- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2022

President Biden finds himself in a familiar spot after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine: playing catch-up.

The commander in chief waited until after the invasion to start ordering sanctions against Russia for the unfolding military clash. It’s the latest instance when Mr. Biden’s lagging responses make it harder for him to navigate challenges at home and abroad.

Critics say Mr. Biden, 79, has been running behind on the major issues of his presidency: pulling out of Afghanistan, combating record-high inflation, rescinding COVID-19 mask policies, fighting a spike in crime, unblocking supply chain bottlenecks and now sanctioning Russia.

“At every turn it seems [the] Biden Administration is being caught flat-footed,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a post on Twitter. “This must change.”

Republican pollster David Winston said Mr. Biden “has been consistently reacting to situations because they didn’t understand what was occurring in an effective way to be able to address it earlier.”

“They’ve been purely reactive,” he said in an interview. “He’s constantly responding, which makes it much more difficult to shape the situation.”

SEE ALSO: Russia attacks Ukraine from air, land; West condemns Putin; Zelenskyy declares martial law

As the perception of weakness grows, independent voters are leaving Mr. Biden in droves and his job-approval rating is underwater by as much as 30 percentage points among that key group.

“The group that’s really tanked on him has been the group that got him elected: independents,” Mr. Winston said. “At the moment, the majority coalition that he put together in 2020 is not there.”

Some Democrats acknowledge they are anxious about what they see as Mr. Biden’s half-measures against Russia. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, Michigan Democrat, said Wednesday that the sanctions on Moscow “just have to go a lot stronger and a lot more personal.”

“You can target these folks who are holding Putin up in a much more severe way that I’d like to see,” she said on Fox News.

Others who agree that Mr. Biden has been slow to respond to various crises are not including Russia. They note his recent warnings about an invasion and rallying of the international community.

“There has been a ‘catch-up’ pattern, but not with Ukraine, where Biden and his national security team have been working on building a coalition, developing a strategy and pre-positioning U.S. security and military assets since October,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s political science department.

SEE ALSO: Dow drops as Russia invades Ukraine; oil prices reach $100 per barrel

“One of the signs of Biden’s skillful handling of Ukraine is the broad, though not universal, support of Senate Republicans,” he said. “Another is the coordination of often fractious NATO and EU countries.”

Foreign policy analysts, though, say the Biden administration and its predecessors have been neglecting the situation too long and question whether they can make up for the lost time.

Clifford May, the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said efforts to “contain and restrain” Mr. Putin should have begun in 2008, when he carved out provinces from neighboring Georgia, and after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

“Because such efforts were not undertaken, Putin has been emboldened,” Mr. May said. “The result is that Ukraine now faces an existential threat. Biden now needs to make up for this long and large strategic deficit. It’s not clear he’s up to the challenge.”

Mr. Biden this week met Mr. Putin’s deployment of troops into Ukraine’s Donbas region with financial sanctions targeting the Russian president, his inner circle of oligarchs, Russian banks and other power players and influential companies. On Wednesday, the president also slapped sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, the Swiss company that built it and its executives.

“We will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate,” Mr. Biden said.  

European nations also hit the pipeline with financial penalties.

Democrats counter that Mr. Biden is resolving problems he inherited from Mr. Trump and objected this week when Mr. Trump said Mr. Putin is a “genius” whose strategy in Ukraine is “smart.”

Mr. Trump also said Mr. Putin wouldn’t have tried the move if he were still president.

“Had I been in office, not even thinkable,” Mr. Trump said. “And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response.”

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh said the sanctions on Russia are “meant to prevent and deter a large-scale invasion of Ukraine that could involve the seizure of major cities, including Kyiv.”

“They’re meant to prevent large-scale human suffering that could involve tens of thousands of casualties in a conflict,” he said. “And they’re meant to prevent the installation of a puppet government, controlled by Moscow, that subjugates the will of Ukraine and prevents the people of Ukraine from choosing their own destiny and setting their own course.”

Similar questions swirled around Mr. Biden’s lagging response in late August when the rapid crumbling of Afghanistan caught the administration off guard.

The White House scrambled for answers amid public outcry over the deaths of American soldiers and images of desperate Afghans chasing a U.S. Air Force cargo plane as it took off from the Kabul airport. The footage included images of some Afghans dropping from the sky after they climbed into the plane’s wheel well.

That proved to be a turning point for Mr. Biden, whose approval rating slid underwater for the first time. It has yet to recover.

Independent voters are abandoning Mr. Biden, who won the group in 2020 by 13 percentage points. He was underwater with independents by 29 points and 34 points in Economist/YouGov and Morning Consult/Politico polls, respectively, that were released this week.

As a result, Mr. Biden is running out of time before the midterm elections to prove that experience matters and to give Democrats a jolt of momentum in what is shaping up to be a tough election year for the party.

“That’s a real problem for Democrats when he’s not out there leading on different issues,” Mr. Winston said.

Mr. Biden pitched voters on the idea that the 36 years he logged in the Senate and the eight he spent as President Obama’s right hand equipped him with the know-how and bipartisan relationships needed to lower the partisan tension on Capitol Hill, dig the nation out of the COVID-19 crisis and bolster the nation’s image on the global stage.

That message is getting a serious test in Ukraine and in the halls of Congress, where Mr. Biden fell short in his quest to pass an overhaul of federal election law and his $1.75 trillion social safety net program.

The infighting among Democrats, meanwhile, is picking up speed. Far-left lawmakers blame their more moderate counterparts for the party’s struggles, and vice versa.

The situation was different a year ago.

Mr. Biden was receiving high marks for his rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and for delivering on his promise to provide another round of stimulus checks after Democrats drove the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package through Congress.

The good times soon came to a screeching halt.

COVID-19 returned with force from the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus, putting a renewed focus on Mr. Biden’s failure to follow through on his pledge to fix a shortage of tests, adding to lingering voter frustration with pandemic protocols related to mask and vaccine mandates.

The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and rising inflation made things worse.

Gallup surveys this week showed Mr. Biden’s approval rating is underwater on his response to the coronavirus, foreign affairs and the economy.

Perhaps more worrisome for Mr. Biden is a Pew Research survey that found Democratic support is tapering off as well.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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