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Experts react March 7, 2024

Experts react: The big takeaways from Biden’s ‘no ordinary moment’ State of the Union

By Atlantic Council experts

“We will not bow down.” US President Joe Biden began his State of the Union address on Thursday with a message to Russian President Vladimir Putin—and to Congress, urging those assembled in the House chamber to pass a bipartisan security bill to help Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Inverting the usual structure of such speeches, which tend to lead with domestic affairs, Biden spoke about NATO enlargement and the world-historical moment. He also detailed a new plan to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, tackled the thorny problem of illegal immigration, defended his economic record, and more. Our experts break it all down below.

Click to jump to an expert analysis:

Jenna Ben-Yehuda: This was an historic pep talk for US global leadership

Matthew Kroenig: It’s right to stress the importance of Ukraine. Wrong to downplay conflict with China.

John E. Herbst: Biden’s push for Ukraine is good politics. The policy can get better.

William F. Wechsler: Biden has been increasing pressure on Netanyahu

Jason Marczak: Failure to find a middle ground on border security should not surprise anyone

Shelby Magid: For Ukraine, all eyes are on Speaker Johnson. But is there another way forward?

Thomas S. Warrick: Biden goes on offense on border security

Josh Lipsky: Biden tries to reframe the US economy, while downplaying China

Graham Brookie: Biden doubles down on democracy, but avoids AI

This was an historic pep talk for US global leadership

In an historic State of the Union speech in which foreign policy and domestic policy concerns were framed crisply as American concerns, an energetic Biden opened confidently by describing the critical dynamic of our time as a pitched contest between democracies and autocracies. The speech’s early emphasis on foreign policy focused on the centrality of Russia’s war in Ukraine as both a global fight and a uniquely American one tied to our own values of freedom. Biden spoke directly to Putin, assuring him that the United States “will not walk away” and “will not bow down.” He then implored members of Congress to approve crucial support to Ukraine to advance American interests without putting US soldiers in harm’s way. Biden welcomed Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson to the chamber on that nation’s first day as a member of NATO—an organization Biden labeled as the world’s “strongest military alliance” in history. He went on to address climate change, China, Israel, the Palestinians, Hamas, and the Houthis, all through the valence of their relevance to US interests. 

This State of the Union address was a pep talk for US global leadership—a reminder that freedom and democracy are American values and that the mantle of global leadership remains ours if we are bold enough to seize it.

Jenna Ben-Yehuda is the executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, and the former president and chief executive officer of the Truman National Security Project and the Truman Center for National Policy.

It’s right to stress the importance of Ukraine. Wrong to downplay conflict with China.

Foreign policy is a major election-year issue. It was notable that Biden started a State of the Union with a discussion of not “the economy stupid,” but of NATO and Russia’s war in Ukraine. Biden is right that the United States should aid Ukraine to beat back Putin’s aggression and that NATO is stronger than ever with the addition of Finland and Sweden. He is also right that Putin’s aggression would “not stop with Ukraine.” He could increase support for this effort by laying out a clear strategy for victory, such as that outlined recently by Atlantic Council experts.

The greatest national security threat facing the country, however, is China, a topic raised near the end of the speech. Biden is right that the United States and its allies are stronger and China weaker than many appreciate.

It is incorrect, however, to say we want “competition with China, but not conflict.” This is a struggle for global order between the free world and a genocidal communist dictatorship. It is not competition. It is not a tennis match. It is already a state of confrontation and, yes, conflict. The goal is not to avoid conflict. It is too late for that. The goal for the second Cold War, as Reagan said about the first Cold War, should be “we win, they lose.”

Matthew Kroenig is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and the Council’s director of studies. He formerly worked on Iran policy in the US intelligence community and the US Department of Defense.

Biden’s push for Ukraine is good politics. The policy can get better.

The State of the Union is overwhelmingly a political statement and, during a year divisible by four and with a first-term president, politics reigns supreme; and national security issues usually take a rear seat. But this year was a bit different. Biden started his address with a clear description of the danger posed by Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, not just for Ukraine, but for the United States. In a commendably bipartisan way, he summoned the example of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, who boldly confronted the adversaries of freedom abroad, and deftly explained that a Russian victory in Ukraine is a direct threat to the United States. (The bipartisan tone disappeared from the speech after that.) 

Circumstances dictated Biden’s approach. The now five-month blockage of a large US aid package for Ukraine by a small faction of Republicans in the House of Representatives is weakening Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, raising the specter of a possible Russian victory there and undermining US global leadership. The State of the Union is the bully pulpit for the commander in chief to urge US legislators and the American people to protect our nation. 

The need now is for Speaker of the House Mike Johnson to put the aid package on the floor (or for a majority of House members to sign a discharge petition), and then for the House to approve it. In making this appeal to pass the aid for Ukraine, Biden was doing the right thing to secure US national security interests but also to advance his political prospects. A majority of Americans support continuing military and economic aid to Ukraine, and that includes more than 40 percent of Republican voters. Former presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s strong call for defeating Russia in Ukraine was one reason for the support she received in the Republican primaries. Haley voters could be an important factor in the general election. Biden’s use of the State of the Union may well be his opening bid to persuade her supporters to back him in November. He underscored that by criticizing remarks made by “a former Republican president” for Putin to “do whatever the hell you want.”

Biden’s handling of the Russian threat in the State of the Union was strong but could have been better in advancing US security and in convincing Haley’s national-security-minded voters to move his way. While Biden has sent substantial aid to Ukraine, he has been timid in sending more advanced weapons such as longer-range ATACMS ground-to-ground missiles and F-16s in adequate quantities. This was a principal reason for the modest gains on land of Ukraine’s counter-offensive last year. This speech would have been just the place to announce a bolder, more effective policy to deliver a defeat to Putin, and to caution authoritarians everywhere that trifling with the United States is bad business.

John E. Herbst is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

Biden has been increasing pressure on Netanyahu

Nobody can fairly accuse Biden of not being a steadfast supporter of Israel’s security. He therefore appreciates, apparently more so than top policymakers in Jerusalem, that even as Israel seeks to achieve its necessary military objectives against Hamas, its long-term security is being put at risk by the scale of the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the absence of any credible Israeli plan to address it. His announcement tonight that the United States will build a temporary port for aid deliveries by sea will help mitigate the humanitarian crisis, enabling “a massive increase in the amount of humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza every day,” Biden noted. But only Israel can truly address the crisis. “Humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip,” Biden added.

Even more significant, however, is the diplomatic message that Washington is sending to Jerusalem. The Biden administration has been steadily increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the past six weeks, moving beyond quiet diplomacy to making their disagreements public to taking actions in response. By my count this is the fifth such action. The first, early last month, was an executive order imposing sanctions on violent West Bank settlers and establishing authorities for doing more. The second, a little over a week later, was a demand (respected, thus far) that Israel not invade Rafah without a plan to protect civilians, and a coordinated international diplomatic effort, appropriately leaked, to reinforce the message. The third, last Sunday, was the launch of a series of US air drops of humanitarian aid, in conjunction with key Arab and European partners. The fourth, only a few days ago, was the welcome of Benny Gantz to Washington (and then London), intentionally receiving him in a manner exceeding his current “minister without portfolio” role but more appropriate for a prime minister, the position many in both cities hope he will hold soon. And now, the fifth, is the opening of a maritime route for aid to reach Gaza, a mechanism that Israel is not in a position to impede. Before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, then Secretary of State Colin Powell famously warned President George W. Bush of the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it.” Today, Israel needs to understand that truism. Having broken Gaza, it now owns the responsibility to provide for the basic needs of its population, at least until another entity can be found to do so. Netanyahu should recognize that as long as he continues to refuse to accept this responsibility, he should expect additional actions by Biden in the weeks and months ahead.

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. His most recent US government position was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combatting terrorism.

Failure to find a middle ground on border security should not surprise anyone

The US-Mexico border was expected to figure prominently into the State of the Union speech. And it did. With southwest border encounters hitting a record high of more than 302,000 in December 2023—before dropping to 176,000 in January—Biden used his nationwide address to highlight what he called a “bipartisan bill with the toughest set of border security reforms we’ve ever seen in this country.” 

Republicans jeered; Democrats cheered. It was, of course, long bound to be a moment of contention in an election year in which border politics will continue to figure prominently, and in a State of the Union speech that came eight months before election day.

The bipartisan bill that the president referred to, which Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had delegated to Senator James Lankford to negotiate on the Republican side, never got its chance on the floor of the Senate. The bill had sought to find a balance between stronger border enforcement measures, quicker asylum processing, and even giving the president the power to temporarily shut the border at times of migrant surges. 

And while the bill sought to find a middle ground, its failure to advance is not a surprise. Why? No major immigration reform legislation has made it into law in nearly thirty years. The last significant bipartisan attempt at reforming the US immigration system came over ten years ago, when the Gang of Eight—a group of four Republican and four Democrat senators—moved their bill through the Senate but without a vote in the House. 

Unfortunately, while the United States continues to demur over policies to stem the high numbers of border encounters, inaction is not just impacting this country. It is placing a burden on the many Latin American countries that are likewise seeing record numbers of migrants in transit to the United States and are feeling the weight of increasingly strained fiscal resources to manage these transitory flows.

Jason Marczak is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

For Ukraine, all eyes are on Speaker Johnson. But is there another way forward?

Since arriving in the White House, Biden has declared “America is back” on the international stage. Biden’s State of the Union address made it clear from the start that his administration prioritizes the United States’ role as leader of the free world, but there’s one big problem—it isn’t just up to him. Congress controls the purse strings, so the United States needs congressional leaders who are willing and able to live up to the US leadership role in the world. That means stepping up now and funding Ukraine. Biden used Thursday’s speech to “wake up this Congress,” lay out the threat of Russian aggression to US national security and interests, and push for the House to pass a bipartisan national security bill that includes assistance for Ukraine.

