President Biden may very well go down in history as the last American president born during World War II and shaped by a vision of American power nurtured during the Cold War. No other leader on the world stage today can boast of sitting in the Israeli prime minister’s office 50 years ago with Golda Meir, or discussing the dismantling of Soviet nuclear weapons with Mikhail Gorbachev.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the two wars Mr. Biden has chosen to insert the United States into — defending Ukraine as it tries to repel a nuclear-armed invader, and now promising aid to Israel to wipe out the Hamas leadership — brought out a passion, emotion and clarity that is usually lacking in the president’s usually flat and meandering speeches.
That resonated Thursday night, when Mr. Biden combined the two struggles in his Oval Office speech, declaring that while Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and Hamas “represent different threats,” they “both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.” »
Throughout his speech, Mr. Biden alternated between the two crises, arguing that if America does not rise up in both conflicts, the result will be “more chaos, more death and more destruction.” This argument reflects his certainty that this is the moment he has trained for his entire political career, an argument he often makes when asked about his age.
His sense of mission explains why, at age 80, he has visited two countries in the midst of active war in the last eight months. But at the same time, he paired his public embraces with private warnings to U.S. allies, while carefully keeping U.S. troops out of both conflicts — until now. He seems determined to prove that despite all the criticism that the United States is a divided and declining power, it remains the only nation capable of shaping events in a world of unpredictable chaos.
“When presidents get into their sweet spot, you usually see it and hear it, and over the last few weeks you’ve seen it and heard it,” said Michael Beschloss, a historian and author of “War Presidents.” which traces the turbulent history of the war. Mr. Biden’s predecessors, when they dove into global conflicts, avoided some and sometimes came to regret their choices.
However, the question of whether Mr. Biden can carry the American public is more intractable than at any time in his presidency, and that was the backdrop to his Oval Office speech.
Polls show that a growing number of Americans are uncomfortable with the role of defender of the existing order and existing rules, which Mr. Biden describes as the essence of America. In the generation he grew up in, his statement Thursday that “American leadership is what holds the world together” would not have sparked controversy. Today, it is a central point of the debate, with its insistence that “American alliances are what keep us, America, safe.”
For Mr. Biden, the democratic order is in danger if the rest of the world is reluctant to overthrow Hamas and neutralize Russia. But he finds it a much harder argument to make today than in February 2022, when Mr. Putin attempted a blitzkrieg to overthrow a flawed democracy in Ukraine and restore Peter the Great’s Russian empire.
The overwhelming initial support for Ukraine — one of the few issues that seemed to unify Democrats and Republicans — is clearly upsetting, with a growing part of the Republican Party saying it’s not America’s fight. The crossing of Donbass and the prospect of a long conflict in which Mr. Putin waits to see whether America will elect former President Donald J. Trump or someone equally unsympathetic to the effort. war only complicates the situation.