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With no end in sight for Ukraine, Gaza wars, Biden focuses on domestic priorities

FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a Canvas Kickoff event with campaign volunteers at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 18, 2024.
FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a Canvas Kickoff event with campaign volunteers at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 18, 2024.

With five months until the November election and no diplomatic solution in sight for wars in Ukraine and Gaza, President Joe Biden is shifting voters’ attention away from American entanglements abroad by focusing on domestic priorities.

Biden, who in 2020 ran on a campaign to end forever wars, barely mentioned the global challenges facing the country’s military during in his commencement address on Saturday at the West Point military academy.

“There are no American soldiers at war in Ukraine. I’m determined to keep it that way,” Biden said. “But we are standing strong with Ukraine.”

His remarks on Israel only highlighted humanitarian operations to help Palestinians in Gaza and praised General Erik Kurilla, a West Point graduate, who ran the U.S. operation to shield Israel against Iranian drone attacks in April.

Instead, Biden echoed his campaign-year warnings about the looming threats to American democracy, an implicit jab at his rival, presumptive Republican nominee former President Donald Trump, whom Biden has said represents a threat to the country’s democratic institutions.

“Nothing is guaranteed about our democracy in America,” he said. “Every generation has an obligation to defend it, to protect it, to preserve it, to choose it.”

Analysts say shifting the narrative away from foreign policy is a strategic move at a time when no major diplomatic breakthrough is expected anytime soon in Gaza and Ukraine.

With no resolution to Ukraine, Gaza wars, Biden focuses on domestic priorities
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“If Biden is going to win a second term, it's going to have to be on domestic issues, not international,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

“He's got some ground to make up in the key swing states. So, he needs to focus on the ones [issues] that identify with Democratic points of view,” Sabato told VOA.

In recent weeks, Biden has ramped up campaign engagements, centering his speeches on the economy and other domestic issues, including protecting abortion rights, canceling student debt, combating hidden junk fees for consumers, boosting manufacturing and other priority areas for his base.

“Clearly, they want to focus on areas they believe to be their strengths,” said Matt Duss, executive vice president at the Center for International Policy, a progressive think tank that advocates for a “more peaceful, just, and sustainable” U.S. approach to foreign policy.

However, Biden cannot campaign on domestic issues alone, he told VOA.

“The world will continue to intrude,” he said.

Stuck in several wars

Almost 2½ years since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has rejected the possibility of ceding territory and directly negotiating with Russia.

Meanwhile, a cease-fire-for-hostage-release deal in Gaza appears out of reach even as Biden sets his aims beyond cessation of hostilities to laying the foundation for a two-state solution and diplomatic recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors.

“There's certainly this irony that Biden ran on getting out of wars and is now stuck in several,” said Emma Ashford, senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center.

Since taking office, the president has tried to weave his domestic and foreign priorities into a central theme under the umbrella of defending democracy. He has linked various topics to this theme, from expanding voting and reproductive rights, highlighting the dangers of election denialism and political violence that he says Trump represents, to stopping foreign leaders’ expansionist ambitions.

“One of the narratives the Biden campaign was hoping to run with was Biden as the defender of democracy globally,” Ashford told VOA. “Pushing back on Donald Trump domestically, pushing back against autocrats overseas.”

Israel’s war conduct “undercuts the democracy narrative,” she said. “Biden is left with a very uneven messaging strategy by trying to tie all this together.”

As a result, Biden has focused less on goals abroad, even as he scored a major foreign policy win in April by securing the passage of a bipartisan foreign aid bill that included $61 billion for Ukraine and $26 billion for Israel.

After the funding package was passed, the Biden administration “had sort of hoped that the war in Ukraine would diminish in the popular imagination,” Ashford said. “Instead, we've seen escalation on both sides.”

Recent actions by the Kremlin appear to reinforce signals that Russian President Vladimir Putin is committed to sustaining his war for years to come if necessary, including by opening a new front in the northeast Kharkiv region.

As Ukraine seems stuck in a war of attrition, Biden will be shouldering the political cost, Duss said. More Americans are asking whether the billions of dollars sent to Ukraine are “making the situation better,” he added.

In addition, the president is facing the anger of the progressives in his party who are frustrated over his staunch support of Israel. A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this month found that only 32% of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza.

Among those who disapprove are 44% of registered Democratic voters. This group is less likely to say they would vote for Biden again, which could spell trouble for the campaign as it tries to replicate the coalition Biden relied on four years ago to defeat Trump.

Yet ultimately, it’s the domestic issues that are driving the agenda, said Clifford Young, president of Ipsos Public Affairs in the U.S, and could explain why in a match up against Trump, Biden “is weak,” at this point.

“A lot of speculation goes to foreign policy entanglements in both Gaza as well as Ukraine,” Young told VOA. However, to the American public, those are secondary issues, compared to the primary issue hurting Biden — the economy.

Of those polled, 46% said that inflation or increasing cost is the most important issue facing the country, followed by political extremism or threats to democracy 24%. Only 12% say that foreign conflicts or terrorism is the top issue.