What Biden needs to do Tuesday
night is to take the time to play explainer in chief. A State of the Union is
that rare moment when a president has the time and the platform to embark on an
in-depth discussion of foreign policy. The moment can be misused—most notably
by George W. Bush unveiling “the axis of evil” and setting the groundwork
for the Iraq War in his 2002 speech. But a president could also hit the right note, as Biden did on Ukraine last year.
This is not an appeal to Biden’s
speechwriters to come up with a compelling new metaphor or stirring emotional
argument to sell the Ukrainian war to its skeptics. Instead of oratorical
tricks, Biden should sketch out in clear fashion the strategic implications for
America if Putin eventually were to succeed in his drive to swallow large chunks
of Ukrainian territory. Such a presidential chalk talk would also outline the
dire implications for the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all NATO
members—if Putin were not deterred in Ukraine. Biden could also explain how comparatively
modest the $113 billion that America has appropriated for
Ukraine in 2022 looks against the backdrop of the $31 trillion national debt
and the astronomical costs if America were obligated by treaty to come to the
direct military aid of a NATO ally.
There is the understandable
temptation in the Biden White House to believe that there is no need to devote
more than a handful of paragraphs to Ukraine in the State of the Union. The
ingredients are obvious: words of praise for Zelenskiy, a surprise Ukrainian
guest sitting with Jill Biden in the balcony, and concluding with a few lines
underscoring the president’s resolve.