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How Will Americans Grade Biden’s Handling Of The Crisis In Ukraine?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have far more serious repercussions around the world than on U.S. domestic politics. We at FiveThirtyEight are experts on the latter, though, so here’s a look at how the conflict might affect President Biden’s political standing. (With war breaking out only this week, it’s too early to say anything for sure, so consider this a scene-setter of sorts.)

First, Biden starts off this crisis with low marks from the American public on foreign policy. In five polls conducted this month,1 between 52 percent and 58 percent of respondents said they disapproved of Biden’s handling of foreign policy; only 35-44 percent said they approved.

Those numbers, however, were likely a hangover from August, when the last American troops started withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban retook control of the nation two weeks before the U.S. evacuation was complete, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis. Americans were unhappy with how Biden handled that situation, and his approval ratings on foreign policy have not moved much since then. For example, Biden’s approval/disapproval rating on foreign policy in an Aug. 28-30 Morning Consult/Politico poll was 37/52 — exactly where it was last weekend.

Views of how Biden is handling the Ukraine-Russia crisis weren’t that different. According to a Feb. 18-21 poll from The Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of “the U.S. relationship with Russia” by 56 percent to 43 percent. Meanwhile, a Feb. 1-17 Gallup poll found that Americans disapproved of his handling of “the situation with Russia” by 55 percent to 36 percent. And in a Feb. 10-14 Quinnipiac University poll, Americans disapproved of his handling of “tensions between Russia and Ukraine” by 54 percent to 34 percent. These figures were all within a few points of his approval numbers on foreign policy more generally in those polls. (In addition, a Feb. 19-22 Fox News poll found that 56 percent of registered voters thought Biden had not been tough enough on Russia, virtually identical to the share who disapproved of his foreign-policy performance.)

These numbers were also within a few points of his overall approval rating, suggesting that Americans may not yet know how to judge Biden on the crisis and have simply retreated to their partisan corners when answering this question. That’s consistent with findings from political science research that Americans don’t have strongly held opinions on foreign policy and look to signals from political elites to tell them how they should feel about it. 

However, a separate Morning Consult survey conducted Thursday — the only poll asking about Ukraine conducted entirely since Russia’s invasion so far — told a different tale. In it, registered voters gave Biden a positive net approval rating on his handling of foreign policy in Ukraine and Eastern Europe: 48 percent to 43 percent. This could reflect what will happen to Biden’s approval ratings on Ukraine (and perhaps overall) once the public hears more about the crisis and has new information on which to base their opinions — such as Biden’s televised announcement on Thursday that he would impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia and not send U.S. troops to Ukraine. As my colleague Geoffrey Skelley wrote at the time, both of those positions are popular among the public.

However, the crisis could have potential downsides for Biden too. One of the biggest vulnerabilities for him could be if the conflict disrupts oil exports from Russia, leading to higher gasoline prices in the U.S. According to the Morning Consult/Politico poll, 58 percent of registered voters would hold Biden very or somewhat responsible if gasoline prices increased as a result of the conflict; only 28 percent would hold him not too or not at all responsible. (This may be why, in his speech to the nation on Thursday, Biden said he would release more oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and “do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump.”)

It’s also unlikely that Biden’s approval rating will increase as a result of the rally-’round-the-flag effect, or the tendency for presidents’ popularity to surge in times of war or international emergencies. This bump is hardly automatic: Historically, it’s been highly dependent on opposition politicians’ refraining from criticism of the president during times of crisis. But in this era of hyperpartisanship and -polarization, it’s unlikely that Republicans will lay off Biden anytime soon. In fact, Republicans such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Ted Cruz have already blamed the Russian invasion on Biden’s “weak” leadership.

For now, though, this is all speculation. A wide range of outcomes are still possible. Ukraine could dominate the headlines for the next several months — or some other major event could take place and overshadow it. U.S. involvement in the conflict could prove to be minimal — or the nation could end up getting dragged into war (a lot of this, of course, depends on what Russian President Vladimir Putin does, which is even less predictable). And Biden could prove a deft negotiator of the situation — or he could bungle it. We say this a lot at FiveThirtyEight, but it is especially true in this circumstance: We’re just going to have to wait to see what happens.

Footnotes

  1. By Gallup (Feb. 1-17), Quinnipiac University (Feb. 10-14), The Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research (Feb. 18-21), Morning Consult/Politico (Feb. 19-21) and Fox News (Feb. 19-22). The first three polls surveyed adults, while the last two surveyed registered voters.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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