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Biden, Democrats infuse Ukraine crisis into a recast election-year pitch to voters

In a string of political meetings over the past week, the president and his party made clear they hope to pin blame for rising gas prices and other issues on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Biden speaks at the House Democratic Caucus Issues Conference on March 11, 2022, in Philadelphia. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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PHILADELPHIA — President Biden and his party have moved in recent days to reorient their election-year pitch to voters around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — seeking to shift blame for struggles to tame rising prices onto Vladimir Putin and promoting the White House strategy to punish the Kremlin as a muscular response to a geopolitical threat.

Democrats said they hope the message, which they honed in political meetings over the past week, will help address some of their biggest liabilities ahead of the November midterm elections. Chief among them are Biden’s low approval ratings and a widespread perception that Democrats are at fault for a sharp increase in inflation.

Now, Biden is repeatedly bringing up “Putin’s price hike” at the pump. White House officials have distributed talking points to allies urging them to echo this line. And Democrats are touting the economic sanctions Biden has leveled on Russia, contrasting them with former president Donald Trump’s praise for Putin.

“That economic bomb that went off inside that dictator’s regime in Moscow would not have been possible without Joe Biden’s leadership,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who leads the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said during the recent House Democratic retreat.

It is unclear whether a revamped message will be enough to help Democrats overcome this year’s stiff political head winds, particularly after months of internal party feuding over Biden’s domestic agenda, portions of which have stalled on Capitol Hill.

Although some Democrats have pointed to encouraging signs in recent public opinion surveys, including support for Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, the president’s overall ratings continue to be underwater, with 42 percent of Americans approving and 52 percent disapproving on average this month, according to a Washington Post polling average.

Republicans, meanwhile, have accused Biden of trying to blame Putin for problems that predated the invasion of Ukraine, saying the administration failed to do more to reduce gas prices and stem inflation. Some in the GOP also have called on Biden to do more to help Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, the Democrats’ wayward leadership for the past year has undermined America’s energy potential with senseless policies that seem designed to reverse decades of success and wreak havoc on our gas prices,” wrote House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in a CNBC op-ed published online Friday.

Democrats acknowledge that they continue to face enormous challenges. The unfolding events in Ukraine — and how they might affect Biden at home — are highly unpredictable.

Yet, at least for now, some of the gloom that saturated the party as recently as last month has given way to more outward signs of confidence.

“Putin’s war against Ukraine will never be a victory,” Biden told House Democrats at their annual retreat in Philadelphia, adding later: “We are showing a strength and we will never falter.”

Part of a closed-door Senate Democratic retreat on Wednesday was dedicated to the midterms and included a presentation by the pollster Geoff Garin. In an interview, Garin said he thinks Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis has given “people who were questioning his leadership a second look.”

“The events of the past couple of weeks have both reframed the way voters are reacting to President Biden and also kind of reframed some of the important economic debates that are going on in the country,” Garin said. “And in both cases, the reframing is, I think, advantageous for Democrats.”

The latest moves are yet another attempt to break through with a public that has often been skeptical of Biden’s performance. On multiple occasions during Biden’s presidency, Democrats have sought to recalibrate their appeals to voters — with the White House and its allies initially embracing a sweeping domestic agenda hailed by liberals but, more recently, charting a middle-of-the-road path. The Biden administration initially labeled inflation a “transitory” development before later dropping that language.

Now, Democrats are also trying to ramp up their selling of the party’s accomplishments from the president’s first year — a task some party strategists said they did not do aggressively enough before. Reversing some of the erosion in Democratic voters’ support for Biden will be a key task for the midterms, party strategists said.

They are touting with greater intensity the sweeping infrastructure and pandemic relief laws Biden signed and are mentioning Ukraine and Russia to amplify their argument that the party has prioritized American economic and security interests.

The midterm tactics coming into focus amount to welcome news for many Democratic lawmakers, who had largely looked to Biden and the White House to help shape their campaign pitch to voters in a year that many expect them to lose their congressional majorities.

In Biden’s meeting with House Democrats on Friday, Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-N.Y.) asked the president how lawmakers should promote the party’s agenda, particularly in rural areas such as his Upstate New York district.

Biden advised Delgado that while it might “sound corny,” people “want to look you in the eye.”

“People want to get a feel for you. The closer you are and the less formal you are, the better,” Biden told House Democrats, according to two people familiar with his comments. “Spend as much time as you can on the street.”

But some Democrats warn that any potential benefit from the public’s immediate approval for Biden’s handling of Ukraine eventually will subside.

“Right now, we are seeing a true rally-around-the-flag effect in polls due to the war in Ukraine, but as the economic reality of sanctions continues to set in over the coming months, that effect will fade significantly if Democrats don’t take action to reduce energy costs and gas prices,” said Sean McElwee, the founding executive director of Data for Progress, a liberal polling firm and think tank.

Biden’s record so far on Ukraine — including his ability to help unify NATO in mounting a challenge to Putin — has offered what Democrats hope is a chance to resurrect the pitch he made to voters as a candidate: that he represents an antidote to the chaos of the Trump administration and is capable of restoring the United States leadership on the world stage.

That vow took a hit after the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. But the world changed when Russia sent troops into Ukraine — and by the time Biden spoke to the nation on March 1 in his State of the Union address, some Democrats saw the potential for a domestic political shift.

A White House official said there had been a palpable political concern inside the West Wing until a couple of weeks ago, when a more confident outlook began to take root. Biden has struck an optimistic tone with aides, said the official. A senior administration official described the uptick in optimism in the building as incremental.

And the president has appeared to relish the chance to pin blame on his Russian counterpart, who is perceived as a villain by Americans across the political spectrum.

Last November, amid an earlier surge in gas prices when the White House announced a release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, it attributed the climbing costs to oil supply lagging behind demand as the economy emerged from the pandemic.

But in his speech Thursday night at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Washington, Biden told the party faithful that the “battle for freedom” has costs at home and that Americans are “already feeling Putin’s price hikes at the pump.”

The focus on Putin was apparent in talking points the White House distributed to allies Tuesday that were keyed to Biden’s announcement that he was banning the importation of Russian oil and natural gas into the United States, according to officials with knowledge of the contents, one of whom shared them with The Post. The bullet points mentioned Putin by name seven times, with one stating that “families across the country and world are seeing Putin’s price hikes,” and another saying Biden is doing all he can “to minimize Putin’s Price Hike here at home.” The White House typically sends talking points to supporters at the time of big policy announcements.

Biden sought to convey confidence in his string of appearances with Democrats this past week.

“Coming out of the State of the Union, we are in the strongest position we’ve been in in months,” Biden said in his DNC speech. “We have a record — a record to be proud of; an agenda that addresses the biggest concerns here in America, in people’s lives; the message that resonates.”

He added: “Now, what we have to do is we have to sell it with confidence, clarity, conviction and repetition.”

Emily Guskin and Paul Kane contributed to this report.