White House changes up its messaging in hopes of salvaging Ukraine aid

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The White House has been quietly urging lawmakers in both parties to sell the war efforts abroad as a potential economic boom at home.

Aides have been distributing talking points to Democrats and Republicans who have been supportive of continued efforts to fund Ukraine’s resistance to make the case that doing so is good for American jobs, according to five White House aides and lawmakers familiar with the effort and granted anonymity to speak freely.

The push, first previewed publicly in President Joe Biden’s Oval Office address last week, comes ahead of the election of a new House speaker, with the White House trying to invoke patriotism to help convince holdout Republicans not just to help Kyiv but to pass a major package that includes funds for Israel as well.

“As we replenish our stocks of weapons, we are partnering with the U.S. defense industry to increase our capacity and meet the needs of the U.S. and our allies both now and in the future,” according to a copy of the talking points obtained by POLITICO.

“This supplemental request invests over $50 billion in the American defense industrial base — ensuring our military continues to be the most ready, capable, and best equipped fighting force the world has ever seen — and expanding production lines, strengthening the American economy and creating new American jobs,” the document states.

The talking points are an implicit recognition that the administration has work to do in selling its $106 billion foreign aid supplemental request — and that talking about it squarely under the umbrella of national security interests hasn’t done the trick.

The White House’s pitch is an echo of one made by an influential figure on the other side of the aisle: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In a March 2022 Senate floor speech, McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that the defense industrial base had been caught “napping” as the Russian invasion entered its second month. In the early days, he repeatedly pushed Biden to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up weapons production.

And while some GOP support for Ukraine has eroded, the Senate minority leader took to the Sunday talk shows last weekend to push his Republicans against separating Israel’s cause from the war in Europe.

“No Americans are getting killed in Ukraine. We’re rebuilding our industrial base. The Ukrainians are destroying the army of one of our biggest rivals. I have a hard time finding anything wrong with that. I think it’s wonderful that they’re defending themselves,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation.

White House aides said they have been in communication with McConnell throughout the war and that his recent remarks were warmly received in the West Wing. A McConnell aide did not comment on recent communication with the White House.

On top of communication with McConnell, Defense Department officials have also circulated to the Hill slides showing nearly $20 billion in investment in the industrial base via U.S. support for Ukraine. That includes nearly $3.1 billion in contracts targeted toward expanding the nation’s industrial base capacity, including increasing artillery production approximately six-fold over three years.

That ammunition is being provided to both Israel and Ukraine, officials said. Funding for the work flows through red states such as Texas, Arkansas and Alabama and electoral battlegrounds like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

The White House’s $106 billion supplemental request includes funding for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border security. But the ambitious package remains stalled until a House Speaker is finally elected. In the wake of the Hamas terror attacks earlier this month, most lawmakers have backed funding Israel. But while there is largely bipartisan support for helping Ukraine as well, the number of GOP no votes has grown.

In urging help for Ukraine for the past 20 months, Biden’s arguments have largely centered around lofty ideas like defending democracies and making clear that the United States’ own national security would be threatened if Vladimir Putin were to be successful.

But White House aides have also argued that the war was hitting Americans in their wallets. They blamed the conflict for surging costs, particularly gas prices — though its “Putin’s price hike” moniker didn’t catch on — and warned that economic woes would grow if Ukraine fell.

Now, the tenor of the economic push has changed, with White House aides enlisting lawmakers to make a more positive case.

“Let me be clear about something,” Biden said during his Oval Office address. “We send Ukraine equipment sitting in our stockpiles. And when we use the money allocated by Congress, we use it to replenish our own stores, our own stockpiles with new equipment.”

“Equipment that defends America and is made in America. Patriot missiles for air defense batteries, made in Arizona. Artillery shells manufactured in 12 states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas. And so much more,” he said. “You know, just as in World War II, today patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.”

The change in sales pitch comes as polls show that Americans are growing more skeptical of the effort to help Ukraine — and continue to question Biden’s handling of the economy.

Some Republicans say they’ve been telling the Biden administration that their rhetoric around Ukraine has been subpar and that to gain House GOP support – and preserve the stronger support in the Senate – they have to change their message.

The administration has privately “realized that their messaging on Ukraine specifically has been a disaster… and that they needed to change,” according to a senior congressional Republican aide. “There has been a bit of effort to help the administration understand that their messaging is wholly inadequate, and they’re using phrases that Republicans don’t respond to and they’re not making convincing arguments.”

The aide pointed to Biden’s prior insistence that the U.S. would support Ukraine “as long as it takes” as open-ended and unwieldy. Biden in last week’s speech said the United States would help Ukraine “defend themselves” — a message more potent with the GOP and their voters.

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