Virtual Media Briefing: Foreign Policy in the State of the Union

Thursday, March 7, 2024
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations

Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow and Director of the Renewing America Initiative; Managing Director, Corporate Relations; and Senior Advisor, Washington External Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations


Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Panelists preview potential foreign policy themes in President Joe Biden's State of the Union address, including immigration, trade, and conflict in the Middle East.

ROBBINS: So welcome to today’s virtual media briefing on foreign policy in the State of the Union.

We are joined today by three of my fabulous colleagues: CFR expert analyst Christopher Tuttle, who’s a senior fellow; Shannon O’Neil, who’s vice president of Studies; and my boss, Steven A. Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies. 

And I’m Carla Anne Robbins. I’m a senior fellow at the Council and I’m co-host of The World Next Week podcast. 

As a reminder, this conversation is on the record, and a video and transcript will be posted online afterwards at We’re going to chat for about thirty minutes, and then we’re going to open it up to questions from everybody online. So welcome and let’s get started. 

So, Chris, can we start with you? Foreign policy is rarely a major focus of these speeches, but this year lots of stuff going on out there. We have a war in Ukraine, the war in Gaza, threats by former President Trump to pull out of NATO. What are you going to be watching and listening for on foreign policy? And can Biden both use the speech to persuade the House to approve aid to Ukraine—which is, obviously, of great concern to him and to a lot of us—and at the same time persuade the American public that he’s the best steward of foreign policy with this speech? 

TUTTLE: Yeah, so I think it’s very likely foreign policy’s not going to play—it’s not going to occupy a large amount of the speech. But I think, actually, from a messaging standpoint foreign policy presents a great opportunity for the president. I think one of the broad thematics—perhaps the most important broad thematic in this speech—is going to be sort of Republican chaos and the steadiness of Joe Biden. And foreign policy’s a great way to sort of encapsulate that. 

You’ve got, you know, this emergency supplemental, national security supplemental, that is—you know, they’ve been attempting to move; $95 billion. Ukraine assistance is in there. There is broad agreement in both House and Senate to support Ukraine assistance, but what’s stopping it is, sort of what the president would argue, is Republican chaos. And I think that if you look at some of the fault lines within the Republican Party, that’s a big one. You know, if there’s an applause line when it comes to Ukraine assistance, it’s going to look a little strange because you’re going to get all the Democrats standing up and, you know, more than half of the Republicans. Similarly with Israel-Gaza, you know, there’s broad support for continued support for Israel and for additional humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians, and yet it can’t move because of—because of chaos. You know, similarly with the border, similarly with the $4 billion that’s in the supplemental for sort of Taiwan and sort of pushing back against China. Here are all these priorities where there is bipartisan agreement and things can’t happen because of the chaos, and I think that Republicans, particularly House Republicans, serve as a proxy for the presidential race that’s to come. 

And we can get into some of the decorum questions later, but I think foreign policy offers perhaps the most potent way for the president to demonstrate what is going to be, I think, a critical question in this campaign, which is: Do you want a steady hand on the tiller or do you want what the president would describe as the chaos of sort of House Republicans? 

ROBBINS: And not just the chaos. I mean, he really went pretty hard at former President Trump when the president quite proudly—former president quite proudly on the campaign trail said that he, you know, would invite Russia to potentially do whatever the hell it wanted with a—with a member of NATO that didn’t pay its dues. We all know that, of course, NATO doesn’t have dues. But one of the invited guests is the Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, who—and Sweden is now just a member. Do you expect Biden to go directly after Trump on something like NATO? And that’s really sort of hard to imagine people not cheering NATO and not cheering a new member of NATO. 

TUTTLE: No, I wouldn’t expect any direct attacks. I think that the—I think that the House—largely House Republicans, some of the Senate Republicans, that sort of proxy will work effectively, as sort of a mirror of Trump and the presidential campaign. You saw a little bit of this last year. You saw the president with certain lines that he knew, I think, in advance were going to incite some of the folks who may break the quorum and may stand up and look—and those are sound bites that are played over and over. I mean, 27 million Americans watched the State of the Union last year. That’s not a ton, but the sound bites or the video was played over and over of sort of this group of, you know, ruckus makers, you know, on the floor of the House of Representatives, you know, hollering at the president. And that’s not such a great look.  

