Here’s one key test for whether Biden deserves re-election

·5 min read

So he’s doing it. Joe Biden, who’s already the oldest president in American history, wants to extend his record by running for a second term. He’ll be 81 on Election Day 2024, and if he wins and completes a second term, 86 when he leaves office.

If accomplishments are the test of whether Biden deserves reelection, then one issue trumps the others: Ukraine’s progress in its war against Russia. Many things matter to voters, including jobs and the economy, living standards, crime, immigration, and a candidate’s likeability. Those will all be factors in 2024, for sure.

But Ukraine’s fate is one of the best measures of Biden’s effectiveness as a world leader, a stalwart defender of democracy and a plain-old doer. Biden has earned solid marks, so far, for marshaling military and civilian aid and rallying many other nations to the cause. The United States and Europe have also come up with creative ways to parry the energy war Putin has tried to wage against the west, in parallel with his military war on the ground.

But the United States could also do more, and if incrementalism leads to a forever-standoff in which Russia never wins, but Russia never leaves, voters should hold Biden accountable for a major American investment that didn’t produce results.

Ukrainian service members from a 3rd separate assault brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, fire a howitzer D30 at a front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine April 23, 2023. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova
Will the outcome of the Ukraine/Russian war impact President Biden's reelection chances? Ukrainian service members fire a howitzer at a front line, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine. REUTERS/Sofiia Gatilova

The next 18 months, leading up to Election Day 2024, should be enough time for US and allied aid to make a decisive difference in the war. A clean outcome, such as the departure of Russia forces from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, may be unrealistic. It is realistic, however, to expect billions in aid, along with deep intelligence sharing and other types of support, to produce something that feels like a victory for Ukraine, such as the return of Russia’s presence to pre-invasion lines in eastern Ukraine.

The United States is Ukraine’s indispensable ally, providing nearly $50 billion in military aid and $30 billion in other types of assistance. Other countries, combined, have given a like amount. In return, Ukraine is dismantling the Russian army, one of west’s chief military nemeses. That alone is a solid return on US taxpayer money.

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But Biden has promised to stand by Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” It is fair to interpret that as, as long as it takes to win. While Biden and the United States have clearly helped Ukraine survive as a nation, there’s also a lot the United States hasn’t done, such as provide fighter jets, longer-range missiles and other equipment Ukraine says would help turn the tide in its favor. Other gear, such as western tanks, has come late and in small quantities. Weapons alone are never silver bullets; they require training, long logistical chains and integration into a deft strategic plan. But Biden could have opened the door to large quantities of more sophisticated weapons months ago, and that could be paying dividends now.

“If we give them the ability to strike deeply into the sanctuary that the West has created for [Russia] in Belarus, Russia, Crimea, and the northern Black Sea, if we give them the ability to strike into those areas, I think the war will fast become untenable for Russia,” retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former top NATO commander in Europe, said during a March 15 Council on Foreign Relations event. “Ukraine is able to not end up in a stalemate if we choose to give them what they need. So if we end up in a stalemate, it is because we are choosing to end up in that stalemate.”

Biden has many factors to juggle, including some not known to the public. One open question is how far to push Putin, who regularly threatens the use of nuclear weapons. Some analysts think Putin is a paper tiger who tends to fold when foes call his bluff. On the other hand, a humiliating defeat in Ukraine could make Putin even more reckless. Some Biden critics think he has been too cautious, allowing Putin to cow him with empty threats. Biden has a year-plus to prove otherwise.

There will be also third- and fourth-order effects from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Biden will have to answer for some of those, too. There’s already been a massive reworking of global energy flows, with Russian oil and natural gas largely diverted away from Europe and developed nations abiding by the novel price caps a Biden-led coalition began imposing in December.

Putin’s 2022 invasion created a risk premium in energy markets that pushed prices up and led to gasoline hitting a record high of $5 per gallon in the United States. Biden didn’t cause the 2022 spike in energy prices, but he drained the US strategic oil reserve by 42% in response to it and sent mixed messages to energy investors. As a champion of green energy, Biden has trash-talked fossil fuels. But as energy prices rose, he also quietly approved large numbers of seaborne drilling permits and a massive new project in Alaska.

Biden may have a vision for how Ukraine wins, validating the US and European taxpayers helping finance its defense. If so, he isn’t sharing it, and he doesn’t have to, yet. In 2024, however, voters will want to know what America is getting for billions in aid to Ukraine.

Biden will owe them a convincing answer.

Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman

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