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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Four escalating foreign problems test Biden’s reaction speed

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1945, Grand Rapids, Mich., became the first community to add fluoride to its public water supply (via the Associated Press).

The big idea

Four escalating foreign problems test Biden’s reaction speed

The confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. Houthi missile attacks potentially aimed at Americans. North Korea’s latest missile tests. China’s intimidation tactics against Taiwan. These four thorny foreign policy problems don’t have much in common, other than being inherited headaches President Biden confronts at the dawn of his second year in office.

That, and they’re escalating — and connected, in that each U.S. adversary is watching the other standoffs for clues as to how Biden makes decisions. What happens in Ukraine could embolden or chasten China or North Korea, State Department spokesman Ned Price suggested Monday.

“We have thought about that,” Price said at his briefing Monday. “It is not lost on us that the Russians and the implications of what they're doing, as important as they are for Ukraine, go well beyond Ukraine.”

The Putin problem

The confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin gets most of the headlines — as it should. And how Biden deals with the burgeoning crisis will further affect Americans’ perception of his presidency, which has reliably generated poor job approval ratings for months.

From Biden on down, U.S. officials have that warned Moscow could invade Ukraine any day, with catastrophic results for that former Soviet republic and the terrifying possibility of war spilling (accidentally or not) into a NATO ally America is sworn to defend.

“We have been consulting with allies on deployments and refining plans for all scenarios,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.

With Russia massing forces on Ukraine’s eastern border and in its unfriendly northern neighbor, Belarus, NATO has stepped up its own military preparations, my colleagues Robyn Dixon, David L. Stern, Missy Ryan and Karoun Demirjian reported Monday.

The tense conflict over Ukraine shifted further into full crisis mode Monday, with NATO saying it was moving more military equipment into Eastern Europe and Russia continuing to build up massed forces along the border with Ukraine, amid fears that it will invade its neighbor.”

The Biden administration also put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for a potential deployment to Europe.” If the president decides to deploy them, they would be bound for NATO countries bordering Russia.

One of the interesting facets of Biden’s Ukraine policy (or is it Russia policy?) has been the way it has steadily toughened — even over the past week. (Ukraine, America’s easternmost NATO allies and Congress, especially Republicans, have pushed for a more robust approach to deterring Moscow.)

At his news conference last Wednesday, Biden said he had told Putin the United States would “fortify” easternmost NATO allies “if, in fact he does invade.” But now he appears on the cusp of sending 8,500 Americans before Russian forces push farther into Ukraine.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a response to an abrupt moment; it’s a part of an ongoing contingency planning process and discussion,” Psaki said Monday.

And then there’s the question of what will trigger what Biden has warned will be “severe consequences” for Russia in the event of an invasion.

At that same news conference, the president suggested the United States and its allies might not agree on a response to a “minor incursion” as opposed to a full-on invasion, causing a firestorm at the suggestion such Russian actions might go unpunished by the alliance. He later said Russia would pay if “any assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border.”

Later that day, though, Secretary of State Antony Blinken modified the “assembled units” standard, saying a Russian incursion would be an invasionwhether it’s one soldier or a thousand soldiers” crossing Ukraine’s border.

We may know “at any moment,” in Psaki’s formulation, whether it deters Russia.

Iran's interventionism

The situation with Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen recently took a turn, with the group firing two ballistic missiles that sent U.S. troops into protective bunkers at Al Dhafra Air Base, near the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, my colleagues Kareem Fahim and Sarah Dadouch reported.

“It was the second Houthi attack on the UAE in a week, representing a rapid and dangerous broadening of violence from Yemen’s seven-year civil war,” they noted.

Biden, who took the Houthis off the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations a year ago, said at his news conference last week that putting them back on was “under consideration.” He faces pressure from Republicans to do so, especially in the wake of the attacks.

No love letters to North Korea

Nor is North Korea getting any easier to deal with: Leader Kim Jong Un has carried out three tests of weapons Pyongyang says were hypersonic missiles. Those projectiles are faster, fly lower and are more maneuverable than traditional missiles, making them harder to knock out in flight. On Tuesday, it fired off two suspected cruise missiles, the Wall Street Journal reported.

