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As Biden leads free world against Putin, Trump equivocates

Analysis: The president is at the forefront of a coalition that isolated the Russian strongman and rallied to aid Ukraine as his predecessor swiped from the sidelines.
Image: President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2022
If there was any doubt about the larger role Biden sees himself in, he clarified by using the phrase "free world" three times at his State of the Union address on Tuesday.Saul Loeb / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — It is rare that a president can show he is living up to the mantle of "leader of the free world" — and even less common for him to do so against the backdrop of his main political rival praising an autocrat.

But that's what President Joe Biden did during his first State of the Union address, highlighting how he has led the Western world in defending Ukraine against Russia's invasion.

"Six days ago, Russia’s Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways. But he badly miscalculated," Biden said to a roaring, bipartisan standing ovation on the House floor Tuesday night.

"He thought he could divide us at home, in this chamber and in this nation," Biden continued. "He thought he could divide us in Europe, as well. But Putin was wrong. We are united, and that's what we did. We stayed united."

The one notable exception: former President Donald Trump.

Less than two weeks ago, Trump praised Putin as a "genius." On Saturday, during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, he altered his formulation to blaming Western leaders for being "so dumb." And, just hours before the applause washed over Biden, Trump complained that Republicans, Democrats and the news media "misinterpret" his remarks about Ukraine — even as he again declined to directly criticize Putin.

"The Russian attack on Ukraine is appalling," he said Saturday night. "It is an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur."

Wherever Trump stands, it is not with Biden's anti-Putin legion. Biden is at the forefront of a global coalition that has isolated the Russian strongman, levied debilitating sanctions on him and rallied to provide aid and moral support to Ukrainian fighters.

"In the battle between democracy and autocracies, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security," Biden said Tuesday night.

It's not yet clear whether there will be any direct domestic political consequence to U.S. actions in Eastern Europe. That's because the outcome of Ukraine's battle to remain independent is in doubt and because most American voters don't cast ballots based primarily on foreign policy.

In normal times, a former president's position on a distant war would be politically irrelevant. But Trump appears to be lining up to run again in 2024, when Biden says he will be a candidate for re-election.

More important, for the time being, Trump's odd equivocation — the invasion is bad but Putin is blameless — is underscoring Biden's certitude at a time when Biden's approval ratings have been stuck below 40 percent.

That is reflected in the fact that most Republicans in Congress are closer to Biden on Ukraine policy.

Trump, for example, mocked the U.S. and its European allies for threatening to sanction Putin if he invaded, suggesting their tack gave the Russian president a green light.

"'If you take over Ukraine, we’re going to sanction you,' they say," Trump said Saturday night. "Sanction, well that’s a pretty weak statement."

But Republicans in Congress have been supportive of U.S. sanctions on Russia, Putin and Putin's allies. Many of them have pressed the administration to levy heavier sanctions faster.

"I was pleased to hear President Biden’s call for national and world unity in support of our ally Ukraine as it faces a brutal assault from Russia," Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement Tuesday night. "While the administration has now implemented the sanctions some of us called them to implement before the invasion occurred, I urge them to do even more on sanctions and use all of the tools at their disposal to hold President Putin accountable."

It was savvy of Biden to start his speech with the section on Ukraine — where his policy is most unifying — because even casual viewers would see images of Republicans and Democrats applauding as he led the American government in making a forceful statement of support.

But if there was any doubt about the larger role Biden sees himself in, he clarified by using the phrase "free world" three times.

"The free world is holding him accountable," Biden said of Putin. "When the history of this era is written, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger."

And if the free world is stronger, so is its leader.