AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Roman
Is the war in Ukraine helping Joe Biden’s poll numbers? The consensus among political analysts is that foreign policy crises produce a “rally around the flag effect.” There is some evidence that Biden’s numbers, on a steady downward trajectory since the Afghanistan debacle followed by the collapse of his domestic agenda, have at least slightly stabilized. But it is important to put the proper stress on the word slightly.
Even the polls showing Biden improving tend to show him underwater when it comes to his handling of foreign policy in general, and the Ukrainian crisis in particular, albeit by less than his atrocious numbers on other issues. Insofar as the conflict has sucked all oxygen from other issues, it has frozen American politics in place. If that means Biden has stopped the bleeding, at least for now, it is cold comfort for Democrats. The current political alignments merely frozen in place are a disaster for the party: it’s a place in which a Republican House majority appears a foregone conclusion, and a GOP Senate victory highly probable.
Joe Biden’s approval rating in the Real Clear Politics average as of March 18th, 2022, was 40.9% approving and 54.8% disapproving, just above his January 23rd nadir of 40.5%/55.2% but still below the 43%/51% split in November when voters in Virginia elected Glenn Youngkin governor of a state Joe Biden had won by 10 points. Furthermore, there is some evidence that Biden’s small initial “bounce” from the Ukrainian conflict has dissipated. After the Russian invasion, Biden’s numbers began an upward movement, peaking on March 12th when his average on RCP reached 42.9%/51.7%, before falling again.
There are plenty of specific explanations for this. Some observers have argued that Biden’s failure to fulfill his pledge to help Ukraine has contributed to his further decline in the polls. But while there are undoubtedly criticisms to be made of Biden’s response, if anything Ukraine’s apparent success at stalling the Russian advance should reduce pressure to take further action, and Americans are hesitant when it comes to actions that could provoke a direct military confrontation with Russia. Others have cited rising gas prices as reason for Biden’s declining numbers, but gas prices peaked in the first two weeks of the war and have in fact been slightly falling since, even if they are trailing falling oil prices. So why are Biden’s numbers static no matter what he does?
One reason might be that regardless of whether voters favor what Biden is doing on a given issue, they no longer have faith in his ability to carry it out. This is not to suggest that Biden’s policies are popular. But Biden’s handling of issues consistently polls below the public’s support for his policies. Ukraine is a prime example of this. YouGov found voters by a margin of 64%-17% favored sending weapons to Ukraine, and 72% favored sanctions on Russia even if it increased prices at home, while a mere 20% favored sending U.S. troops to directly fight the Russians. On paper then, Biden’s policy should line up with the desired approach of a large majority of Americans. Yet in that same poll, only 41% of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, while 44% disapproved. Monmouth found similar numbers. 81% approved of sanctions, yet Biden’s numbers on the issue were underwater at 46%-48%. Despite agreeing with the actions and positions Biden was taking, voters did not approve of how he took them.
Biden seems to have established a “confidence” or “credibility” deficit with a large segment of the American public. It is not so much that they disagree with what he is trying to do (although the more radical parts of his party’s agenda remain unpopular). Americans have simply lost confidence in Biden’s ability to do the job. When it comes to foreign policy, the catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan clearly played a role in establishing the perception of haplessness and incompetence, but the impression extends to domestic issues as well. Take COVID-19. YouGov found that by a 52%-48% margin, voters favored protecting health over the economy – exactly the policy position Biden claimed to be pursuing. Moreover, polls consistently showed that respondents favored a gradual or phased approach to returning to normal, another approach Biden said he was following. Yet Biden could only manage 43% approval on COVID-19 compared to 46% disapproving, indicating even those who are open to continued restrictions do not fully trust him.
Perhaps the most striking example lies in the results for whether Biden is a “strong or weak leader.” By a margin of 61%-39%, respondents in YouGov said Biden was somewhat or very weak.
Here lies the existential problem for the Democrats as long as they are led by the Biden-Harris tandem. Democrats already have a problem with the unpopularity of many of their positions, especially when it comes to education and cultural issues. Yet their deeper problem is a lack of credibility. That undermines them in two ways. First, it prevents them from being able to shift course on the issues where they are unpopular. If Biden says he is abandoning CRT or he wants kids back in schools many voters do not believe him, or do not believe he will be able to keep his word and carry out what he promises. Second, Democrats are unable to rally or even mobilize the voters who do agree with them.
It is hardly surprising then that Biden has not received much of a “Ukraine bounce.” Even if voters do not oppose what he is doing, they lack any confidence in his ability to carry out his own policies effectively. The suspicion must exist in the back of their minds that even if he “warned” about a Russian invasion, both those warnings and the steps he took to avert it were carried out in a way which contributed to the lack of success in preventing Russia’s invasion.
Democrats are praying for circumstances to improve before November. They are praying for gas prices to go down, inflation to slow, and for COVID-19 to go away. Yet it is unclear how much any of that would help them now. Voters quite simply do not believe Biden is up to the job, and are increasingly unlikely to credit him for anything which improves. Biden might complain that he is unfairly blamed for everything that has gone wrong, but his situation is far worse. Increasingly, a majority do not blame or credit him with anything.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.