The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chinese spy balloon deflates as a political issue

U.S. fighter aircraft downed a Chinese spy balloon off the South Carolina coast on Feb. 4. (Video: The Washington Post)
4 min

Few recent events have captured America’s attention like a Chinese spy balloon floating across the United States. And when President Biden declined to immediately shoot it down, citing safety issues on the ground, Republicans almost instantly pitched it as yet another example of his allegedly weak and feckless foreign policy in the face of an adversary. They prepared legislation and pledged a thorough investigation.

But less than a month later, when the new House select committee on China held a hearing on the “Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America” on Tuesday night, the balloon was barely mentioned.

Nearly two hours in, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) asked former Trump national security adviser H.R. McMaster about what message China was sending with the balloon.

McMaster indicated the balloon was more a metaphor for China’s espionage intentions than anything else: “So I think the balloon is important to look at, but I think placing the balloon in context, I think, is what is perhaps most important.”

A couple minutes later, a Democratic member briefly mentioned the balloon, saying it shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of China’s harm to our economy. And that was basically it.

There are perhaps some very good reasons the balloon wasn’t a focal point of the hearing. Chief among them is how the committee and its chairman, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), have emphasized that the China issue is too important for their work to devolve into partisan food fights. When the spy balloon saga first touched off, he and ranking member Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) issued a joint statement that Gallagher acknowledged was more toned-down than one he would have issued on his own.

There was also an early Senate hearing on the topic, in which actual Pentagon officials (as opposed to the China experts at Tuesday’s hearing) were grilled on the situation by both Republicans and Democrats.

But it’s also true that despite early suggestions this might be, as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) called it, “a PR nightmare for the Biden administration,” the spy balloon episode hasn’t exactly turned into such an albatross.

Quinnipiac University polled reviews of Biden’s handling of it a week later and found Americans were about as split as they usually are. While 45 percent disapproved, 42 percent approved. Those were better numbers for Biden than his overall approval rating and on any other issue tested: the economy, foreign policy, immigration and even Ukraine.

And a Fox News poll released over the weekend shows much the same thing: 49 percent disapproved, and 46 percent approved. Again, those aren’t great marks, but they were better than reviews of Biden’s handling of the economy, inflation, immigration, the opioid epidemic and guns. Even some Americans who were predisposed to disliking Biden on a range of issues didn’t necessarily see this episode as a blunder.

As interestingly, Fox asked Americans a more detailed question about the situation. It found a majority — 54 percent — thought the federal government reacted “appropriately” in ultimately shooting the balloon down off the coast of South Carolina. Another 7 percent said it overreacted, while just 39 percent said it didn’t “react seriously enough.” Even 3 in 10 Republicans said the government acted appropriately.

It could be that asking only about the decision to shoot it down then — as opposed to asking about, say, not shooting it down earlier — colored responses. It’s also possible that asking the question about the federal government rather than an unpopular Biden made people less apt to disagree.

But it’s not exactly suggestive of a major backlash. We’ve seen Americans judge Biden very poorly on plenty before, including the chaotic 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan that some critics invoked amid the spy balloon saga. Back then, Americans disapproved by margins of more than 20 points and sometimes by 2-to-1 margins.

The stakes then were more readily apparent, and there’s still much we don’t know about the spy balloon. It’s surely emblematic of a much-broader foreign policy problem that will test both this and future administrations. And it’s possible it could ultimately be regarded as something of a “Sputnik moment” — a singular event that crystallizes a situation for even casual consumers of foreign policy news.

For now, though, it hasn’t recast views of Biden’s foreign policy.