So I don’t think that he’ll go after the president directly. I think he’ll allow House Republicans to serve as that proxy, to do it for him. But I think he will offer a full-throated support—offer his full-throated support for NATO and for the Ukraine assistance, and how critical it is. And again, this is a—this is an issue that divides Republicans. And so, you know, again, if you have that applause line, you know, it’s going to be an interesting dynamic. So that’s what I would say. 

ROBBINS: So, Shannon, after age, the border and migration seem to be driving the president’s declining approval numbers. And not just with Republicans, but with Democrats as well. Former President Trump is certainly out there fomenting fear and loathing about migrants everywhere he goes, What will you be listening for about the migration issue? And is this a potential area where he can leverage President Trump’s resistance to a bipartisan deal? 

O’NEIL: Well, we saw last week on Thursday both Trump and Biden at the border in Texas. Two different cities. One—Biden was in Brownsville and Trump was in Eagle Pass. But they were both there presenting their views. And, right, Trump’s view was that there’s chaos at the border, and this is the Biden administration’s fault. And Biden’s view was that we had a deal. And back to Chris’s point about, you know, a house that that can’t come together. We had a deal that was going to help fix this. We had a deal that was going to bring in more judges. We had a deal that was going to allow this processing to go faster, that would slow the movement of people to the border, that would change, you know, who applied for asylum, and the like. And, you know, and Trump and the Republicans killed it.  

So in some ways I think he was trying to put it off to last week and sort of handle it there. But we will see it tonight. Even if the President doesn’t talk at length during his speech, some of the guests—especially the Republican guests that have been invited—are focused on the border. So we see Republicans in Congress have invited New York police officers that dealt with migrants here. And one of them is leaving an open seat for a young woman who was killed by an illegal migrant. So they are definitely bringing it to the table here. And if and when Biden addresses it again—and tonight, it will be that. It will be that Americans want this done. We need to change the system so it works. 

I mean, right now we have two, almost 2.5 million people that came to the border last year. We have over eight million people waiting for their asylum claims to be processed. And that will take years and years to work through. And so he will say, look, we need to come together on issues that Americans care about. This is one of them. And it’s not his fault. It’s their fault. I think if we hear anything, it’ll be that. 

ROBBINS: There have been some talk that he was going to issue an executive order. Certainly, legislation can do a lot, but he can also take great political advantage about the fact that President Trump has told the Republicans not to—not to go ahead with legislation. Do you think there’s a chance he will come up with announcing an executive order during this speech to shut the border down? 

O’NEIL: You know, we will see. The president has emitted, I think last count, 300 executive orders on immigration issues, on migration issues, to try to manage this process. And one of the challenges he has faced is that many of those have then gotten caught up in courts. So you have various, you know, if they seemed lenient towards migrants, various states or attorney generals who are less in line with opposition have tried to stop them in court and get injunctions, and vice versa when they have deemed too hard. So executive orders are a path and, you know, there has been talk about that, but the problem with executive orders is it’s not a solution. It’s not a solution because, one, those who are opposed to these kinds of orders and the kind of things in these orders take it to court and it gets caught up in there; and, two, this is not a long-term solution. It’s not a sustainable solution for the challenges of migration. 

So, you know, I don’t know if we’ll see an announcement tonight. You know, my tendency is to think perhaps we won’t. But this isn’t a new thing. We’ve seen executive orders, and that hasn’t really resolved the problem that we’ve seen over the last three years grow. 

ROBBINS: But Chris was also talking about, you know, these issues that divide Republicans. Migration’s also an issue that divides Democrats. And so do you expect the president to sort of take a stand and say I really care about this and move past it really quickly because he can’t talk that much about it? How much is he bound by the—by the limitations of his own—his own political party on this? 

O’NEIL: I mean, that is his challenge, right? This is an election year, as we obviously all know. He’s trying to bring together a progressive side as well as a sort of centrist side and appeal to those in the center, appeal to the Nikki Haley voters who are now up for grabs, appeal for this broad range. And so it’s very hard to have an executive order that’s either very draconian or very open that will kind of thread that needle. So I think if I had to guess, I think he will—what he did at the border last Thursday, which is: Look, we had a deal. This needs to be legislation because that’s the way to actually have a sustainable solution. And the problem is not me, it’s not the Democrats; it’s the Republicans. 

ROBBINS: So, Steven, President Biden’s criticism of Israel’s campaign in Gaza has become increasingly sharp in recent days, and this is really an issue in which multiple constituencies are going to be listening really closely tonight to what the president has to say from the progressive base of the Democratic Party to Israel’s leadership and—as well as to the Arab world. What do you expect to hear? What do you want him to say? And can anything that he says tonight change the dynamic on the ground in the region or the dynamic in Michigan? 

COOK: Well, it’s really not a question of what I—what I want him to say; it’s more what he’s likely to say. And I think that what he’s likely to say is precisely what the administration has been saying over the course of recent weeks, is that it absolutely supports Israel’s right to defend itself; it absolutely supports the destruction of—Israel’s goal to destroy Hamas; but that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is more than dire, and that the Israelis must not move into Rafah until they have a credible plan to protect civilians in that city, and that the United States expects the Israelis to do a much, much better job in flowing aid into the Gaza Strip. 

I think that much of this is at a rhetorical level. I don’t think that we are really seeing a shift in the president’s position with regard to Israel. I think we would see more dramatic steps if there really was a shift in policy, something along the lines that some of his allies have brought up in recent days about conditioning weapons to the Israelis should they proceed with a Rafah operation. One has to wonder whether this comes directly from the White House or not. If it’s a bluff, it’s a risk that it’s just a bluff. And if it isn’t, it does send the message to important constituencies both here in the United States as well as, importantly, abroad about an American commitment to an ally in the middle of a—in the middle of a conflict. 

So this is the most complicated—other than immigration, I think this is the most complicated issue that the president has to tackle in this—in this State of the Union address. He’s likely not to make any of his core—any of the constituencies very happy about it. There are constituencies that don’t believe him regardless of what he—of what he says on this, in part because of miscalculations that he made at the beginning of this conflict in providing kind of maximum support for the Israelis while underestimating how they were going to frame the conflict in terms of an existential struggle, which means he has actually limited influence over them. So that will be the extent of it. 

The big news, obviously, of the afternoon is that the United States is going to build some sort of offshore pier or port in order to flow aid into the Gaza Strip. That’s certainly superior than airdrops, which is not a good way of delivering aid—it’s limited amounts of aid; there’s little control over it. This is an idea that actually has been kicking around since the fall. I first heard about it from the Cypriot government. And there’s been some talk for some number of months now about aiding Gaza through—by sea. And it’s good news that the administration is taking this up, given the situation in the Gaza Strip. But I think the president is sort of hemmed in here by the politics of everything, both at home as well as abroad, so it’s not likely that he’s going to emerge from this in a way that people aren’t going to be unhappy about. 

ROBBINS: So can we talk a little bit about the pier? Because we have been talking—there had been talk about corridors coming from—through Cyprus for a long time and all that. How much of a difference can this make? And I think the U.N. keeps talking about how people are starving in Gaza. Can this—can they get enough food in there? And will the—will the Israelis let enough food get in there to really make a difference in the humanitarian situation in Gaza with this, or is this another symbolic move? 

COOK: Well, one would think that in light of Benny Gantz’s visit—unofficial visit to Washington this week, Benny Gantz being a member of the War Cabinet, in which he expressed, quote/unquote, “surprise” at the pointed criticism from senior American officials and others in Washington about Israel’s military operations, that the Israelis would want to be cooperative on the aid issue. After all, they are being beaten up by both their traditional allies and others over the aid situation. It would strike me that this would have to be coordinated with the IDF, though one would hope that others would take the lead in this, most importantly the United States. And in that way, I don’t think the Israelis can block what the United States wants to do. 

It may be actually more advantageous for the Israelis because it does relieve them of a certain responsibility that the United States is now taking on, and that’s something that I think they would like to do. But of course, it does undermine their day—part of their day-after plan in the Gaza Strip, which is to rely on, quote/unquote, “local Gazans” and others who are non-Hamas-affiliated to take up some of the responsibilities in terms of humanitarian relief and administration of aid. We saw that did not go very well a week ago. And so that really is something that the international community is going to have to take up, and I think that the Israelis are going to have to step aside here. They will have a role in it, but I don’t think that they can say no to President Biden on this. 

ROBBINS: So I have many more questions on all these topics, but I’m going to—we want to throw it open to the participants. But I have a jump-ball question, which is China. There was a time in which China was the number-one strategic competitor or the number-one strategic threat for this administration. It was the focus of their National Security Strategy. It was the focus of their National Defense Strategy. And nobody talks about—or, we’re barely talking about it these days. Do you think he’s going to talk about China tonight? And if he does, in what context? Is it going to be about trade? Is it going to be about the CHIPS Act? Is it going to be about how foreign policy actually has a positive effect on people’s, you know, home life or their—or our competitiveness? What do you think? Jump in. 

COOK: Well, given that Chris and Shannon are taller than me, I’m going to bow out of this question. (Laughter.) 

ROBBINS: Actually, Steven, I wanted you to answer this question. (Laughter.) 

O’NEIL: I’ll start. 

TUTTLE: Yeah—or I’m happy to. Whatever you like. 

O’NEIL: You know, I think what he’ll do here, because this is—he’s tried to—the Biden administration in general has tried to take the temperature down on U.S.-China, so I don’t think we’re going to see sort of big rhetoric or sort of chest-beating—even though you’re in Congress, where there’s really bipartisan support for hardening the relationship between the two countries. So I think we will see that—you know, the sort of cooperate where we can, compete where we must sort of—sort of approach. 

But this will give him the ability to turn to his domestic agenda and a lot of what he sees as his accomplishments. And if, you know, the theme of this speech is, you know, I need—I need another term because I need to finish the job, then that is where a lot of the China policy is, and particularly the economic policy. So I think he will tout the CHIPS Act and, you know, the hundreds of billions of dollars that are going into creating secure semiconductor supply chains. I think he will tout the Inflation Reduction Act and, you know, hundreds of billions of more dollars that are going into greening the economy and everything from electric-vehicle cars to solar panels to wind turbines to updating electricity grids to all of that that’s happening and sort of win the race for green technology, which is vis-à-vis China. 

So I think what we will see is we’ll see a mention, probably, of China and, you know, the need to compete where we must, but really a pivot to what he sees as his accomplishments. That opens the door to all of these domestic policies. And then that gets to the kinds of things you hear in State of the Unions about the jobs that are being created and about the communities that are getting invested in and the growth that’s happening. 

ROBBINS: Chris? 

TUTTLE: Yeah, no, I agree. I think it’s going to be about—it’s not going to be necessarily about taking it to the Chinese; it’s going to be about making the United States more competitive, and industrial policy, and some of the things that Shannon mentioned, and also pointing out that he has worked on all of these different policies—CHIPS, Inflation Reduction Act, even the infrastructure bill—bipartisan infrastructure bill—as an example of, infrastructure and CHIPS at least, bipartisan successes to make the United States more competitive when it comes—when it comes to China. But I don’t—I agree with Shannon. I think that with the administration’s move to sort of take the temperature down a bit, we’ll see if that lasts through the campaign. I think that that probably is likely to be mention of it. 

ROBBINS: So, Monica, can we invite our participants to ask questions to grill our panelists? 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

ROBBINS: We only have one hand up here so far. So I suppose I will call on the one hand that’s up here. If you could identify yourself—if you could identify yourself, and ask a very brief question. Khushboo Razdan. 

Q: Can you hear me? 


Q: Hi. This is Kushboo from the South China Morning Post, about the China angle that you were talking about. 

