In a fractured political moment at home and abroad, it is unclear whether President Biden can bring many Americans along.
President Biden could very well go down in history as the last American president born during World War II and shaped by a view of American power nurtured in the Cold War. No other leader on the world stage today can boast that they sat in the Israeli prime minister’s office 50 years ago with Golda Meir, or discussed dismantling Soviet nuclear weapons with Mikhail Gorbachev.
So perhaps it is no surprise that the twin wars in which Mr. Biden has chosen to insert the United States — defending Ukraine as it tries to repel a nuclear-armed invader, and now promising aid to Israel in wiping out the leadership of Hamas — have brought out a passion, emotion and a clarity that is usually missing from the president’s ordinarily flat and meandering speeches.
To Mr. Biden’s mind, this has been the moment he has trained for his entire political career, a point he often makes when challenged about his age. In the past eight months, he has visited two countries in the midst of active wars. He has married his public embraces with private cautions, and kept American troops out of both conflicts — so far. He seems determined to prove that for all the critiques that the United States is a divided, declining power, it remains the only nation that can mold events in a world of unpredictable mayhem.
“When presidents get into their sweet spot you usually see and hear it, and in the past few weeks you have seen and heard it,” said Michael Beschloss, the historian and author of “Presidents of War,” which traces the rocky history of Mr. Biden’s predecessors as they plunged into global conflicts, avoided a few, and sometimes came to regret their choices.
Whether Mr. Biden can bring the American population along, however, is a more unsettled question than at any moment in his presidency, and the backdrop of his rare Oval Office address on Thursday night. If the past 18 months are any guide, he will talk of America’s role to support democracy over autocracy, to restore a global order that is fast unraveling, and make the case that there is no higher cause than protecting free people from invasion and terrorism.
It is a far harder case to make now than in February 2022, when President Vladimir V. Putin tried a lightning-strike attack to overthrow an imperfect democracy in Ukraine and restore the Russian empire of Peter the Great. The initial overwhelming support for Ukraine — one of the few issues that seemed to unify Democrats and Republicans — is clearly shattering, with a growing part of the Republican Party arguing that this is not America’s fight. The slog across the Donbas, and the prospect of a long conflict in which Mr. Putin is waiting to see if America will elect former President Donald J. Trump or someone of similar antipathy to the war effort, only complicates the picture.
A building damaged by a Russian attack in Chernihiv, Ukraine. Support for Kyiv is waning among Republican lawmakers. Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times
Now Mr. Biden’s whole-body embrace of Israel, so vivid in his seven-hour visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday, may prove an equal challenge. After the horrific scenes of burned babies and kibbutz residents shot, raped or taken hostage by Hamas, he will almost certainly get the billions he is expected to ask for tonight to defend Israel. He has already invoked the history of Harry Truman’s momentous decision in 1948 to recognize Israel moments after it declared its independence, arguing that 75 years later “we will make sure the Jewish and democratic state of Israel can defend itself today, tomorrow — as we always have.”
But already his administration is hearing strident criticism — some within his own administration — that he has tilted too far, and done too little to restrain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from cutting off food, water and electricity in Gaza and from preparing for a ground invasion that could kill thousands more Palestinians. The critique of American policy is most audible in some corners of the State Department, where there are already widespread reports of dissent that the U.S. support for Israel comes at the expense of protecting Palestinian civilians.
“I recognize the Israeli government’s right to respond and to defend themselves,” Josh Paul, a longtime diplomat in the State Department’s Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, which overseas much of the American aid to Israel, told The Washington Post as he announced his resignation late Wednesday. “I guess I question how many Palestinian children have to die in that process.”
In private conversations and some social media chats, there is a growing wave of internal critique that Mr. Biden and his aides mistook a quieter moment in the Middle East before the Hamas invasion as an indication the status quo in Gaza and the West Bank was sustainable. And in private, even some aides around Mr. Biden say they fear the narrative around Israel and Hamas already is shifting, with memories of the horror of that bloody Saturday morning 12 days ago giving way to imagery of the destruction and desperation in Gaza.
That was underscored by the speed at which anti-Israel protests broke out after the deadly explosion at a Gaza City hospital, even as the U.S. government said its preliminary assessment determined that Israeli forces were not responsible for the blast. It made little difference to public sentiment in Gaza because so much of the misery there has been inflicted by Israeli bombs, a point that Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, made on Wednesday when he said in a statement that “the targeting of civilians is a war crime, no matter who does it. Israel’s blanket denial of food, water and other necessities to Gaza is a serious violation of international law.”
Mr. Biden’s response is that experience has taught him that the best way to moderate Mr. Netanyahu’s behavior is to wrap him in support — and whisper a warning into his ear. He has made sure that members of his administration and allies are constantly in the country, and in Mr. Netanyahu’s war room, to keep the Israelis from rushing into a broad invasion.
Smoke rose from destroyed houses in Khan Younis, Gaza.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, the stepson of a Holocaust survivor who escaped a death camp and was saved by an American tank commander, has used his credentials as a friend of Israel to urge it to think hard about how it conducts the operations in Gaza.
Between Mr. Blinken’s visits, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the commander of United States Central Command, General Michael E. Kurilla, have been in Israel, advising on everything from getting hostages released to alternative strategies for dismantling Hamas. On Thursday it was Britain’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, who began a two-day visit to Israel and saw Mr. Netanyahu.
The idea is to keep someone there every day, urging Israel to think through the endgame, one senior official of a NATO country said. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategies.
Mr. Biden’s strategy has another element to it: While he is showing his support for both Ukraine and Israel, he has ruled out putting Americans directly into the fight. That is drawn from the experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, where support for the American effort was drained by the scenes of casualties that seemed increasingly pointless, and by the failure of American ambitions — a reality Mr. Biden alluded to in Tel Aviv when he spoke of the mistakes that grew from a post-Sept. 11 focus on vengeance.
On Thursday night, Mr. Biden’s challenge is to get Americans, and the world, to rally behind his four major goals. The first is to keep the aid flowing into Ukraine, so that Mr. Putin cannot wait out the West and strangle the country. The second goal for Mr. Biden is killing off Hamas. And the third is to keep both wars from spreading.
And the final objective is to make the case that all of this can be accomplished without bringing more death and misery to noncombatants caught in a world once again on fire.