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Biden’s Chance to Tell a Clearer Foreign Policy Story
Most of the ingredients are there, but Biden's foreign policy narrative still lacks a North Star
President Joe Biden entered the summer of 2022 with his political standing at its weakest point since he entered office – so what does he decide to do? Announce that he’s headed to the Middle East next month, of course!
You’d be hard pressed to find successful examples of U.S. presidents going to the Middle East to improve their domestic political standing.
Yet the move has some policy merits to it from foreign and energy policy standpoints given historically high gas prices. Some analysts say it would be better for Biden to spend time getting things done at home, sharpening his party’s political message, and persuading voters to support Democrats in the midterms this fall. Biden’s overall approval rating dropped for the third straight week in a row to 39 percent, as his administration is hit by inflation and a public sense that Biden’s agenda is adrift.
Going to the Middle East for a few days is unlikely to change these political dynamics too much. It’s been more than 30 years since a U.S. president saw strong domestic political gains from getting more involved in the Middle East after the 1991 Gulf war, but even then-President George H. W. Bush lost his bid for re-election a year later due to mostly domestic economic factors.
The low and quite often negative domestic political rates of return the Middle East provides U.S. presidents is a key reason why the Biden team needs to sharpen its overall foreign policy message in the runup to his trip.
Voters pay more attention to foreign policy than assumed, but they still need a story
Conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is mostly an elite game – and that’s mostly true. A decent chunk of American voters – about one in five – are mostly disengaged from foreign policy issues.
But a majority of Americans understand that what happens in other parts of the world directly impacts their lives – and they support a balanced, steadier engagement with the world, rather than the unrealistic isolationist alternatives sometimes peddled in elite circles. Most Americans see the direct connection between the world and their lives, a connection made more tangible in their daily lives after two-plus years of a global pandemic that started on the other side of the world and in the midst of $5 a gallon gas during the summer driving season. Russia’s war in Ukraine has led to greater interest in foreign affairs in America’s politics, as has competition with China.
A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that Americans are paying attention to what’s happening in the world, even if their knowledge and understanding varies substantially on different topics and are often not the things the foreign policy establishment and foreign policy advocacy industrial complex are obsessed with most days.
Biden’s foreign policy messaging is all over the map
A year ago, as Biden was embarking as his first foreign trip as president, his foreign policy “North Star” was unclear, something quite common in the first year of any presidency. But more than a year and a half into Biden’s term in office, the administration’s foreign policy messaging still lacks a consistent through-line.
Mondays: “America’s back”
Tuesdays: “We’re more competent than the previous folks.”
Wednesdays: “Ending endless wars.”
Thursdays: “Democracies versus autocracies.”
Fridays: “A foreign policy for the middle class.”
The main problem with the first two messages is that the statute of limitations on blaming the previous administration for foreign policy problems mostly runs out after the first year or so– something every U.S. president forgets. Worse, the Afghanistan pullout debacle in the first year undermined the “competence” brand in ways that had a surprising impact politically at home: Biden’s foreign policy approval ratings were strong in the first six months of office and have been underwater since the Afghanistan withdrawal. The Afghanistan pullout and ongoing fallout also undermined the credibility “forever wars” and “endless wars” talking point driven by fringe advocacy groups on the left and right.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration has some good building blocks for a more compelling message, at least from a communications standpoint. Watch this PBS Newshour interview with Secretary of State Tony Blinken with Judy Woodruff from earlier this week – the constituent elements of what he has to say about Russia, China, and the Middle East are clear and make sense.
There’s very little connective tissue or consistent overarching theme. Some of this frankly is due to the nature of this particular interview and how the interviewer formulated her questions. But if Blinken and the Biden administration had a stronger story to tell about its foreign policy, they’d be able to set the agenda a bit more and avoid being boxed in by events, critics, and the media – or at least be able to put events into a wider context that makes sense for most Americans.
What Team Biden can do to sharpen its foreign policy message
Given the broader disarray in the Biden White House’s overall political and communications efforts at this moment, its absent foreign policy message remains a tough challenge to fix. A Middle East trip by the president certainly has many risks associated with it, even if there are good policy reasons to take it.
The Biden administration can do three things in the run-up to this trip to sharpen its overall foreign policy message:
1. Set realistic expectations about what it can on foreign policy – on this Middle East trip and more broadly. Underpromise and overdeliver. On the Middle East in particular, the Biden team has talked openly over the past year about the need to avoid raising expectations too high. It needs to stay focused on what can be practically achieved and how that will benefit Americans. Don’t do as Trump did and raise hopes for a “deal of the century” on Middle East peace. It’s not in the cards. Even the hopes for relief at the gas pumps should be measured.
On the broader foreign policy agenda, the Biden team needs to put some more points on the board, no matter how modest they may be. That could involve some measures in other parts of the world like the Western Hemisphere to deal with the migration challenge or a more tangible economic game plan to engage partners in Asia who want to join America in competing against China. It just needs a clearer win.
2. Put together a more cohesive communications effort. Bringing John Kirby from the Pentagon to the White House to serve as the lead coordinator for strategic communications on national security is a good step – Kirby is a skilled communicator. But it will take more than just one guy in a different slot to fix this broader challenge of getting towards a clearer North Star for the administration’s foreign policy. Instead of just speaking at think tank conferences and international forums, the Biden team should get outside of the elite bubbles and seek to connect its foreign policy moves with ordinary Americans this summer and fall.
3. Link the domestic and international pieces together in the messaging North Star. Even if most Americans are interested in foreign affairs, they need their leaders to tell them how it directly impacts their lives.
As John Halpin argued in the Liberal Patriot earlier this week, Americans are looking for their leaders to help prepare the country and “prop up their own citizens to face mounting economic and security threats from other parts of the world.”
Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, as well as reports that he is thinking about cutting some of the tariffs Trump imposed in an erratic trade war with China that raised prices for American consumers and business, stands the chance of offering some tangible economic benefits to ordinary Americans, as Bill Danvers argues.
Biden’s presidency is in tough political straits right now, and it seems quite unlikely that foreign policy is the most direct pathway to improving his domestic political fortunes, especially since he’s going to a complicated part of the world like the Middle East. But since he’s going, his team needs to make the most of it by sending a clearer message about what he’s trying to do for the American people in his foreign policy.