You know, you mentioned the CHIPS and Science Act. Can we also expect some kind of funding announcements? We’ve only seen three so far. Not much coming out in terms of money when it comes to the CHIPS and Science Act. Can we expect President Biden to make some big announcements. We’re hearing there could be something about TSMC and Intel getting some big funding tonight? What are your thoughts on that? 

O’NEIL: Well, we have seen the CHIPS and Science Act in a whole host of things, right? We’ve seen some with Global Foundries here in New York, which is where I’m based. We’ve seen Intel. It looks like the Columbus plan—or outside of Columbus plan in Ohio that they’re going forward may benefit from that. We’re seeing TSMC and others in Arizona. So I think there are parts here. And the question is, does it come from CHIPS—the CHIPS Act, or does it come from other aspects here? 

But I do think, you know, whether it’s a big announcement of here’s yet another, you know, layer that’s coming out tonight, I do think we are starting to see the dispersion of that money and the support that goes with it. Because it’s not just the actual money. It’s not—it’s also sort of the whole infrastructure that goes around here. And I do think we will see—as I said before, I do think we’re going to see touting of these various—especially the bipartisan bills, which CHIPS and, as Chris said, the infrastructure act—is part of it. And in some places, those are working in tandem in terms of the investment. 

TUTTLE: I would also add, it’s hard to imagine a State of the Union where there aren’t some major announcements like that. It’s great to sort of bring news to the—for a president to bring news to the table. 

ROBBINS: They do like to—certainly love to give away money. It’s, you know, come on down! (Laughs.) 

The next question is from Jim Zirin. 

Q: There we go. I’m sorry. I tuned in a little late, so I may have missed this. 

But there’s a shocking statistic out there from Gallup that only 3 percent of those polled nationally think democracy is a very important issue in the United States today, and that care about the future of our democracy. And isn’t this a great opportunity for Biden to rally the country that you have a national presidential candidate who wants to be a dictator, who wants to deport naturalized citizens born elsewhere, and who has made a number of wild statements which are about dealing with his political enemies and weaponizing the Justice Department, that are undermining the very fabric of democracy? And isn’t this a great platform for him to take on this issue, which I would think is the major issue in the campaign? 

TUTTLE: Yeah, I think that definitely will factor in. I said earlier, Jim, that I don’t think that he’ll take on Trump directly on this question. He may. But I think that references to the future of democracy is at stake, that type of—those type of types of rhetorical devices I think will be employed possibly throughout the speech, as something that is—you know, of the gravity of the situation and what’s at stake. We didn’t really get into that question because we were earlier talking—again, if you missed the first part—talking about foreign policy. But I think that’s definitely going to be peppered throughout the speech. 

ROBBINS: So my old friend Tracy Wilkinson, from the L.A. Times.  

Q: Hi. Hi, Carla. Thank you. 

ROBBINS: Hi, Tracy. 

Q: (Laughs.) Long time no see. I also came in a little late, so forgive me. 

But, Shannon, I mention, to yours and my chagrin, Latin America won’t figure in the speech tonight. But I thought it might come up—the one way it might come up is in the context of immigration, and whether Biden might or might not talk about the cooperation—entrecomias (ph), you know, the so-called cooperation he’s getting from some Latin American countries, like Mexico, like El Salvador, and—you know, for—with all that that, you know, implies. If you might talk about that at all—appraise it, when we all know there are a lot of issues involved. Just curious if you think that might come up that way. Thanks. 

O’NEIL: Yeah, no, thanks, Tracy. Nice to hear your voice. There’s a possibility there, right? Is that, you know, one, I don’t think he really wants to talk about migration for a long time because it’s a very—obviously, we were talking about, it’s one of the most difficult issues for his administration. But that idea that, look, we were trying to get this bill passed, and there was bipartisan support, and the Republicans killed it. So we can’t go that path. But that he is approaching this in a broader context, in a multilateral context, and working with other governments. And that this is a bigger problem around the world. It’s a bigger problem, and that they are taking steps on there.  

