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What’s missing from Biden on Ukraine

President Biden speaks on the phone to his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in the Oval Office on March 30, 2022. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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There seems to be basically no good news for Democrats when it comes to President Biden’s political stock ahead of the 2022 midterm elections — and matters seem to be getting worse. Biden’s average approval is mired near an all-time low of 41.6 percent in the FiveThirtyEight average, similar to where Donald Trump’s approval fell. The likely chief culprit is historic — and worsening — inflation.

But a closer look at Biden’s numbers shows that the disapproval stretches beyond the economy. On issue after issue, voters haven’t liked what they’re seeing.

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

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

A recent Quinnipiac poll showed 39 percent approved of Biden’s handling of Ukraine, with 48 percent disapproving. Another poll in the middle of March pegged those numbers at 36 percent and 52 percent, respectively. An AP-NORC poll showed 36 percent of Americans rated Biden’s response as “about right.” Some polls — including YouGov’s — have been more favorable. But in most polls, the bump that Biden got early in the invasion and after his State of the Union address has dissipated.

Biden’s approval has sagged despite Ukraine’s having fared better than many predicted — holding Kyiv and notching significant victories that now include the sinking of the Moskva — and despite Biden’s having pursued policies most Americans say they approve of.

Americans generally and overwhelmingly approve of sanctions on Russia and making them stronger, which Biden has. They strongly supported banning Russian oil, which Biden did. They overwhelmingly oppose involving the U.S. military, which Biden has assured he won’t do.

Which leads to the question of what they think is missing — and what success looks like for Biden on this issue.

One possible explanation is that Americans quite simply want more of … something: The AP-NORC poll showed that 56 percent of Americans and even 43 percent of Democrats said Biden wasn’t being tough enough. Another explanation is that people sense more hesitancy than they would like: An NPR poll showed 45 percent of Americans agreed that Biden was being too cautious. Again, a substantial number of Democrats — 35 percent — agreed.

Biden has taken steps that seem to meet with public approval, but often after others had done so or allies had called for it. That includes banning Russian oil, accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes and, most recently, moving to send U.S. officials to Kyiv, now that it’s more secure.

In the run-up to the war, Biden took a somewhat hands-off, diplomacy-focused approach to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, before Germany shelved it. Polls have also regularly shown Americans overwhelmingly supported sending more weapons to Ukraine, and the Biden administration significantly ramped up aid in recent days.

Biden has also sought to talk tough. In addition to coming around to accusing Putin of war crimes, he at one point seemed to call for Putin’s removal from power (although the White House walked it back), and most recently accused Russia of committing genocide.

This issue — that is, the actual result of Russia’s invasion — is very unlikely to be decided in the springtime, of course. Much remains up in the air, and the war has inflicted huge costs on Ukraine. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has suggested that Western leaders could shoulder the blame for an adverse outcome — including delivering that message directly to U.S. leaders last month.

Looming over all of this is the other major foreign policy event of Biden’s presidency: the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan — for which the administration seemed unprepared and the manner of which voters strongly disapproved. It seems probable that with those events in mind, Americans are less likely to see the good in Biden’s approach to Ukraine or to perceive him as truly in command of the situation.

Neither foreign policy issue is likely to be top-of-mind for voters come November, given the state of the economy, but both will play into their assessments of Biden’s promise of assertive steady U.S. leadership after Trump.

Some of this polling could simply reflect people souring on Biden overall, and not seeing anything in Ukraine that exceeds their expectations. But that’s also kind of the point.

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