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Why aren’t Americans rallying around Biden during a war?

Encouraged by some of their leaders, more Republicans disapprove of Biden than Democrats disapprove of Trump.

- April 4, 2022

The Biden administration has earned broad praise for its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — at least before the president’s unscripted remark that Russian President Vladimir Putin should not remain in power.

Conventional wisdom has long held that U.S. public opinion rallies around the flag and the president in the wake of international crises. Notably, this jump in support hasn’t even depended on presidential performance. For example, President John F. Kennedy’s approval rating actually increased after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, leading him to quip that the worse he did, the more people loved him.

But can the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine deliver a rally in support for President Biden? Probably not.

The anatomy of a public opinion rally

More than 50 years ago, political scientist John Mueller pioneered the systematic study of the rally-around-the-flag effect. Mueller argued that rallies occur after major events that are international, involve the United States, and are specific, dramatic, and sharply focused. The war in Ukraine would seem to fit this definition precisely, especially since the United States has sent troops to NATO neighbors of the Ukraine and increased military assistance to Ukraine.

But later scholarship has emphasized the importance of other political leaders’ reactions. When leaders of both parties publicly back the president — or at least hold their fire — public opinion rallies. When elite political opinions diverge and key leaders criticize the president, rallies fail to materialize.

Many Senate Republicans publicly backed much of Biden’s response. And key members of the national security establishment, including former president Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster, praised the administration’s skilled coalition-building.

But cutting against this trend are the statements of the party’s cue-giver in chief, Trump himself. After the invasion, Trump called Putin a “genius” and said his action was akin to what “we could use on our southern border.” Others, including GOP Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (N.C.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have echoed Trump’s pro-Putin rhetoric.

To what extent has this praise for Putin blunted a rally and bolstered support for Putin among the Republican rank-and-file? And what can this tell us about Trump’s continued hold on a key segment of the Republican base?

Biden called Putin a ‘war criminal.’ That’s risky.

Republicans disapprove of Biden more than Democrats disapprove of Trump

A glance at Biden’s approval rating, the traditional measure of rally effects, shows little evidence of any rally. But other factors — most notably high inflation and coronavirus fatigue — may be dragging down Biden’s approval.

To see past this, we looked for more modest and indirect evidence of a rally by asking Americans to assess how frequently different leaders act in the United States’ best interests. Thus, even if approval of Biden’s job overall performance is muted, we might find that most Americans think Biden is acting in the U.S. interest, given political leaders’ broad support for Biden’s actions toward Ukraine and in-depth news coverage of a longtime U.S. adversary invading a U.S. ally. But this is not what we found.

We analyzed new data from a nationally representative survey of 1,325 adult Americans fielded by Verasight from March 21 to 23. To ensure that evaluations of one U.S. president did not influence those of the other, the survey randomly asked half of the respondents how frequently Biden acts in the best interests of the United States, and the other half the same question about former Trump. All respondents were also asked the same question about Putin, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), and Vice President Kamala Harris.

As you can see in the figure below, few Americans believe Putin acts in America’s national interest. Indeed, 84 percent of all respondents said he rarely or almost never does so. Equally important, despite pro-Putin rhetoric from Trump and some others on the right, there is not a significant partisan split in attitudes toward Putin. Both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly say that Putin does not act in the U.S. national interest.

Negative evaluations of Putin, Biden, and Trump by party. (Peter K. Enns and Douglas Kriner)
Negative evaluations of Putin, Biden, and Trump by party. (Peter K. Enns and Douglas Kriner)

But Trump’s and others’ criticism appears to have prevented even a modest Republican boost of support for Biden. Almost as many Republicans replied that Biden rarely or never acts in the national interest (79 percent) as said the same about Putin (83 percent).

Assessments of Trump were also intensely polarized. But 10 percent fewer Democrats said Trump rarely or never acted in the national interest than Republicans said about Biden.

This is what political scientists call “asymmetric polarization”: political views have become more extreme on the political right than on the left. And it suggests that Trump continues to have a powerful hold on his base. Even when the president’s crisis management has earned him some bipartisan praise, more Republicans believe Biden does not act in the national interest than Democrats do about Trump — despite Trump’s very different posture toward Ukraine in office, when he attempted to hold up military aid for personal political gain, for which he was impeached.

Another piece of evidence suggests that Trump has a very strong hold on Republicans: attitudes toward Romney, a Republican senator from Utah and a frequent Trump critic. As you can see in the figure below, Democrats were split on Romney, with 29 percent saying that Romney always or most of the time acts in the best interests of the United States, while 32 percent said that he rarely or almost never does so. Republicans were decidedly harsher; 53 percent said he rarely or almost never acts in the national interest.

Negative evaluations of Mitt Romney by party. (Peter K. Enns and Douglas Kriner)
Negative evaluations of Mitt Romney by party. (Peter K. Enns and Douglas Kriner)

What does this tell us about Trump’s hold on Republican voters?

The data speak to the depth of contemporary polarization and the firm grip Trump and his allies maintain on the Republican rank-and-file. Criticism from Trump and a few others has not only prevented any public opinion rally behind Biden, but almost as many Republicans say that Biden rarely acts in the national interest as say that about Putin.

Can Democrats appeal to both professionals and blue-collar workers at the same time? Yes, but only on these issues.

Perhaps even more telling, most Republicans say the same about Romney, their nominee for president only 10 years ago. Romney’s unforgivable sin is almost certainly his repeated willingness to break with Trump.

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Peter K. Enns (@pete_enns) is professor of government and public policy at Cornell University and co-founder of Verasight.

Douglas Kriner is Clinton Rossiter professor in American institutions at Cornell University and co-author most recently with Dino Christenson of “The Myth of the Imperial Presidency: How Public Opinion Checks the Unilateral Executive.”