And they have taken some steps in that sense. As you point out, right, working with these governments. They’re slowly—and I would say slowly—starting to roll out, you know, various offices in these countries so people don’t have to come to the border to apply for asylum and the like. That’s been pretty slow to roll out. So I think we will see some of that. And, you know, more broadly, you know, I think, a difference that he—you know, he puts forward, some of it’s this bipartisanship but another part is this sort of multilateralism, right? And that’s his approach to the world.  

So if we get—where we might get something on foreign policy is that. So we see, you know, the Sweden’s prime minister being invited, because NATO. So kind of nodding to NATO and then the multilateralism there. I think if we—when we hear about the Ukraine, we hear about these, we’ll also see sort of the multilateral side there. And perhaps, you know, the nod on immigration that like, look, we’re working with other countries here too, because it is a broader—a broader Western Hemisphere problem. 

ROBBINS: So, Elise Labott—hi, Elise—of Zivvy News, formerly of CNN. 

Q: Hi, guys. How are you?  

TUTTLE: Hey, Elise. 

Q: I was a little bit—I was a little bit late as well. Sorry, everybody. Kind of just ducked on late. But—and, Steve, I caught the tail end of your remarks. 

And I was wondering, I’m sorry if I missed this, but how do you think Biden is going to just kind of thread the needle between those who, you know, want this kind of unconditional support for Israel with the growing wing of the Democratic Party that is becoming, you know, so disillusioned with his policy? 

COOK: Yeah. Well, I mentioned that this was the biggest challenge that he has in this speech, which is his own worldview and his own kind of pro-Israel proclivities. I mean, this is—I mean, we’ve discussed this before privately, Elise. He can’t talk about Israel without mentioning Golda Meir. And it’s an Israel that he remembers, that doesn’t really exist any longer. But I think what he’s going to do is he is going to repeat his, you know, heartfelt and support for Israel, and everything that he has done for the State of Israel since October 7th. He is hosting at this State of the Union families of hostages. And he will point to them, as—and will lay out his pro-Israel bona fides.  

But also say, that with that he has responsibilities, and that the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is unbearable, and that it is important, and that it is American responsibility and, quite frankly, in Israel’s interest, for the United States and the international community to flow aid into the Gaza Strip. And to think clearly about a day after and a process in which two states can live side by side in peace. That’s probably the best that he’s going to be able to do.  

My sense is that it’s really not going to move anybody. As you alluded to, there are large constituencies that after five months do not give much credence to what the president says about humanitarian aid to the Palestinians because the United States has, kind of in an unfettered way, provided the weaponry to the Israelis that have made it possible for the suffering of the Palestinian people; and that there is very little likelihood that—despite all the discussion within the Democratic Party about the possibility of conditioning aid, it seems unlikely that the president is going to support that.  

At the same time there’s another large constituency that is going to be—that has become increasingly suspect about the language that the administration has been using and suspect of the—what they perceive to be the growing influence of the progressive left on the president and the White House’s thinking.  

So it’s really a lose-lose situation for the president. It’ll have to be entirely up to him and his political people to decide which constituency he wants to upset more. But that is an issue of politics, not policy, and that’s not anywhere that I’m prepared to go right now.  

ROBBINS: Steven, how much of a problem does Biden have within his own congressional constituency? Do you think that he’s going to—there’s going to be a demonstration on the floor of Congress tonight about Gaza or the sort of things that we see with people—you know, we’ve seen somewhat in the primaries? We’ve certainly seen demonstrations, you know, out in the street. Or do you think that they’re going to hold it together because it is an election year?  

COOK: Carla, as you know, I do policy, not politics. This is—but people feel very strongly about this issue and I don’t consider myself a, you know, expert Congress watcher. 

I would think that members of the Democratic caucus would not want to embarrass the president at the State of the Union in the way that some of his opponents have tried to do in previous addresses. But, like I said, people feel very strongly about this issue.  

TUTTLE: Yeah, and I would just add I think Steven’s right about a floor demonstration and with regard to the political calculation that may be going on in the White House I think the—their balancing of the assistance to Israel with the humanitarian assistance is critical and anything that moves I think you’re going to see that in terms of the House. 

The question is if you are an Arab-American voter in Dearborn, Michigan, when it comes down to a binary choice are you going to stay home in November when you know that a Trump policy is likely to be much closer to what the Netanyahu government would prefer and there are a number of other—you know, Trump has a history on sort of the Arab-American side. That’s the political calculation they’re going to have to make and how much this actually—this issue is actually suppressive of votes that they’re going to need in order to get through—to get over the line in November.  

ROBBINS: How central do you think—there’s Ukraine and then there’s sort of—then there’s Russia and Putin, and Biden came in and he was going to make the—democracy versus autocracy was going to be his central theme for his presidency and he seemed to always seem very sort of academic almost to me, and particularly the word existentialist threat is overly used there but I understood that he saw the world as a fight between darkness and light and, certainly, there is a fight between darkness and light going on there and Putin is a very strong example of that.  

You know, Navalny’s widow decided not to come. I don’t think that was a diss of him. I think she’s genuinely worn out.  

Do you think—and who knows what he’s going to do—do you think he needs to keep Russia a central focus for this speech or shouldn’t he take a very strong stance on it because it seems like a lot of people who don’t want to support aid to Ukraine seem to be sloughing off the threat from Russia.  

TUTTLE: Yeah. I don’t think it—again, I don’t think foreign policy is going to occupy a large amount of space in this speech but it does offer some potent opportunity for Joe Biden. I think that, you know, foreign policy is seldom an issue that really moves the needle during elections. You’ve seen that tick up a little bit.  

There was a poll—an AP poll along with the University of Chicago that showed that foreign policy is taking on a larger and larger role. That may be because people are particularly interested in the Israel question. They may be particularly interested in the Ukraine question. 

I think, by and large, voters just know that we’re in a world that is tumultuous, that’s chaotic, where there are lots of problems and that they’re getting more and more concerned about these issues that, you know, there’s—that bring with them huge gravity.  

So I think that he’s not going to spend a ton of time on Ukraine, to answer your question, but I think that it does factor into voters thinking that he is actually getting—that he’s a responsible actor who’s trying to push back against not necessarily autocrats but enemies of the United States—adversaries of the United States—and that Putin is one of them.  

And I agree with you that the rhetoric on sort of democracy versus autocracy doesn’t get much purchase with voters. I don’t think that gets you very far. I think the question is can you paint Russia as the threat—successfully as the threat that it actually is and then persuade people that if we are going to push back on this even though it is expensive this is a way to do it on the relatively cheap. You know, that every day that the Russians aren’t—have not won in Ukraine they’re losing and we’re degrading—their capabilities are being degraded by our proxy support. So I hope that answers your question.  

ROBBINS: It does.  

So, finally, running out of time here and I just wanted to go around and ask you all, you know, there is a long tradition in White Houses of calling in experts and asking for advice before these speeches are written, much to the dismay of speech writers because it’s not like they don’t have a thousand people lobbying them.  

But my initiative into this speech, you know, cast it this way. Were you to be called in—I’m not going to ask whether you’ve actually been called in for your advice—for the good of the nation what would you like to hear in the speech tonight?  

Steven, you want to go first?  

COOK: Well, let me just say I was not called in probably because I would have told the president’s speech writers that whatever they’re talking about in terms of their day after plans in the Gaza Strip they’re unlikely to work.  

But I think—again, I, you know, approach this question with a little bit of trepidation because I don’t want to get into politics. But for the good of the country, I think I would go—talk about two things. 

One, a domestic politics issue, and that is the importance of democracy, back to Jim Zirin’s question, and that this is a system that has not always delivered but it really has created this extraordinary country—which is not perfect, but is—can be; we can all strive together to make it better, and that democracy is the way to do that, and that it can deliver. And I don’t want to get into the specifics how he—I think he might do that but I do think that any emphasis on the importance of democratic practices and the rule of law are called for at this moment. 

And on foreign policy, oddly, I would spend—I would make a clarion call for support for Ukraine. Europe prosperous, whole, and free is a core global interest of the United States and this sort of—the sense that has come over people, a sort of defeatist sense about Ukraine and accepting the situation as it is, will not serve us and serve that core interest quite well and this is a problem in this country.  

It’s something that actually I’m writing about now is that, you know, in a way sometimes in foreign policy things are too hard. We overthink the escalatory spirals and the possibility of wider wars and the problems pile up and pile up and then when we are forced to confront them the problem is bigger than it was. 

ROBBINS: Chris? 

TUTTLE: Sure. Well, it’s very unlikely that I will be called over within the next hour or two because I am a lifelong conservative Republican with a lot of Republican presidents, having worked for a lot of Republican presidents and Hill members of Congress.  

I would say that I would focus on exactly what I said sort of at the outset, which is the contrast between the steadiness of Joe Biden, in his words, and the chaos of the Republicans on the Hill and by proxy Donald Trump. I would make that central to my messaging. And I would also use, as I said before also, the foreign policy issues as encapsulating that sort of steadiness versus chaos, and the immense gravity of these issues. You can talk about economic issues. You can talk about accomplishments. You can talk about how you’re making people’s lives better.  

But there is a real advantage, I think, on foreign policy because I think people, even though they don’t necessarily pay attention to foreign policy issues, they understand how critically important they are. And they do sense a world that is, again, in real tumult. And for him to make that point, I think is a good one. And it points up some of the issues—you know, some of the questions, do you want the steadiness of, you know, this administration, even though you might not like everything we’re doing? Or do you want—even if, you know, a president who you may agree with more ideologically, but it’s going to be chaos once again. That would be the point I would make. 

ROBBINS: Shannon. 

O’NEIL: Well, I agree with both of my colleagues. I thought it was great on policy and on the politics. So I’m sorry that there wasn’t a phone call to either of them. (Laughs.) But I guess what—I guess what I would add, and just sort of augment a little bit, is, you know, I think one of Biden’s strengths, and I think as, you know, polling for people in the United States and the like if you’re trying to sell this, is that, you know, he is good at reaching out. He’s known for his bipartisan approach. It always has—you know, it always hasn’t taken, and we know it’s very polarized. But there is something there. And so I’d leaned into that if I was him. You know, he’s trying to do these things.  

And whether that’s on the domestic side, but also taking that to the foreign policy, to the international side, right? This is a man who, as we look at the future, will be reaching out to allies will be thinking about working with NATO, working with Europe, working with various countries, you know, in the Western Hemisphere, in Asia. You know, we have all of these initiatives that are going on right now, trying to build that core of supporters, and building a network around the world that’s going to be helpful to the United States. And I think that is something that would make sense to lean into.  

And, you know, he wouldn’t take this advice, but as he talks about all of his domestic accomplishments, on industrial policy in the like, I would—I would ask or I would—I would suggest that we shouldn’t just make it just domestic—just about domestic jobs, or about domestic growth. But to really do that right, to really have secure supply chains, to really have economic security along with national security, and U.S. growth, it’s got to be international as well. And so thinking about the foreign policy on that side as well. 

ROBBINS: Well, if they called me in, and this is me as the former editorial writer—(laughs)—I’m going to take the prerogative here. Biden had what I thought was an extraordinary line about Russia, just that we can have back after President Trump’s line about whatever the hell they want. He said: No other president in our history has ever bowed down to a Russian dictator. Well, let me say this as clearly as I can, I never will. I think that’s a hell of an applause line. So I’m going to be listening tonight to see whether he repeats that one. Whoever wrote that one should be lobbying very hard to get it into this speech, as far as I’m concerned. (Laughs.) 

Well, I wanted to thank Shannon O’Neil, Chris Tuttle, and Steven Cook for an extraordinary conversation. I want to thank everybody who joined us. And just as a reminder—I have to get my notes back up here, because I have to make sure that I do everything right or they won’t invite me back here—this has been on the record. Please visit for additional resources and a transcript for this. And thank you all for joining us. And we’ll all be watching.  


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