For now, it’s hard to see North Korea — which has rebuffed Biden’s diplomatic overtures — as much of a priority in Washington. The president hasn’t named an ambassador to South Korea and rarely gets asked about his policy toward the secretive Stalinist state.

Last but not least … China

Which gets us to China, which on Sunday flew “flew 39 warplanes toward Taiwan in its largest such sortie of the new year, amid tensions over the self-ruled island’s future and as the United States pushes to assert its presence in the region,” the Associated Press reported.

As though to confirm Ned Price’s words, its diplomats and official press appear to be parroting Russian talking points about Ukraine.

What's happening now

Russia conducts new military exercises as Biden, Europeans intensify diplomacy on Ukraine

“Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the United States on Tuesday of ‘building up tension’ over Ukraine, as Russia launched new military exercises in the west of the country that include short-range ballistic missile units,” Robyn Dixon, Rachel Pannett and David L. Stern report.

Manufacturers have less than five days’ supply of some computer chips, Commerce Department says

“'This means a disruption overseas, which might shut down a semiconductor plant for 2-3 weeks, has the potential to disable a manufacturing facility and furlough workers in the United States if that facility only has 3-5 days of inventory,' the Commerce Department concluded in a six-page summary of its findings," Jeanne Whalen reports.

Chasten Buttigieg says Florida’s ‘Don’t say gay bill’ could lead to more suicides

Chasten Buttigieg, an educator and husband of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is speaking out against legislation advancing in Florida that critics have dubbed the ‘Don’t say gay bill,’ arguing that it could lead to more suicides among LGBTQ youths,” John Wagner reports.

“The legislation, which supporters say is about parental rights, would, among its provisions, bar school districts in Florida from encouraging classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary-grade levels or ‘in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.’ Parents would be empowered to sue if they think schools are violating the law.”

London police to investigate Downing Street parties during lockdown, raising stakes for Boris Johnson

“London’s Metropolitan Police announced Tuesday a criminal investigation into parties allegedly held at the prime minister’s office and residence at 10 Downing Street during Britain’s coronavirus lockdowns, a development sure to raise the pressure on the government,” William Booth reports.

These parties pose a significant threat to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s premiership and government.”

Lunchtime reads from The Post

As New York rental aid program ran dry, contractor boasted of ‘38 percent margins’

“The chief executive of the consulting firm running New York’s emergency rental assistance program told employees the company made ‘38 percent margins’ on its contract with the state, triggering alarm among state officials, who called the chief executive statement’s ‘beyond troubling,’ ” Jonathan O’Connell reports.

Scott McIntyre, chief executive of Guidehouse, congratulated employees in a November presentation on doing a strong job of running the program and touted that the firm had earned $115 million in fees over six months, according to a video of the presentation obtained by The Washington Post.”

… and beyond

With all eyes on Ukraine, are any diplomatic options still viable?

“The question is whether there is real potential for compromise in three distinct areas: Russia’s demand for ironclad assurances that Ukraine won’t enter NATO; that NATO won’t further expand; and that Russia can somehow restore some approximation of its sphere of influence in the region to before the strategic map of Europe was redrawn in the mid-1990s,” the New York Times’s David E. Sanger reports.

The hardest issue of all defies negotiation: Mr. Putin’s demand that Ukraine reverse its ‘drift’ toward the West. That is a matter of national sentiment, and polls show that in the years since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, Ukrainians are more desirous than ever of joining the Western alliance. Mr. Putin’s massing of the troops is likely to accelerate that trend, American officials say, rather than reverse it.”

  • While there is still time to avoid the worst, even President Biden’s top aides say they have no idea if a diplomatic solution, rather than the conquest of Ukraine, is what Mr. Putin has in mind.”

The latest on omicron

There’s a new version of omicron, but so far it doesn’t appear to be more dangerous

“As a new version of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus spreads in parts of Asia and Europe, the World Health Organization recommended Monday that officials begin investigating its characteristics to determine whether it poses new challenges for pandemic-weary nations,” Lenny Bernstein reports.