The American people are listening; so are Russia and Ukraine. But the primary question is whether House Speaker Mike Johnson and his fellow House Republicans will be moved to act. A relatively small portion of the House Republican conference is the only obstacle to an aid deal moving forward. These members’ obstinance is threatening the United States’ global position, reliability, and security—while Johnson tries to figure out what paths forward may work for his own political future. As Biden said, “history is watching.”

But there are a few options still available beyond the first choice of Johnson bringing the Senate-passed foreign aid spending package to the floor in the House: a rarely used discharge petition, whereby a majority of representatives can force a bill to the floor whether a committee or party leadership likes it or not. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Jared Golden (D-ME) have offered one version of this idea tackling Ukraine, Taiwan, and Israel funding along with immigration measures, while Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) is hoping to force an up-or-down vote on the Senate bill. Other options may include bringing standalone bills to the floor tackling aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately, but this will draw out a process that has already gone on too long. 

If “America is back,” all US leaders must act accordingly—not along partisan lines and not tied up in the political ambitions of a small group of misguided representatives.

Shelby Magid is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

Biden goes on offense on border security

Biden probably did not think two years ago that border security was going to be one of the defining issues of his presidency. But this is where the United States is today, and the State of the Union speech showed how Biden plans to go on the offensive to highlight his willingness to sign one of the toughest border security and immigration deals in decades. 

In his 2023 State of the Union, Biden asked Congress to support his plan to provide equipment and officers to secure the border. This year, Biden called on Congress to pass the bipartisan Senate compromise that would significantly increase resources for border security and immigration and speed up the processing of asylum claims that are clogging up immigration courts. Conservative Senator James Lankford (R-OK) nodded in agreement as Biden called this bill the toughest set of border security reforms the country has seen. In January, former President Donald Trump told Republicans to block the bipartisan compromise, likely so that he could run on the issue in the 2024 presidential campaign. In the State of the Union speech Thursday night, Biden showed he plans to call out Republicans, saying the country can fight about the border or start to fix it.

The reality is that another year without the additional people, money, and policy changes needed to fix border security and the broken immigration system is not going to make these problems easier to solve.

Thomas S. Warrick is a senior fellow and director of the Future of DHS Project at the Atlantic Council. He served in the Department of State from 1997-2007 and as deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security from 2008 to 2019.

Biden tries to reframe the US economy, while downplaying China

Biden argued tonight that the US economy is “the envy of the world”—is he right? Our own analysis at the GeoEconomics Center shows that at least compared to peers in the Group of Seven (G7), he has a point:

In fact, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan are all in a technical recession. Biden pointed out the historic lows in the unemployment rate and the nearly 800,000 new manufacturing jobs created in the past three years.

The problem is that despite the statistics, most Americans can’t feel relative success compared to other countries. He’s right that inflation is falling quickly, but most Americans are still coping with significantly higher prices compared to two years ago.

That’s why much of the economic section of the speech was aimed at trying to shift the way American families feel about their personal finances. From pre-school to paid family leave to prescription drug prices to credit card fees and even cable bills, Biden was trying to show how his plans would improve Americans’ everyday lives. Perhaps the most innovative proposal was a special tax credit to help homebuyers dealing with high interest rates. The new idea reflects a recognition that the US housing market is locked up thanks to a wave of refinancing during the pandemic.

What was surprising was how little time was spent on China. The world’s second-largest economy and the United States’ most significant competitor was quickly dealt with in a few paragraphs as Biden pointed out the weaknesses in China’s economy. It’s a change from recent years when the China challenge framed so many of the policy priorities for both parties.

Josh Lipsky is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center. He previously served as an adviser at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Biden doubles down on democracy, but avoids AI

Throughout the State of the Union, Biden coherently laid out the stakes of a world with rising geopolitical competition, rapid technological change, and democracy itself remaining under threat during the largest global election year in history. On foreign policy, the president doubled down on themes essential to our work at the Atlantic Council: working together with allies and partners to shape a global future. 

The vast majority of time spent on rapid technological change was focused on expanding the United States’ industrial base on semiconductors and limiting competitors’—explicitly China’s—ability to access advanced technologies made possible by innovation and industry in the democratic world. Artificial intelligence has dominated the conversation throughout much of the year, but it only received a passing mention in the State of the Union, despite last fall’s long, landmark executive order providing rules of the road for government and shaping security standards for industry.

Graham Brookie is the vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. He previously served in various White House positions, including on the National Security Council.

Further reading

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler, Shelby Magid, John E. Herbst, Jenna Ben-Yehuda, Matthew Kroenig, Jason Marczak, Thomas S. Warrick, Josh Lipsky, and Graham Brookie

Image: US President Joe Biden delivers his third State of the Union address in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on March 7, 2024. Photo via Shawn Thew/Pool via REUTERS.