Biden to Address Nation as Two Wars Rage Abroad

Washington — The State of the Union address is traditionally the venue where American presidents highlight domestic successes, and President Joe Biden is expected to discuss his handling of the economy, reproductive rights, gun control, and immigration Thursday evening.

But as the United States deals with wars in the Middle East and Europe, foreign policy may be higher on the agenda in Biden’s fourth, and potentially final, such speech to a joint session of Congress.

The president intends to highlight his achievements in “restoring American leadership on the world stage,” John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, told VOA during an interview on Wednesday.

American leadership, he added, gives it the ability to influence actions of world leaders and adversaries “in ways that are more in keeping with our national security interests.”

That influence has failed to overcome stark differences between Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on issues including how to deliver more humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, the postwar role of the Palestinian Authority and the U.S. vision for a future Palestinian state.

On Ukraine, American leadership is overshadowed by House Republicans’ obstruction of a Senate-approved $95 billion foreign aid package that includes $61 billion to support Kyiv in its fight against Russia. The bill also includes $14 billion in security assistance for Israel, $9 billion in humanitarian assistance and $5 billion to support partners in the Indo-Pacific, as Washington competes against Beijing for regional influence.

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza will be prominently featured in the foreign policy portion of Biden’s speech, as will the U.S. strategic rivalry with China. Analysts say the president will employ different approaches on the two issues as he considers voters’ sentiments ahead of his bid for reelection in November.

Push for Ukraine aid

Biden will use his address to again call for the passage of the foreign aid bill and argue that it is not in America’s interest to embrace isolationism amid signs of growing Russian expansionism.

“The president is going to continue to make his case that House Republicans need to move forward. The speaker needs to put the national security supplemental on the floor,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during her briefing Wednesday. “We know that it would get overwhelming support.”

While the Biden administration has gathered international support for an effort that includes substantial military and economic aid to Ukraine, major sanctions on Russia and greatly increasing NATO’s military posture in eastern Europe, it has failed to provide a strong case for this policy for the American people, said John Herbst, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine who is now senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

“This in turn has made it easier for naïve voices, especially in the one corner of the Republican Party to block the assistance Ukraine needs to avoid a defeat,” Herbst told VOA.  

Vanderbilt University presidential historian Thomas Schwartz predicted Biden “will go all in” on Ukraine, particularly in light of the recent death of Alexey Navalny in a Siberian prison. The Russian dissident’s death has intensified U.S. views that supporting Ukraine’s efforts to push back against Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a real moral cause,” Schwartz told VOA. 

“This will also allow him to draw a sharp contrast with Trump, who has, of course, expressed admiration for Putin in the past and has not been as supportive on the Ukraine issue,” Schwartz added.

Polls show that Americans’ support for sending military aid to Kyiv is fractured along party lines, with voters of the president’s party largely sympathetic to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s war efforts.

According to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 67% of Democrats see it as a priority for the U.S. government to prevent Russia from gaining more territory in Ukraine and to help Ukraine regain territory that is currently occupied by Russia. Only 37% of Republicans agree.

Biden will use his address to rally support amid Americans’ war fatigue. Overall, 37% of respondents — 55% of Republicans and 17% of Democrats — say the U.S. government is spending too much on aid to Ukraine.

Tread carefully on Gaza

The president is likely to tout his immediate support for Israelis following Hamas’ October 7 attack and underscore the importance of ensuring that Israel can defend itself against the U.S.-designated terror group’s threats. 

But he will need to tread carefully on the issue, taking into account the division between pro-Israel Democrats and independents who support his stance on the conflict and progressive Democrats, as well as Arab and Muslim Americans, who are angered by it.

Outrage over the more than 30,000 people killed in Gaza and Biden’s refusal to put conditions on U.S. military aid for Israel has resulted in significant portions of Democratic primary election voters in Michigan and Minnesota marking their ballots “uncommitted” to signal their protest and demand an immediate and permanent cease-fire.

Negotiators have not yet been able to bring the fighting in Gaza to a halt ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this weekend. On Tuesday, Biden said the fate of the temporary cease-fire deal is in the “hands of Hamas” after Israel agreed to a “rational offer” that had been put on the table.

Hamas has since responded saying there can be no hostage exchange without a permanent cease-fire and full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The group accused Israel of stalling the talks.

Israeli politicians will be carefully watching Thursday to see who Biden blames for the deadlock and how critical he is of Israeli efforts to protect and deliver aid to Palestinian civilians, said Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Department of Political Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

As Biden is likely to reiterate his call for a two-state solution, Israelis will be anxious to see whether he calls on Israel to “present a clear vision that includes a Palestinian state,” Rynhold told VOA. “I doubt he’ll do it, but if he does, it’s bad for Netanyahu but not bad for the war.”

Biden is likely to focus his criticisms on the far-right elements within the Israeli government and signal displeasure at violence committed by what he calls “extreme Israeli settlers” in the West Bank, as he has done several times in the past.

Kirby said the president will also call for increasing humanitarian aid for Palestinians. With the Netanyahu government’s refusal to open more land crossings for aid convoys and the death of more than 100 people after Israeli troops opened fire as desperate Palestinians mobbed a convoy of food trucks, the U.S. has resorted to using military aircraft to drop supplies — a more expensive, inefficient and dangerous means to deliver aid.

A Gallup poll released this week shows 58% of Americans hold a favorable view of Israel, down from 68% last year, and the lowest favorable rating for the country in over two decades.   

Iuliia Iarmolenko contributed to this report.

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