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What Biden misses on Ukraine

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It looks like there’s hardly any good news for Democrats when it comes to President Biden’s political stockpile ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. And things look to be getting worse. Biden’s average approval is mired near an all-time low of 41.6% in the FiveThirtyEight average, similar to where Donald Trump’s approval dropped. The likely main culprit is historical inflation – and it’s getting worse.

But a closer look at Biden’s numbers shows that the disapproval extends beyond the economy. Question after question, voters didn’t like what they saw.

That includes an issue where the outcome has so far looked better than expected and where Biden’s policies appear to largely align with what most Americans want: Ukraine.

The pressing question for the White House — especially as the war drags on and the question continues to matter to voters — is why?

A Quinnipiac poll showed just 39% approved of Biden’s handling of Ukraine, with 48% disapproving. Another in mid-March pegged those numbers at 36% and 52%, respectively. An AP-NORC poll showed that just 36% of Americans called Biden’s answer “about right.” Some polls, including that of YouGov, have been more favorable. But in most polls, the bump Biden got at the start of the invasion and after his State of the Union address wore off.

Biden’s approval has faltered despite Ukraine doing better than many had expected – holding kyiv and winning major victories that now include the sinking of the Moskva – and despite Biden pursuing policies that most of Americans say they approve.

Americans generally and overwhelmingly approve of sanctions against Russia and are tightening them, which Biden has done. They strongly supported banning Russian oil, which Biden did. They overwhelmingly oppose the involvement of the US military, which Biden has assured he will not do.

Which leads to the question of what they think they’re missing out on — and what Biden’s success looks like on that question.

One possible explanation is that Americans simply want After of…something: The AP-NORC poll showed that 56% of Americans and even 43% of Democrats said Biden wasn’t tough enough. Another explanation is that people are feeling more hesitation than they would like: an NPR poll showed Americans agreeing 45 to 33 that Biden was being too cautious. Again, a significant number of Democrats — 35% — agreed.

Biden has taken steps that appear to meet with public approval, but often after others have done so or allies have called for them. This includes banning Russian oil, indicting Vladimir Putin for war crimes and, most recently, the decision to send US officials to kyiv now that it is safer. As war approached, Biden took a somewhat hands-off, diplomacy-focused approach to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, before Germany suspended it. Polls have also consistently shown Americans overwhelmingly support sending more weapons to Ukraine, and the Biden administration has dramatically increased aid in recent days.

Biden has also sought to speak tough. As well as accusing Putin of war crimes, he at one time appeared to call for Putin’s removal from power (although the White House backed it down) and recently accused Russia of committing a genocide.

It is very unlikely that this question – that is, the actual outcome of the Russian invasion – will be decided in the spring, of course. Much remains unresolved and the war has inflicted enormous costs on Ukraine. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested that Western leaders could take responsibility for an unfavorable outcome, including delivering that message directly to US leaders last month.

Above all that looms the other major foreign policy event of Biden’s presidency: the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan — which the administration seemed unprepared for and voters strongly disapproved of. It seems likely that with these events in mind, Americans are less likely to see the good in Biden’s approach to Ukraine or to perceive him as truly in control. Neither foreign policy issue is expected to be a priority for voters in November given the state of the economy, but both will play into their assessments of Biden’s promise of strong and stable American leadership after Trump.

Some of these polls might just reflect people who are distrustful of Biden overall and see nothing in Ukraine that exceeds their expectations. But that’s also kind of the point.


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