Biden, Trump both lose in Ukraine debacle

In the negative-sum game that is American politics, the war waged by Vladimir Putin against Ukraine has produced mostly losers thus far — and there is little prospect of the losers becoming winners. Chief among the losers is President Biden, but that does not mean that Donald Trump has benefited. On the contrary: Trump is finding it difficult to pick up support, largely due to his own foolishness.

The damage to Biden is most clear. Only 31 percent approved of his handling of Russia immediately before its invasion of Ukraine, and Biden’s overall approval numbers continue to sink. He is down to a RealClearPolitics average of 55 percent disapproval to 41 percent approve, with ABC/Washington Post having him at just 38 percent approve against 57 percent disapprove. Biden had been holding his own in the ballot test for a re-match with Trump — anywhere from 5 point up to 4 points down — but the recent Harris poll has Biden losing 42 percent to 48 percent.

Americans normally rally around the president when there is a foreign policy crisis, but a combination of Biden’s fumbling of the Afghanistan withdrawal and a complete inability to restrain Putin seems to have left the public with little confidence. Biden has been viewed as a weak leader — and weak relative to Trump — in polling that goes back to 2020. Putin’s dismissive attitude toward Biden hardly improved that perception. Any American admiration for strong leadership is accruing to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, not Biden.

It is difficult to see an outcome that will truly benefit Biden. American actions are rather circumscribed to sanctions and the provision of certain types of weapons (no missiles, ships or planes). As a result, should the Ukrainians win their fight, Biden will only be able to take limited credit. Zelensky and the Ukrainians will be the ones admired, not the shambolic Biden administration. 

But victory is hardly assured. Russia still possesses enormous military resources not yet committed. Further, defeat for Putin might not just be humiliating, it could be fatal. A coup against Putin is possible, but that outcome is utterly beyond western control and hardly predictable. Putin, like autocrats of his ilk, has been able to establish firm control of state security services. Not a single “people’s revolution” in the 21st century has succeeded without support from — or a split in — that nation’s security services. What seems depressingly more likely is a grinding war of increasing violence and atrocities by the Russian state.

In a lengthy, brutal conflict, Biden will have to stand back and hope that severe sanctions work, and that Putin is not able to force Europe to walk away from the united Western front. In spite of the current rush of unity and support for Ukraine, the prospect of the Germans, Italians and Austrians maintaining firm opposition to Putin is unproven, at best.

Any break or collapse in sanctions would irreparably harm Biden’s leadership numbers — not to mention destroy the Democratic trope about the criticality of working with our fair-weather “allies.”

Trump: Fumbling the advantage, again 

The one political skill at which Trump has become most adept is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

And so it is with the current crisis. Bizarrely, Trump is determined to throw compliments at Putin that drown out his condemnations. Calling Putin’s invasion “genius” was a spectacular own-goal. The Trump foreign policy team were much tougher on Putin than the Obama crowd, increasing sanctions and engaging in their own bellicose rhetoric. Yet, Trump sounds like a moony-eyed schoolgirl whenever he talks about Putin — which only serves to feed suspicions about him being a Russian asset.

On all levels, Trump’s complimentary attitude toward Putin makes no sense. All through his administration solid majorities of Republicans, independents and Democrats viewed Russia as either an “enemy” of the United States or “unfriendly.” Current polling, not surprisingly, is getting worse. Just before the invasion, the YouGov poll showed 71 percent of Americans considered Russia an “immediate” or “somewhat” serious threat, with Republicans and Democrats practically tied at 74 percent and 73 percent respectively.

In addition, punishing Russia was popular with 57 percent of Americans supporting sanctions and only 16 percent opposed (Republicans favored sanctions 60 percent; 19 percent of Republicans thought sanctions were a bad idea; 21 percent weren’t sure); 45 percent of Americans supported financial aid to Ukraine, with 23 percent opposed; 41 percent of Americans supported sending arms to Ukraine, and 44 percent supported Ukraine joining NATO. In all cases, Republican voters were within 10 points or less of the average, and pluralities supported each action.

And those numbers were before Putin’s unprovoked attack.

American views of Putin are similarly awful. In its Jan. 29 poll, YouGov had Putin’s favorability at 9 percent. Much has been made that Republicans have a higher approval of Putin than Biden, but GOP voters’ approval of Putin is just 10 percent (Note GOP approval of Biden was 9 percent, well within the margin of error, and Democrats’ unfavorable opinion of Trump outpolled their unfavorable opinion of Putin by 87 percent to 82 percent). Hard to believe Trump and Steve Bannon cannot read the polls; Tucker Carlson and Tulsi Gabbard can.

It seems Trump is paying a political price for his nonsensical behavior. Despite Biden plummeting in the polls, Trump is barely benefiting. Even while Biden’s approval numbers decline, Trump’s remain stuck in the low 40s in his ballot test against Biden. Until the recent Harris poll, only Trump’s own pollster, McLaughlin, had shown him nearing 50 percent. Trump’s approval ratings continue to be under water by well over 10 points and have remained so since he left office.

Out with the old

Both Biden and Trump have shown no ability to expand beyond their base and have roughly equal disapproval ratings.

Biden has had a brutal six months, featuring foreign policy disasters, rocketing inflation and his party’s defeat in the November polls.

In spite of a seemingly endless run of trouble for Biden, Trump has barely moved the political needle in his own favor.

These are two old men stumbling forward toward a 2024 face-off for which the country has little appetite. It’s time for both parties to move on and retire them — once and for all.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2024 presidential race approval ratings Donald Trump Joe Biden opinion polling Political positions of Donald Trump Political positions of Joe Biden Presidency of Joe Biden Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Steve Bannon Tucker Carlson Tulsi Gabbard Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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