It has been almost 80 years since the world witnessed a land war in Europe. As such, we should be cautious about making broad pronouncements of what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will mean to the current world order. We also shouldn’t assume we know how Americans will respond and react, especially if this invasion continues beyond Ukraine’s borders. 

However, we do know that opinions of Pres. Biden have slipped significantly since last summer — driven in part by the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Last January, NBC polling found a plurality (47 percent) thought Biden had the “ability to handle a crisis,” and 36 percent did not. By October of 2021, however, two months after the Afghanistan pull-out, just 37 percent felt confident in Biden’s ability to handle a crisis, and 47 percent did not, a net drop of 21 points. An AP/NORC poll out this week showed similar slippage for Biden post-Afghanistan. In June, according to the AP/NORC data, a majority of Americans gave Biden positive marks on his handling of foreign policy (50 percent approve to 47 percent disapprove). Today, just 44 percent approve and 54 percent disapprove, a net drop in approval of 13 points since early summer. 

Moreover, the January NBC poll found that just 37 percent of Americans approved and 50 percent disapproved of Biden’s handling of the Russia/U.S. relationship. But, with tanks now rolling and bombs falling on Ukraine, will the opinions of the president improve? 

Historically, an event like this would result in a ‘rallying’ effect behind the president and the country. “The public has initially rallied in support of US major military engagements (Iraq, Desert Storm) and the president’s job ratings have risen, at least initially.” Pew Research’s Carroll Doherty wrote me via email. “But as Iraq war bogged down in 2003, [Pres.] GWB’s ratings plummeted (from 70%+ in spring to 53% late summer). Bush’s father had extraordinary ratings after the success of Desert Storm but they faded over time because of the economy, not foreign policy.”

At this point, however, the most recent AP/NORC polling suggests that Americans aren’t particularly interested in seeing the US wade deeply into the conflict. “While most of the public thinks the United States should have a role in the situation, they are more likely to say it should be a minor role rather than a major one.” 

Moreover, for the last decade or so, we’ve seen a short-lived or non-existent ‘rally around the flag’ and/or ‘rally around the president.’

In the immediate wake of the May 2011 US military raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, a Pew Research/Washington Post survey found that Obama’s net job approval increased 18 points; from 47 percent approve/45 disapprove to 56 percent approve/38 disapprove. But, that bump in approval rating faded quickly. Pew polling showed Obama’s job approval rating dropped back under 50 percent by June. His job approval ratings would stay in the mid-to-high 40 percent range for another year. 

President Trump’s job approval ratings were famously impervious to events foreign or domestic, good or bad. Even a successful coordinated missile strike on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities in April of 2018 had no impact on Trump’s approval ratings. 

Moreover, there’s little incentive for the opposition party to show uniform support for the president, even when it comes to foreign affairs. Already we’ve seen numerous Republican members of Congress — as well as Donald Trump — lay the blame for Russia’s actions at the feet of a “weak” Biden. 

The good news, for now, is that the US military will not be directly engaged in the fighting in Ukraine. That doesn’t mean that Americans will be unaffected by actions taking place 5,000 miles away. Tough economic sanctions on Russia by America and Europe will likely hit domestic consumers. These sanctions, writes CBS News, could impact everything from the price of gas to the availability of semiconductors. There could also be cyber attacks on American businesses and institutions. 

This comes, of course, at a time when Americans are already incredibly pessimistic and anxious about the state of the economy. A late January Pew poll found that 60 percent of Americans said that food and consumer goods prices were a lot worse than last year; 54 said the same about gas prices. 

In his recent remarks to the nation, President Biden has conceded that “defending freedom will have costs for us as well, here at home. We need to be honest about that.” But, despite his pledge to “make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at the Russian economy, not ours,” it’s hard to believe that these efforts will have much of an impact in lessening the pinch on consumers. 

We are in a precarious international moment filled with many unknowns. But, we do know that Biden starts with three significant challenges in front of him:

  • A low public approval ratings.
  • A polarized electorate that neutralizes ‘rally around’ effects.
  • A sanctions policy that could harm an already shaky economy. 

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