Why Americans Might Not Rally Around Biden on Ukraine
Few notions are as entrenched in political pundits as the idea that foreign crises unite Americans behind their president. This is called the “rally around the flag effect” and it has been taken for granted by commentators and hunted by White Houses for decades.
But it is also a kind of political urban legend. While there are examples of presidents seeing a surge in public approval during a crisis, there is also evidence that the improvements are small and fleeting — and perhaps becoming less common in our hyperpolarized politics.
That hasn’t stopped presidents from trying. On Tuesday night, President Biden used his State of the Union address to call on Congress to stand with him in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. “He thought he could divide us here at home,” Biden said. “Putin was wrong.”
On one level, the president was right: Biden enjoys strong bipartisan support for his policy of isolating Russia while supporting Ukraine.
Foreign policy experts of all types have praised the administration for its shrewd handling of European politics, which has resulted in crippling sanctions against Russian oligarchs and financial institutions, and for its use of intelligence to expose Kremlin designs. on Ukraine.
And while many questions about US strategy remain unanswered, even Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s top Republican, said Tuesday there was “broad support for the president for what he’s doing now.”
But Democrats who expect voters from both parties to give Biden credit are likely hoping in vain.
“If the crisis is just fodder for the usual partisan debate, then there’s not much chance the president will see his approval rating go up much,” said Vanderbilt University political scientist John Sides. .
The rally effect
The term “rally around the flag effect” was coined by John Mueller, a political scientist who studied the relationship between the actions of presidents and public opinion.
In a 1970 article, Mueller argued that under certain conditions, many voters will renounce their partisan allegiances during foreign policy crises and support the commander-in-chief.
The concept became conventional wisdom in the years that followed – and seemed to be borne out in conflicts like the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when President George HW Bush saw his approval rating rise.
It even inspired a movie: “Wag the Dog,” a 1997 comedy in which a cynical political operative engineered a war in Albania to distract from a presidential sex scandal. The phrase “wiggle the dog” has since become pundits’ shorthand for the idea that a president can divert public attention from problems at home by focusing on a conflict abroad.
More recent studies, however, have found the rally effect to be minimal.
In 1995, when researchers John R. Oneal and Anna Lillian Bryan calculated the numbers for 41 foreign policy crises between 1950 and 1985, they found that the average change in the president’s approval rating was just 1 .4%. (Interestingly, one variable they tracked was coverage in The New York Times, and specifically whether the crisis made headlines.)
Since then, American politics has become even more polarized – meaning voters’ opinions of the president are more likely to be set and approval ratings aren’t bouncing around as much as they once did. Donald Trump’s approval ratings have been remarkably stable, for example, despite a presidency marked by overwhelmingly negative media coverage. During his first two years in office, Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings fluctuated by 36 percentage points. Trump remained within a range of 10 percentage points.
Part of what’s happening here, according to researchers who study public opinion, is that Republicans tend to stand with their own leaders, while also being predisposed to judge Democratic presidents harshly.
“Republicans have historically been less likely to side with a Democratic president than Democrats have been to side with a Republican president in times of crisis,” said Matthew Baum, professor of global communications at Harvard Kennedy School.
Baum found that when a Republican is president during a foreign crisis, the average increase in approval rating among Democrats is almost 8%. But when a Democrat is president, the rallying effects are “smaller and insignificant,” he wrote in a 2002 article. Those numbers included George W. Bush, who saw a 35-percentage-point increase in his support after September 11.
“It’s a bit difficult to make the comparison for specific events, because every conflict is different,” Baum said in an email. “But the differences in rally size are quite striking.”
And just because there’s bipartisan support for what the administration is doing to help Ukraine doesn’t mean Biden will get credit for it. As Julia Azari, a political scientist at Marquette University, told us, “Presidents are polarized even when the issues and actions are not.”
Republicans are not mobilizing
Despite McConnell’s occasional words of support, other Republican lawmakers have sharply criticized Biden’s handling of the crisis.
Those comments that McConnell made? They came during a press conference in which a group of Republican senators accused the president of driving up energy prices by limiting new oil and gas leases on public lands.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said Biden’s policies “enabled, emboldened Vladimir Putin to do what he did.” He added: “It’s like Vladimir Putin is Joe Biden’s energy secretary.”
It’s a little more complicated than that. The president has very little control over oil prices, which are set by global market forces. There is little evidence that Biden’s drilling policies have impacted domestic crude production, which grew 4.4% in 2021.
Still, with gasoline prices soaring and expected to rise, you can expect energy to be a major Republican talking point heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
What the polls say
The White House pointed to polls that show Americans’ views on Ukraine are in line with the president’s policies.
A CBS/YouTube poll of American adults, for example, found that 76% supported economic sanctions against Russia, 65% favored arming Ukraine and 63% wanted it to send troops to protect NATO allies.
But that did not translate into support for the president. That same poll showed that only 41% of Americans approved of his handling of Russia and Ukraine.
Other surveys are even more negative. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll released Monday found that only 34% of registered voters approved, compared to 49% who disagreed. Worse for Biden: When asked if he was a strong leader, only 32% said yes, while 63% said no.
And in a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, 57% of Americans said the administration hadn’t been tough enough on Russia, with just 29% saying Biden was about right.
All this to say: not only is the war in Ukraine a humanitarian tragedy, but it is not a political gift to Biden.
“We might see some sort of modest rallying of public opinion, but that would mostly be the result of Democratic voters coming back into the fold,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “I don’t think we’ll see much of an increase in support for Biden among Republican voters. The country is simply too deeply polarized.
What to read
In Texas primary, anti-lockdown protester fails
Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who was jailed in 2020 for violating lockdown orders, lost a Texas House primary on Tuesday, showing that even within the Republican base there are limits to power of Covid policy.
Luther came to national attention in the spring of 2020, when she was jailed for contempt of court after reopening her hair salon in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to close non-essential businesses. Armed protesters gathered outside the salon in his defense, and national figures like Sarah Palin voiced their support. Just two days into her seven-day sentence, she was released, thanks to Abbott himself, who retroactively revised his lockdown orders to eliminate jail time as punishment for non-compliance.
With nearly all the votes counted, Luther won 41% of the vote in his race against Rep. Reggie Smith, according to The Associated Press. Smith has held the seat since 2019.
At a recent candidates’ forum, Luther said she wants to shift the range of politically acceptable opinions on the right, just as officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have done on the left. She called Abbott a “bully”.
Abbott easily won his nomination, despite several opponents from the right.
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