The Memo: Biden in a bind as Ukraine crisis fails to pump up polls

President Biden is astride the world stage, charting a steady course on the Ukraine crisis — but it’s not doing him much good at home.

Biden has largely done what he said he would regarding Ukraine, maintaining a high degree of Western unity against Russian President Vladimir Putin while avoiding tactics that would cause the conflict to escalate.

His approval ratings have barely budged.

That’s a sizable problem for a president whose party faces a high risk of losing control of Congress in midterm elections that are now about seven months away.

Voters don’t necessarily dislike what Biden is doing in Ukraine. Nor are they indifferent to the suffering seen in Kyiv, Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities as the Russian invasion enters its second month.

But other problems — inflation above all — figure far more prominently in American voters’ lives. And unless Biden can ameliorate those troubles, his party may suffer steep losses in November. Such an outcome would leave the president tightly constrained by a GOP-led Congress for the final two years of his first term.

In that scenario, “the only thing I’ll have then is a veto pen,” Biden warned Democrats at a party retreat in Philadelphia earlier this month.

“It is hard for the president’s party to win [in bad economic times] no matter what is happening on the other side of the globe,” GOP strategist Alex Conant told this column. “The president can be racking up Nobel Peace Prizes but if voters feel economic uncertainty they are going to want a change in leadership.” 

Conant cited the example of former President George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush’s approval rating in Gallup polling hit a stratospheric 89 percent in the immediate aftermath of the first Iraq War — only for him to lose his reelection bid to former President Clinton amid economic unease roughly 18 months later. 

The White House has sought to thread the needle, with Biden emphasizing that he is not disconnected from voters’ domestic concerns even amid a huge international crisis. 

The president has talked frequently about the need to combat inflation and he has also sought to warn Americans that there will be a price to be paid, particularly in terms of high gas prices, because of the conflict in Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has sounded similar themes during her regular media briefings.

More recently, Biden, Psaki and others have sought to pin the blame for rising costs at home on the Russian president, with references to “Putin’s price hike.”

People close to Biden are also trying to sell the president’s achievements in a larger sense.

They cite the nation’s progress against COVID-19, the pandemic relief package that passed a year ago and the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden signed in November.

White House aides often cite the huge job growth under Biden, even as Republicans argue the strong numbers are the automatic outcome of a nation emerging from the pandemic.

Whatever gloss the different parties prefer to put on it, 6.6 million jobs were created during Biden’s first year.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain on Thursday seized on new figures about unemployment that demonstrate the strength of the job market.

“I’m sure this good news will get the same coverage that bad economic reports receive but just in case it doesn’t — Today, unemployment claims hit their lowest level since 1969,” Klain tweeted. “The number of Americans relying on unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest level since 1970.”

Klain’s sardonic tone was justified, however. Those new numbers caused barely a ripple in a news agenda dominated by Ukraine and gas prices.

The fundamental conundrum Biden faces is near-insoluble: He has to give the lion’s share of his attention and energy to countering the Russian invasion but doing so inevitably marginalizes issues that might better move the needle with American voters.

An Associated Press/NORC poll earlier this week indicated that 43 percent of adults approve of Biden’s job performance and 56 percent disapprove — a finding essentially unchanged from the last survey from the same organizations, which was conducted just before the Russian invasion.

A NewsNation/Decision Desk HQ poll, also released in recent days, showed the same pattern. 

The NewsNation poll had 44 percent of registered voters approving of Biden’s overall job performance and 56 percent disapproving. Those results were virtually identical to a previous survey late last month, right before Biden’s State of the Union address.

The AP poll and the NewsNation poll each offered mixed results on Biden’s handling of Russia and Ukraine, with the president’s performance receiving ratings that were neither stellar nor awful. 

But concerns about the economy trumped all else. 

The AP poll showed just 34 percent of adults approving of Biden’s handling of the economy and 65 percent disapproving. 

While there was, as ever, a strong partisan split between Democratic and Republican voters, independents took an unfavorable view of Biden’s economic performance by a massive 60-point margin, with just 18 percent approving and 78 percent disapproving.

Biden, who will complete his international trip in Warsaw on Saturday, struck a philosophical tone about the electoral consequences of his actions at a news conference in Brussels on Thursday.

“No election is worth my not doing exactly what I think is the right thing,” he said.

But his party colleagues in Congress, looking at the polling numbers and the ticking clock, might not be so sanguine.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage

Tags 2022 midterms Bill Clinton Inflation Jen Psaki Joe Biden Ron Klain Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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