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A president navigates how to ask for painful sacrifices from Americans for Ukraine

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Biden on March 8 banned imports of oil and natural gas from Russia to penalize them for invading Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President Biden on Tuesday issued his most expansive warning yet that there would be a significant price for Americans to pay as a result of the war in Ukraine, one that he argued was worth the cost in the name of supporting a fledgling democracy.

On a day when he announced the next escalatory step — and the one most likely to reverberate in the United States — Biden also called for further sacrifice.

“This is a step that we're taking to inflict further pain on Putin, but there will be costs as well here in the United States,” Biden said as he announced a ban on Russian oil imports. “I said I would level with the American people from the beginning. And when I first spoke to this, I said defending freedom is going to cost. It's going to cost us as well in the United States.”

The remarks came at a time when Americans are experiencing the ripples of a war unfolding half a world away. Companies are disengaging from the Russian economy, shuttering their stores and pulling their products. The stock market has plunged and, in one of the most visible signs, prices at the pump have soared.

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But there has also been an outpouring of sympathy, with Ukrainian flags flown next to U.S. ones on highways. Some Americans have taken to Airbnb to rent homes in Ukraine that they never intend to stay in as a subtle way to help citizens at war.

But marshaling that collective willingness to sacrifice is still tricky — especially for a country that most Americans can’t pinpoint on a map and has a capital that many still can’t determine how to pronounce.

“Every president in the modern era has demanded some form of sacrifice or buy-in from the American people,” said Robert Citino, a military author and historian at the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. “That’s hardwired to the American system.”

In Biden’s case, he initially began by rallying the international community to support stiff sanctions packages, an effort that took a significant amount of diplomacy to align disparate European interests. Now, two weeks into the war, he is making a more direct appeal to the American public to convince a domestic audience.

“I saw it as an interesting gambit to ask the American people to share a burden of sacrifice for a war that is really not on our own doorstep,” Citino said. “It’s on Russia’s doorstep, not ours.”

“It’s very easy to say you’ll sacrifice for a good cause. Until then you figure out just what you’re being asked to sacrifice. Some get off the train and some want to stay on the train. It’ll be interesting to see how firmly public opinion remains aligned.”

A survey released last week showed that 83 percent of American supported the economic sanctions imposed against Russia. The NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey also found that 69 percent of Americans said they support the sanctions even if it results in higher energy prices in the United States.

Biden at this point is not asking American lives to be sacrificed, and instead is requesting an economic sacrifice. It’s not the blood he’s asking for — it’s the treasure. He is giving weapons paid for by American taxpayers to Ukraine. He is leading a robust sanctions program that affects American companies.

And, more than anything, he is requesting understanding as Americans experience higher prices to fill up their gas tanks.

Medical aid and evacuation buses headed towards Sumy, Ukraine, on March 8 after Russian airstrikes. The U.N. estimates 2 million people have fled Ukraine. (Video: Hadley Green, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Since Putin invaded Ukraine nearly two weeks ago, the price at the pump has gone up 75 cents a gallon, Biden acknowledged.

“And with this action, it’s going to go up further,” he said on Tuesday.

He took ownership of the decision, but also said his hand was forced by a global foe. He called the gas increase “Putin’s price hike.”

“Russia’s aggression is costing us all,” he said.

His ability to unify the country around some notion of shared sacrifice, however, may be limited.

“It’s economic pain. It’s unfortunate, it’s difficult — but it’s not the sacrifice that brings all the warring factions together,” said Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the Flag.”

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“I think he’s done well on the score of explaining what’s up,” she added of Biden. “But the kind of sacrifice that really is meaningful to people is loss of life of their own group. And that’s not what’s on the table for Americans at this point.”

In some ways, there comes a time in every war where a president asks for sacrifices.

During World War I, Americans were urged to reduce their consumption of certain foods to help the troops overseas. They had “Meatless Tuesdays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays” so that food could be sent instead to soldiers. A few decades later, American families were given ration cards, and told to limit their purchases of items such as cars, tires and firewood. President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed a wartime salary cap.

“Ask the women and children whom Hitler is starving whether the rationing of tires and gasoline and sugar is too great a ‘sacrifice,’” Roosevelt said during one of his fireside chats in 1942. “We do not have to ask them. They have already given us their agonized answers.”

President George W. Bush called on Americans to come together in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

“Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed,” Bush said in 2005 as he urged Americans to continue supporting the Iraq War. “Every picture is horrifying, and the suffering is real. Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country.”

President Barack Obama talked of the sacrifice of American troops staying in Afghanistan or Iraq, and Biden, in pulling troops out of Afghanistan, said the sacrifice was no longer worth it.

“Lincoln asked the country to sacrifice in the Civil War, Wilson was asking Americans to sacrifice in World War I, Roosevelt certainly in World War II,” said Robert Dallek, an author and presidential historian. “For a while the fight in Vietnam was popular. It’s forgotten now, but in the beginning it was kind of popular because Johnson was appealing to the idea that we need to make some kind of sacrifice to prevent communist success in Southeast Asia.”

In those cases, though, American lives were at stake.

“It’s a sacrifice of a different order,” Dallek said of the current presidential plea.

But if the conflict escalates — and particularly if it spreads into NATO countries that could require American military involvement — that could make Biden’s challenge more complicated.

“Right now his approval rating is not all that high,” Dallek said. “I don’t think he’s in a powerful position to ask for all sorts of sacrifices.”

Biden had previously noted the potential for domestic impacts, but he often put less of an emphasis on preparing the country to make sacrifices and more on telling Americans what he was doing to protect them from pain.

“To all Americans, I will be honest with you, as I’ve always promised,” he said during the State of the Union address, during which members of Congress wore blue and yellow in honor of Ukraine’s flag, and during which Biden pointed to the Ukrainian ambassador seated next to first lady Jill Biden.

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“A Russian dictator, invading a foreign country, has costs around the world,” he said. “And I’m taking robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at Russia’s economy. And I will use every tool at our disposal to protect American businesses and consumers.”

Biden has also alluded to the costs that could be involved if the conflict continues.

“Defending freedom will have costs for us as well, here at home. We need to be honest about that,” he had said on Feb. 22, days before the Russian invasion. “But as we do this, I’m going to take robust action and make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at the Russian economy, not ours.”

Two days later, he said he knew that Americans were anxious about scenes of war. He was aware that prices would continue to rise. But he said that he had little choice but to confront Russia with a raft of economic sanctions that would affect the United States but punish Russia far more.

“This aggression cannot go unanswered,” he said. “If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”