Biden always behind the curve

Russia sanctions over Ukraine are overdue

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on developments in Ukraine and announces sanctions against Russia from the White House on Tuesday.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on developments in Ukraine and announces sanctions against Russia from the White House on Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Posted February 23, 2022 at 6:00am

OPINION — As I write this column Tuesday afternoon, Europe and the U.S. are facing the most serious military crisis since World War II, and Joe Biden is late for a news conference to announce sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Sanctions that many believe should have been imposed weeks, if not months, ago.

It seems a perfect metaphor for a president and an administration that always seem behind the curve. Always playing catch-up, whether it’s inflation, COVID-19, crime, energy, the supply chain, Afghanistan or, now, Ukraine. Always on the defense, never taking the initiative to get ahead of a problem, no matter the issue.

It took Biden months to finally admit that inflation wasn’t transitory. But he blamed the supply chain for inflation rather than acknowledging the role his economic and energy policies have played in driving inflation to levels people haven’t experienced since the early 1980s.

His solution now that the country is drowning in debt, while people are struggling to put food on the table and gas up their cars, is to continue to push for more of the same economic mistakes that got us here in the first place.

He’s come late to the mask controversy, so late that Democratic governors in blue states who can read the political tea leaves have lifted mask and vax mandates, having given up on the ability of Biden’s White House or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get the messaging or the policies right.

After months of ignoring headlines on the increase in violent crime, especially in liberal cities, Biden finally headed to New York City earlier this month for a photo op with the new mayor and a speech on crime long after the city’s subways and sidewalks had become killing grounds. Again, playing catch-up.

And now Ukraine. For months, the Biden administration has opted to take the diplomatic route to keep the Russians out of Ukraine. There is nothing inherently wrong in heading to the negotiating table to prevent war if one is speaking from a position of strength.

Unfortunately for Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Vladimir Putin has a long memory. The Obama White House, with Biden leading the administration’s Ukraine efforts, tried a similar approach with the same result. Putin ignored their threats and invaded Crimea, which remains under Putin’s heavy boot.

One would think Biden might have learned something from that disaster and taken a different approach, a more proactive approach, as Putin began a yearlong military buildup on the borders of Ukraine. I give him credit for bringing the NATO allies on board for the idea of sanctions, but Biden’s refusal to use the sanctions with 130,000 Russian troops just miles from the Ukrainian border, once again, put his strategy behind the curve.

He only made matters worse when he seemed to signal a possible retreat from his tough talk on sanctions in a news conference last month, saying, "It's one thing if it's a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do." Then he added, "There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens." The White House tried to walk back his remarks the next day.

Even some of his strongest supporters were alarmed this week, however, when the White House called Russia’s move into the Dobra region an “incursion,” harkening back to Biden’s earlier gaffe. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., released a late-night statement saying, “The time for taking action to impose significant costs on President Putin and the Kremlin starts now.” By morning, the White House was calling it an “invasion.”

At the Munich Summit over the weekend, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged that sanctions be imposed immediately and pointedly asked Western leaders, “What are you waiting for?” Good question.

For the most part, foreign policy issues are relegated to lower-tier issues when it comes to most voters’ concerns. But the Ukrainian crisis presents an unusual political blend of a foreign policy issue with a potentially devastating impact domestically. The average price of a gallon of gas Tuesday was $3.53 — almost a dollar more than a year ago, with oil heading higher.

Moreover, according to LPGas Magazine, “The U.S. Energy Information Administration has confirmed that energy commodity prices ended 2021 59 percent higher than the beginning of the year. This compares to a 20 percent increase in the prices of other commodities measured.”

As one of the world’s major producers of oil and gas, Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine will only make the current energy cost crisis worse, affecting both Europe and the U.S. And Biden is already underwater on the issue of energy prices.

In the November Winning the Issues survey, 50 percent of voters blamed Biden’s new environmental policies, like stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and halting new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, for higher gas prices. Only 36 percent blamed price gouging by oil and gas companies.

In his remarks Tuesday, Biden said he wanted “to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump” and announced he would be “closely monitoring” energy supplies for disruptions. That’s hardly an aggressive posture.

Biden went on to promise to execute “a plan in coordination with major oil-producing consumers and producers toward a collective investment to secure stability and global energy supplies.” Shouldn’t that plan be operational by now?

In this week’s new Gallup Poll, taken Feb. 1-17, Biden’s job approval came in at 41 percent approve to 55 percent disapprove. When asked about Biden’s handling of Russia, voters appear to have already soured on the administration’s strategy so far, with 36 percent approving and 55 percent disapproving. On Biden’s handling of the economy, which would reflect attitudes toward inflation and rising energy costs, only 37 percent approve of the job he is doing.

Joe Biden’s progressive policies have driven his popularity and credibility with the American people down a steady slope over the past year, and now he faces a steep climb out of a deep hole for both himself and his party. Yet this president seems totally unable or unwilling to change direction in order to get ahead of emerging issues, languishing in a no man’s land of inaction, indecision and head-scratching poor choices.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.