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As the crisis in Ukraine continues, Biden quietly gets it right

There’s a clear disconnect between how President Biden is handling the crisis in Ukraine and how most Americans think he’s handling the crisis in Ukraine.


In politics, it’s generally known as the “rally around the flag” effect: When there’s a serious crisis, the public often rallies behind political leaders. The effects tend not to last, but the phenomenon in the United States tends to give presidents a short-term boost in popularity.

Would President Joe Biden benefit from the “rally around the flag” effect in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Evidently, not: According FiveThirtyEight averages, the Democrat’s approval rating in recent days has reached the lowest point of his presidency.

A national Quinnipiac poll, released yesterday, also found that only 39 percent of the public approves of how the president is handling the crisis in Ukraine.

On the surface, this shouldn’t come as too big a surprise to anyone. Biden’s Republican critics spent much of last week divided on foreign policy, but united in their condemnations of the White House. The GOP’s most prominent voices told anyone who’d listen that Biden’s response to the crisis was “weak” — even though that didn’t make any sense, and even though Republicans struggled to explain what it was about the American president’s policy they didn’t like.

Nevertheless, the political effects of the public-relations offensive were predictable: The public was told repeatedly that the White House was handling a crisis poorly, and Democrats were slow to mount much of a counteroffensive. The “rally around the flag” effect did not materialize.

But stepping back, it’s worth emphasizing the fact that there’s a clear disconnect between how Biden is handling the crisis in Ukraine and how most Americans think he’s handling the crisis in Ukraine. Politico had a good report yesterday noting the efficacy of the Democrat’s approach.

It was Biden and his team’s patience and close consultation with European allies that has led to the extraordinary unity now on display. Biden’s patience waiting to impose sanctions until after the invasion, even in the face of intense criticism, has been vindicated.... Biden said that Germany would abandon the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Putin attacked and he was right, because he had been engaged in quiet diplomacy on the issue all along. Biden’s surging of forces into NATO countries pushed other countries to do the same. Biden’s leadership on sanctions helped reluctant allies follow along. All of it was done without shaming and finger pointing.

The report added, “There’s a lot of pride right now among Democrats in how Biden has handled the crisis so far.”

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein sounded a related note, explaining late last week, “Now in the Ukraine crisis, a wide variety of foreign-policy experts agree, the Biden on display looks more like the version he promised 2020 voters: a senior statesman coordinating a unified Western response against an autocratic threat to the global order.”

The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last offered similar praise for Biden’s efforts yesterday:

He simultaneously worked — quietly — with NATO and the EU to achieve a larger consensus than there has been on any military matter before the alliance since ... well, let’s call it a generation. Biden did not draw lines in the sand. He did not personalize the conflict. He did not turn himself into the star of the show. He did not allow anyone, anywhere, to believe that this was about America.... The West is stronger because of the actions of the Biden administration and Russia is weaker because of them.

Last added that the developments that have unfolded over the last month represent the United States’ “best showing in foreign policy in a generation, and this with a president playing a weak hand in a crisis forced on the country. It would be nice if Biden got some credit for this from the public. He’s only making it look easy.”

Circling back to our earlier coverage, it’s getting harder to understand what the White House’s Republican detractors are complaining about. The Democratic president has helped rally our international partners and strengthened our alliances. Biden has also kept Putin off-balance by telegraphing the Russian leader’s every move. The American president has also imposed sanctions — while coordinating similar sanctions among allies — that are already having an effect in Russia.

Polls notwithstanding, the White House’s policy has been the right one.