, formerly Twitter, Thursday about the gravity of his address.
“Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel. The need for humanitarian assistance in Gaza. Russia’s ongoing brutal war against Ukraine,” he wrote.
“We are at a global inflection point that is bigger than party or politics. Tonight, I’ll address the nation at 8:00 PM ET from the Oval Office.”
The timing of the president’s speech shows the consequential nature of both conflicts to U.S. interests, said Waxman, who is now with Columbia Law School.
“This comes at a time when there are political factions in the public, in Congress, on both the right and the left, who are really advocating for a significant pulling back of United States leadership in the world and security commitments abroad,” he said.
“I would expect that he would talk about both of these conflicts as demonstrating the continuing need for strong American leadership, including a strong role as a security guarantor around the world.”
Other former officials say the speech presents an opportunity for Biden “to make the case for America’s vital interest in the security” of the two countries.
“Simply announcing U.S. financial support does not do the job,” Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia and ambassador for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement.
“Americans deserve to know why money is being spent to oppose aggression by those who seek to undermine our safety and the safety of our allies. ‘America first’ does not mean ‘America alone.’”
And former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told The Hill that the clear national security interests the U.S. has in Russia’s defeat “has not been explained to the American people,” nor has the reason “why we are committing the resources we are committing.”
If Biden “lays out our interests, how Americans security, American prosperity are safeguarded by this policy, [that] we had to contain an aggressive Russia — which will take a long time — American support for this policy will go up substantially. So far, he and his administration have not done that,” added Herbst, who is now a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
Also shown in recent surveys was the slow crumble of the once high level of public support for arming Ukraine. A poll conducted earlier this month found that just 41 percent of respondents agreed that the United States should provide weapons to Ukraine, down from 65 percent of respondents who said the same in June.
Even lower than that was support for sending financial aid to Ukraine, with only 37 percent of respondents agreeing that Washington should give financial assistance, the survey showed.
Another poll, released the same week, showed a growing partisan split over the issue with Republicans less likely to support either kind of assistance to Ukraine. The divide is expected given that the issue has become central in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, with a more isolationist view of foreign policy dominating the hard-right side of the party.
Ukraine funding was also a major reason for the House standoff that almost caused a government shutdown at the end of September, with far-right GOP lawmakers refusing to budge on the issue.
While some Republicans have come out in opposition to Biden’s effort to link Ukraine and Israel aid — along with funds for Taiwan and U.S. border security — the proposal has the backing of key GOP figures including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas).
Waxman said a major challenge for Biden will be explaining persuasively that the United States is not overstretched and has the will, the capacity and the resources to support both conflicts.
Some Republicans have already demanded a more concrete strategy from the administration on Ukraine before they can loosen their purse strings.
In a letter sent to Biden Oct. 6, McCaul and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member James Risch (R-Idaho) called for the White House to engage transparently with Congress on its strategy for helping Kyiv win the war.
“A pledge to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ is not a strategy,” they wrote.
Fred Kagan, the head of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, said mounting questions about America’s role in Ukraine were justified 19 months into the war, with no clear end in sight.
“All of the leaders in the United States who understand why this is America’s vital interest [should] get up now and loudly answer the question because it’s easily answerable,” he said.
Questions are also being raised over Israel’s strategy as it seeks to “eliminate” Hamas and is threatening to launch a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip. Biden himself warned Israel’s government not to make the “mistakes” of the U.S. in responding to the 9/11 attacks.
At the fore of global concerns over the Israel-Hamas war is an expansion of the conflict that brings American troops in direct conflict with Iran and its proxies.
However, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, during an interview with ABC Thursday morning, said avoiding war with Iran would not be part of Biden’s prime-time message.
“What the president is going to be doing is laying out for the American people a description of the moment we are in — a crisis in Ukraine that has been going on now more than a year and a half, an emergent crisis with our close friend an ally in Israel — and connect that national moment to American lives back here,” he said.
“And why this is a moment in which the administration needs to respond and we believe congress as well needs to act to make sure that we have the resources to be able to continue our leadership.”