Joe Biden’s presidential approval rating lately makes one thing clear: he needs a big win.
Without one he lacks the mojo to convince lawmakers at home and leaders abroad to do big things. All of them know that if Biden remains this unpopular then Republicans are likely to take over Congress next year. If that happens, his power will be severely curtailed and his voice is less strong around the world.
It doesn’t appear that Biden will get that big win from Capitol Hill. Major pieces of his legislative agenda – the type that could move national poll numbers – are all stalled. Yes, even though his own party has majorities in the US House and Senate, it appears unlikely that there will be any movement to pass bills on social programs, voting rights, immigration, gun violence, police reform, or climate change.
It’s increasingly likely that Biden won’t get a big win from the pandemic or the economy, either. While there’s no doubt infections and hospitalizations will eventually go down, there is little at this point that he can do about that. The US Supreme Court ruled that his big idea of a vaccine mandate for large businesses was unconstitutional. And while the market has been strong and hiring is up, so too is inflation. If Americans are looking for someone to blame they have a president in the White House who suggested that inflation would have gone away by now. By all estimates, it won’t for months.
But there is something that Biden can be planning for right now that would be a big win. Much of it is in his control. Neither Joe Manchin nor Kyrsten Sinema can interfere. And it’s imminent.
Simply put: He needs to somehow stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from successfully invading Ukraine.
The escalating tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border have made headlines for months now. Intelligence agencies believe there are at least 100,000 Russian troops along the border, with one fortified base of operations just 80 miles away from Ukraine.
Rhetoric from Moscow suggests there could be some sort of invasion any day now. The extent of any military conflict is very unclear. Biden said during his press conference on Wednesday that he believed Putin had not fully made up his mind, but Biden expected him to invade, despite the threat of harsh economic sanctions.
It’s impossible to predict what exactly will happen if Putin invades. Even Ukrainians concede that Russia would win a conventional war. But what if Russia decides on something unconventional in order to limit casualties? What if he invaded via Belarus or Crimea? What if the only goal was to cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea and not take over the rest of the country?
For now those decisions are up to Russia. It’s Putin’s move.
But after Russia makes its move Biden has every political incentive to respond more forcefully than he is talking about at the moment. Biden has vowed not to send in ground troops. But an America that has the capability of conducting war with intelligence and drones and planes doesn’t require many ground troops in the first place.
The point is that Biden would be widely perceived at home and abroad to be a big winner in Ukraine. Possibly staring down Putin and Russia sending troops home would give him that win if Biden sold it. It doesn’t have to involve death or conventional weapons like bombs. Analysts have pointed to the possibility of “electronic warfare” or the promise of increased funding for Ukraine’s defense that could serve as a deterrent. Sanctions, which Biden is threatening, it should be said, have not worked to deter Iran, North Korea or even, well, Russia. Further sanctions may not get enough attention for Biden among the larger world and American public to help him politically.
Beyond the Wag the Dog political brinksmanship, what happens in Ukraine matters to American global interests. The Chinese and American allies are watching very closely for clues about where America stands on the matter and how it will react. After all, today is it Ukraine, and tomorrow it could be China invading Taiwan. The way the Biden administration left Afghanistan last summer has naturally led to enemies testing America.
Either way, a president with sagging approval ratings may discover that the best thing for himself and for America’s standing in the world is for him to show leadership in resolving the situation in Ukraine in a way that looks like America won. There is something pollsters call a “rally around the flag” effect for a president engaged in foreign conflict or other national threat. Some have noted this never really happened for Biden when it came to the pandemic. He has another chance in Ukraine. And his entire domestic and foreign agendas might be riding on it. So, too, his presidency.