“Viruses mutate constantly, mostly in harmless ways. There is no current evidence that BA. 2, [the new version of the virus,] is more virulent, spreads faster or escapes immunity better than [the original omicron variant].”

The Biden agenda

Biden is defending key Trump immigration policies in court

“The Department of Justice is actively fighting in federal court for border restrictions that have barred most asylum seekers from entering the US. In separate federal cases, it has argued that the policy of separating migrant families under former President Donald Trump was lawful, and has fought against payouts for those families,” Vox's Nicole Narea reports.

Biden allies in Puerto Rico sound alarm after president ignores judicial pick recommendations

“President Joe Biden’s top allies in Puerto Rico are growing alarmed that the White House is creating a rift with the island’s governor by snubbing his recommendations for three federal court vacancies,” NBC’s Marc Caputo reports.

“The controversy — fraught with political consequences for Puerto Rican-heavy states like Florida and New York — began to surface last week amid rumblings on the island that a bipartisan consensus pick promoted by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat; Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón, a Republican; and Democratic Rep. Darren Soto of Florida might never be interviewed or considered for federal judgeships in the territory.”

The James Webb Space Telescope, visualized

“The Telescope, launched Dec. 25, has now arrived at the destination from which it will begin its in-depth examination of the distant universe. The Earth-sun orbital relationship produces five Lagrange points, which scientists number L1 through L5. Placing the telescope at L2 will allow it to look farther, while also keeping its sensitive instruments at the super-cold temperatures they need to operate,” our graphics reporter William Neff explains.

Hot on the left

Dayen: Democrats are stuck on BBB. They need to pivot.

“Making [Build Back Better] the only item under consideration in Congress for the second half of 2021 did the Democrats no favor. To the contrary, it reinforced a perception of Biden and the Democrats’ impotence and a sense that they’re out of touch,” the American Prospect's Executive Editor David Dayen writes.

Low-level negotiations can go on in the background, and for the sake of the planet’s climate they must, but as a political imperative Democrats need to get on to something else.

“The real focus for the next month will likely be on striking a deal on government funding before a February 18 deadline. As Eleanor Eagan wrote in the Prospect, continuing to operate on Donald Trump’s budget baselines is unacceptable, and is strangling the administrative state.”

Hot on the right

Will a candidate molded in Trump's image take Ohio's governorship?

“GOP governors across the country are staring down a wave of Trump-inspired primary challengers. Former Rep. Jim Renacci hopes to be a success story for them in Ohio,” Politico's Zach Montellaro and Michael Kruse report.

“The former congressman is challenging Gov. Mike DeWine, a mainstay of Ohio Republican politics for decades who is seeking reelection to a second term in November, more than 30 years after his first run for statewide office. Renacci is pouring his own money into the race against the incumbent, trying to push DeWine out in favor of a candidate who claims to more wholly embody the Republican Party shaped by former President Donald Trump.”

  • The primary is developing as an early test case of intra-party rebellion against a number of Republican governors this year. DeWine has forged a long and decorated career in Ohio capped off by his governorship — but relations with his own changing party have been challenging at times. Renacci, meanwhile, has molded his campaign in Trump’s image — though he lacks Trump’s actual endorsement so far.”

Today in Washington

The president does not have any public events scheduled this afternoon.

At 2 p.m., Vice President Harris will deliver remarks to the President’s Interagency Task Force To Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons.

In closing

How this weekend's potential snowstorm could affect D.C.

“Computer models are coming into agreement that a powerful winter storm or nor’easter will form off the Mid-Atlantic late this week and charge up the East Coast over the weekend. The storm has the potential to produce very heavy snow and strong winds, especially for areas north of Maryland into New England,” Jason Samenow reports.

Washington and Baltimore: Most model simulations develop the storm far enough to the north and east that snow misses the region or just light-to-moderate amounts fall, mainly Friday night into Saturday morning. However, there are some outlier simulations that show more significant effects and the potential for at least six inches.”

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.