Skip to main content

That was a chipper and confident Joe Biden giving the State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Small wonder. His presidency has been given a new life. Vladimir Putin’s barbaric assault on Ukraine has shifted the focus from the President’s debilitating domestic woes to a leadership role on the global stage confronting the march of authoritarianism.

Mr. Biden has an opportunity to unite his brutally fractured republic against a common enemy. In a rare show of bipartisanship, typically disdainful Republicans actually stood to applaud him as he expressed his resolve in meeting the Putin challenge. “It is in this moment that our character is formed, our purpose is found,” Mr. Biden said. “I know this nation. We will meet the test.”

The Russian autocrat’s butchery resets the course, not just for this president, but the country. American leadership has become indispensable again. The end of the Cold War had the effect of making the world less reliant on the United States. The sudden onset of Cold War 2 changes that equation.

External threats have been a consensus-building, unifying force through American history. Now its people have common purpose again, and its transatlantic allies are suddenly unified to a degree not seen in decades.

Allies like Canada could not be enthused by the economic thrust of the Biden speech, however, as he doubled down on his pledge to rebuild manufacturing via domestic sourcing. “We’re going to do it by buying American,” he vowed. “Made in America from beginning to end. All of it. All of it.”

In the speech, which offered an overstated list of good deeds accomplished and more to come, Mr. Biden devoted considerable time to trying to reassure Americans that the days of COVID-19 anguish would soon be behind them. But the war was the major focus.

The magnitude of the invasion dwarfs most everything that transpired in the first year of his stewardship. He set out to be a New Deal president but might be more comfortable and more suited, despite his bungling of the Afghanistan withdrawal, to the role of defender of the free world.

Missing from his speech was any major new initiatives against Russia or an articulation of a more wide-ranging foreign policy. Regrettably, he passed on an opportunity to appeal directly to the Russian people with a message that they are being isolated by their dictator’s act of madness and will suffer grievous economic consequences as a result.

Mr. Biden’s confidence – “I am more optimistic about America today than I have been my whole life” – runs up against perilous realities. The threat of a thermonuclear confrontation, given the Putin bombast, cannot be entirely discounted. While the naked aggression has brought on condemnation throughout the world, the Russian leader still appears to have the support of China. The impact of the war could touch off a new arms race, resulting in less resources for other priorities. Inflation could ramp up even more than it already has.

Politically, however, Mr. Biden hopes to benefit from several factors: the rally-around-the-flag effect; the competence he has displayed thus far in forging the economic sequestration of Russia; and the perverse response to the crisis of the Republican Party, which sometimes looked to be more on board with the Kremlin than Ukraine.

Normally the Republicans, the party at the helm at the end of the first Cold War, would be in an advantageous position as espousers of a hard line stance against Russia. But under Donald Trump, the party was a Putin patsy. Defence assistance to Ukraine was frozen and Mr. Trump was impeached for his attempt to allegedly blackmail its president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

But Mr. Biden has hardly been impressive in his dealings with the Russian strongman who interfered in the 2016 election in a bid to help Mr. Trump gain the White House. Rather than recoil, he treated Mr. Putin with a measure of patience, almost respect. While lacking domestic support for a military confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, Mr. Biden need not have given Mr. Putin the green light by publicly vowing to keep his forces out of any conflict. Had he left the door open, it may have had the effect of making Mr. Putin think more than twice about an assault.

Nevertheless, the crisis could work in Mr. Biden’s favour. He appeared to be headed for a disastrous defeat in the midterm elections. That still may be the case. But his presidency has been recast. Courtesy of the autocrat’s monstrous aggression, he has a chance of reasserting his leadership and that of his country.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe