“The White House needs to be more forward-leaning,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee and has been in touch with senior Biden officials.
Rogers criticized the White House for agonizing over short-term decisions on military assistance without a clear sense of what will get them closer to ending the war. “[Biden] always gets to the right decision, just three to six months after the fact, and that’s the inherent problem,” he said.
On Wednesday, McConnell blasted Biden’s public messaging on Ukraine as “insufficient” and indicative of “timid leadership” on the matter.
Biden “has an obligation to speak to all Americans. But most of his messaging about lofty and abstract principles seems tailored for Washington think tanks,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, echoing sentiment he made privately to Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, according to a senior Republican aide.
Among the messages McConnell wants to see stressed by the White House are ones about the practical reasons for ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine, the importance of a Ukraine victory on European security and America’s competition with China.
House leaders delivered a similar message during a private meeting last week with Sullivan, urging him to lay out more clearly how much aid will be needed to ensure Ukraine can win the war, rather than simply sustain it, according to a lawmaker in the room.
“Our members are like, hey, what’s our objective?” said the lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to freely discuss the closed-door session, which included Speaker Kevin McCarthy, top Democrat Hakeem Jeffries, and House Foreign Affairs Committee leaders Michael McCaul, a Republican, and Democrat Gregory Meeks. “And how many times are we going to have to do this?”
Angst is also bubbling up among Democrats. Several lawmakers expressed fears that, barring a clearer White House vision or sudden major progress on the battlefield, key GOP partners in supporting Ukraine will eventually decide the political pressure from the Republican base to withhold more aid is too much to bear.
Such a development would hamstring Biden, who has largely leaned on Republican lawmakers to sell the need for continued funding to their constituents. It also could potentially turn the fate of Ukraine into the latest deeply partisan debate.
“If there really is a moral struggle in the world, this is it,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), one of the Biden allies who have bristled at the president’s repeated vow to back Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
“Is that not a fight worth fighting for, as Americans? That ought to be the case the White House is making. We need that passion. We need that articulation.”
White House officials defended the administration’s strategy and engagement with the Hill, insisting they’ve given Congress the same number of briefings with the same level of information as prior supplemental requests. They also said they’ve been responsive to follow-up questions and requests for additional information.
“We have over the last 18 months and continue to brief members of Congress in both chambers, both parties, consistently on support to Ukraine … at many times in a classified setting,” said National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby. “So any member of Congress who wants additional information will have no trouble getting it from this administration.”
The White House has used the bully pulpit at select moments to speak about Ukraine, such as at the United Nations this week and during Biden’s cloak-and-dagger train ride to the country in February. In addition, administration officials have spoken about Ukraine at press briefings and in television interviews for months.
“It’s been a priority for the president and the administration to make the case to the American people about why this is so important,” said a White House official granted anonymity to discuss strategy.
In the closed-door meetings, the Hill’s strongest Ukraine supporters have conveyed the need for the White House to be more open with House members about its longer-term vision for the war, rather than abruptly demanding more money every few months.
“We’re the fundamental power of the purse,” said one senior House GOP lawmaker, who warned that without a revamped White House push, approving more aid beyond the current request “will be very difficult. And I think everybody understands that.”
Most polling suggests that a majority of Americans still favor aiding Ukraine. But a CNN poll in August that showed 55 percent of those surveyed opposed authorizing additional funding jolted lawmakers and foreign policy experts who argue the Biden administration needs to reset its messaging and re-emphasize what’s at stake.
White House officials have largely cast the conflict as a battle between good and evil, with the U.S. firmly on the right side of history. But as more money flows out the door, some have urged the administration to take a more pragmatic approach: pitching the Ukraine war as an investment in strengthening Americans’ own security.
“What does the next 12 months look like? Where can we realistically be?” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said of the questions the administration needs to answer more explicitly. “They’ve been able to maintain public support. But we know the longer it goes on, the more challenging it becomes.”
The administration’s $26 billion request for Ukraine is tied up in broader battles over a government spending bill. White House officials and aides of both parties have expressed confidence the request would eventually be fulfilled, although some have opened the door to it not getting done prior to the end of the month or being split into two.
The pleas for more forceful presidential messaging come ahead of Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington on Thursday, when he will meet with senators in the storied Old Senate Chamber, with Defense officials at the Pentagon, and then later with Biden at the White House. While the United Nations General Assembly — the reason for Zelenskyy’s U.S. visit — was scheduled long before the funding request, the Ukrainian president’s visit is viewed by administration officials as helpful to building political support for it.
Support for Ukraine — while consistently relatively strong — hardens when there is a high-profile news event in the battle or with Zelenskyy.
“I encourage any member of Congress who is having doubts about this course to make sure that they will make themselves available to President Zelenskyy” on Thursday, Kirby said.
Zelenskyy routinely peppers his speeches with accounts of Russia’s brutality and its immediate threat to the wider world, and critics off the Hill say Biden also needs to speak of real-world implications.
“Talking about the ‘liberal international order’ makes my eyes glaze over when people talk about it and I’m at least partially an academic,” said Eric Edelman, a George W. Bush administration defense official.
“He needs to actually talk about the dangers of a world in which aggression is left free to run its course, the connections between this and peace and security for the American people, not just in Europe, but in the Indo Pacific and beyond. He’s made all of those arguments kind of piecemeal, but not in a concerted way with the attention of the American public.”