The Back Booth: Biden Finds Unity on Ukraine, But Little at Home

The Back Booth will be hosting a weekend edition, The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief Click here.

Within a week President Joe Biden accomplished remarkable feats. FurledThese are the most aggressive UnifiedWatched as President Vladimir Putin reacted to all sanctions against Russia. Shaking my headThey can be taken off. InvadedUkraine and America’s leader DeliveredThis was his most significant speech to Congress in five years of service.
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As the week unfolded and the fallout from Russia’s invasion continued, I chatted by email with two longtime strategists and pals who launched their own consulting firms. The left Christy Setzer has been in some of the highest-stakes rooms over the last two decades, including working for three presidential campaigns and two of the nation’s biggest unions. Her frequent appearances on the cable network circuit include taking invitations to sessions with Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs and others.

You will find the following: Alex Conant has been mainstream Republicans’ go-to hand for stable communications and competent media strategies. A veteran of two presidential campaigns and dozens of congressional campaigns, he’s also a former Republican National Committee and Bush 43 White House spokesman. He’s never been accused in any way of giving sugar-coating advice.

This conversation was lightly edited.

Philip Elliott: Diving right in: How do you prepare for tomorrow’s State of the Union given the unresolved SituationIn Ukraine Will you allow Putin to take over what was historically a domestic speech The Axis of Evil rhetoricAs an emblematic creep of foreign policies into speech, I think back to the 2002 SOTU. Do we need to be looking out for something like this? Is President Biden simply ignoring Putin and plodding on?

Alex Conant: The goal of any SOTU is to make the case for the Administration’s record and build support for the agenda. To what extent a SOTU should focus on domestic versus international priorities depends entirely on what the President’s top priorities are.

Christy Setzer: I envision a two-part speech: leaning-in hard on Ukraine first, then shifting to domestic priorities, but in a way that connects the two—how we’re standing up for American values at home and abroad.

Elliott: If you’re a member of Congress watching this unfold, how much of tomorrow’s response is tempered given the foreign consideration? Are constituents simply not concerned at the moment?

Conant, Biden: Ukraine will be a place where both the sides of the aisle can enthusiastically applaud. You can expect to see many blue-yellow lapel pins and scarves among the crowd. Because of the critical importance of information and pictures in the war, many people will see a lot more blue-yellow ties, scarfs, and lapel pins than any Biden policy. Biden must and will embrace this.

Setzer: The President of the United States, Joe Biden, must make connections in Ukraine Why? we care: not just because there’s a potential for nuclear war—though, to me, that is admittedly compelling—but also because of what we stand for as Americans. It’s the same things the Ukrainians stand for. Democracies over authoritarianism. For the poor and marginalized. Collective action, sacrifice, selflessness and teamwork are all necessary to overcome an immense uphill struggle.

Conant: Biden’s domestic agenda has mostly stalled, and I’m sure he will try to use this speech to build some momentum. His problem is that Democrats seem to have too many priorities, and they don’t have any priorities. For political reasons he will want and need to give equal attention to inflation, infrastructure, education, climate change, voting rights, union priorities, his new SCOTUS nominee, and COVID—and I’m probably forgetting something. Assuming that the politically divisive laundry list comes after the emotional, unified Ukraine section at the top of the speech, it’s really hard to imagine that his domestic agenda builds any momentum.

Setzer, State of the Union Addresses are meant to unite us. “The state of our union is strong.” No better way to do that than in the face of a common enemy, and a reminder of our core beliefs. He must then carry that metaphor forward when discussing domestic priorities. Common enemy #2: COVID.

There’s a lot Americans should feel good about right now, and don’t. (See also: Biden’s approval Ratings.) He also reminded us about what it means for Americans to live in a democracy that is thriving. Now he needs to connect dots on the economy. Record-breaking job growth. A way out of a crisis. We’re not there yet, but we’re very much on the right path.

Elliott: We’re only a few minutes into this speech. Biden is bringing vengeance on the SOTU, or am I just being naive? It feels more like the President has a sermon about Ukraine than just a political address.

Setzer: Definitely. He’s leaning on that Senate Foreign Relations Committee background. And from a purely political perspective, why wouldn’t you stay as long as possible on the topic that gets you bipartisan standing Os?

Conant, totally agree. Biden won the election precisely because primary and general election voters thought he’d be better in a crisis like this. It was crucial for him to take advantage of the situation and put as much pressure as possible on Putin. The headline for tomorrow will be based on what he has said. It was difficult to transition to a divisive, stalled domestic agenda. It was easy to feel the air leave the room and the switch to Netflix.

Elliott: Where does the White House move from now? What happens to the Senate?

Setzer: Here’s the problem: Biden seemed to do very well with independents and the soft middle with that speech, but he may have actively hurt himself with progressives. Is that a laundry list of domestic agenda issues? I would’ve spent that valuable real estate on thematics: more on who we are and why it matters. Pivot for accountability. Was January 6th mentioned in the speech? When we decide to “look forward, not back,” when the rear view mirror has a lot of Criminality and treason, you send the message that we’ll look the other way on active crimes in the name of bipartisanship. That’s a terrible message.

Some of my clients were also angry today about “fund the police,” which seemed like a stick in the eye of Black voters who delivered the Senate to Dems last January. And Why?Manchin was sitting on the Republican party side. The bottom line: Biden might have brought the middle in at the cost of the left making it even harder for Congress to achieve real achievements.

Elliott: So, as we wrap up this week, I’m grateful for your time and candor. Looking ahead to the week ahead, which areas should you be paying more attention? Which areas are you focusing on for your clients?

Conant: What happens in Ukraine will be the biggest news this week. It’s an incredibly volatile and tragic situation that will continue to dominate Washington’s agenda for the foreseeable future. There’s other stuff going on—the government-funding BillThe SCOTUS and Nomination—but none of it will capture much attention as long as there’s a war in Europe.

Setzer: The top news for this week? Of course it is any! DevelopmentsUkraine and how Congress continues to experience an odd unity. Zweiten, Biden’s ability to take advantage of the fantastic new jobs ReportTo address the gap between Americans’ perceptions of the economy and its actual performance.

Elliott: It was really useful. I’m very glad we were able to chat.


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