It is nonetheless clear that Biden’s pretty homogenous foreign policy team thinks Trump tapped into something in 2016. The mantra “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class” was clearly designed to signal that Biden intended to link foreign policy more tightly to domestic policy. This partially explains why Biden has insisted on continuing with the Afghanistan pullout, the trade war with China and Trump’s overall protectionist sentiment. The Biden team thinks these actions resonate with the middle class.
The latest Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey paints a more complicated picture. (Full disclosure: I serve on the Chicago Council’s foreign policy advisory board.) To be fair to the Biden administration, there are definite areas of overlap. For example, when Americans were asked to assess factors necessary to retain U.S. influence in the world, the strongest responses had nothing to do with foreign policy: “Majorities of Americans consider improving public education (73%), strengthening democracy at home (70%), and reducing both racial (53%) and economic (50%) inequality as very important to maintaining America’s global influence. Similarly, Americans are more concerned about threats within the United States (81%) than threats outside the country (19%).” This resonates with Biden’s “Build Back Better” mantra.
Similarly, the Biden administration was correct to assume that Americans wanted to withdraw from Afghanistan and that this was not part of an overall mood toward retrenchment. A Chicago Council-Ipsos survey conducted during the height of criticism about the U.S. withdrawal (Aug. 23-26) found that 64 percent of Americans continued to support the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the report also observed that the desire to withdraw from Afghanistan does not translate to other areas: “A majority of Americans (57%) says maintaining US military superiority is a very important factor to US global influence, and most think US military bases around the world enhance US military strength. Majorities of Americans want to either maintain or increase the US military presence in Asia-Pacific (78%), Africa (73%), Latin America (73%), Europe (71%), and the Middle East (68%).”
Where the Biden administration repeatedly, persistently missteps is on trade. As the report noted, “The 2021 Chicago Council Survey shows that a record number of Americans (68%) now say globalization is mostly good for the United States, and three-quarters or more consider international trade to be beneficial to consumers like them, their own standard of living, US tech companies, the US economy, and US agriculture.” The one exception to this general sentiment is on China, where the American public now reflects the hawkish consensus inside the Beltway.
Stepping back, the picture painted by this survey is mostly one of continuity on foreign policy. Americans still want to exercise leadership in the world. They still want to enjoy the benefits of an open global economy. The area where the public has shifted is in threat perception. Americans are somewhat more hawkish about China. They are much more hawkish, however, about threats from within rather than threats from without.