Why Biden’s foreign policy isn’t winning over most Americans
What Team Biden can do about that in his second year
President Joe Biden is currently in a rough patch in his young presidency.
The omicron surge combined with new economic woes have taken a political toll. The lack of forward momentum on his democracy reform and social safety net agendas has stalled the engine of his presidency. Blame Republican obstructionism, point the finger at two Senators, or pin it on Democratic division – it doesn’t matter as much as the question of what he should do now.
Performative wailing on social media may feel emotionally good to some. But venting doesn’t get votes or build relationships and coalitions to get things done at home, and it’s even tougher on the foreign policy front. The simple fact of the matter is that Biden’s overall approval ratings remain underwater, and his administration needs a broader reboot.
Biden’s “meh” foreign policy: how most Americans see it
Biden’s foreign policy is at a low point in the eyes of most Americans, although it’s been there for several months now. The latest Quinnipiac poll finds that about one third of Americans (35 percent) approve of his foreign policy, and 54 percent disapprove. Some have asked whether this particular poll is out of sync with others, but as Peter Baker of the New York Times asks, “is it an outlier or the leading edge?” Time will tell.
The good news is that Biden’s foreign policy approval ratings in recent weeks overall have tended to be higher than how Americans rate him on the economy. The bad news is that the economy matters much, much more than foreign policy in the minds of Americans, particularly when it comes to what matters in their lives and who they will support at the polls, and Americans are feeling awful about the economy.
Another bad news story: the approval rating for Biden’s foreign policy has been mostly negative since the summer’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal. The trendlines in the polls over Biden’s first year tell a simple story: he started strong out of the gate but then lost his way last summer, in the view of most Americans.
The American public’s evaluation of Biden’s foreign policy is in the same territory as Donald Trump’s foreign policy during most of his four years in office. The public ratings on both are generally much lower than what Barack Obama saw during his eight years, except when public approval of Obama’s foreign policy slipped in late 2014 with the rise of the Islamic State and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There’s plenty of time for the Biden team to recover, but what’s driving this?
Four reasons why Americans are mostly unimpressed with Biden’s foreign policy
1. Foreign policy has become a partisan wedge issue.
Take a look at the crosstabs in the latest Quinnipiac poll that has Biden’s foreign policy approval rating at 35 percent overall, and you’ll find a sharp partisan divide:
Republicans: 6 percent approve, 90 percent disapprove
Democrats: 72 percent approve, 18 percent disapprove
Independents: 28 percent approve, 58 percent disapprove.
The thing that should worry Team Biden the most are the majority of Independents and the nearly 20 percent of Democrats who disapprove of its foreign policy.
There’s nothing surprising or new about the partisan split – it reflects the recent architecture of Americans being divided along party lines on most issues. The cheap sectarianism about U.S. foreign policy pushed by some on the right and left just tends to confuse most Americans and creates divisions exploited by America’s competitors in the world. This mode of foreign policy tribalism has left a deep scar on an American public already divided over cultural, social, and economic issues.
These divisions make it hard for any president from either party to win over the other side: it’s like someone wrote an algorithm that produces a knee-jerk response by political opponents on most issues, especially foreign policy.
2. It’s hard to find a signature foreign policy achievement in Biden’s first year.
What’s the one big thing that the Biden team delivered in foreign policy in 2021?
It’s hard to find one.
It’s not just due to unforced errors by the Biden team, or things it has left undone, or mistakes made by the Trump administration that require a massive clean-up. In an America that leans heavily towards narcissism and self-absorption these days, it’s hard to sell the argument that it’s not all about us. But it’s not always about us and what we do.
The world is in a tough spot and it’s hard to find areas for quick wins, for a number of reasons. The major factor is that 2022 will mark the end of a ten-year period in the international system that saw the world being remade by not just newly assertive countries like Russia and China but also systemic factors like cyberspace complicating the world we live in – and that pace of change and competition will probably accelerate this decade.
Take this past week – where much of the Biden team was scrambling to deter Russia in Ukraine, something that many – but not all – people couldn’t imagine a decade ago. (Remember when Mitt Romney brought up Russia in a 2012 presidential debate and Obama blithely and sarcastically responded, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”)
The country considered an afterthought and a clever debate zinger by the sitting U.S. president ten years ago is now back as a key thorn in the side of the current U.S. president’s foreign policy.
3. A keystone in Biden’s emerging foreign policy narrative has crumbled in recent weeks.
It’s hard to pinpoint a consistent theme in how Biden’s team talks about its own foreign policy – it’s a mix of “foreign policy for the middle class,” “democracy versus autocracy,” “America is back,” and a lot of talk about multilateral process, but the narrative isn’t as crisp as it could be.
In a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations last month, Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan pinpointed step one and a top priority as replenishing America’s strength at home:
“That is the North Star of this administration, and we in the NSC (National Security Council) have supported our colleagues over the past year to secure the passage of once-in-a-generation investments in precisely those areas we have too long neglected—our infrastructure, our innovation, our human capital—to overhaul, modernize, and make resilient the basic building blocks of our economy and society. And that work is not done, but we have made huge strides and we are putting our shoulder to the wheel to get the remaining pieces in place.”
It's certainly true that the Biden administration made massive public investments to jump start the economy in the spring stimulus and fall infrastructure investment bills of last year, and it’s true that not all of the work is done.
But here are two problems with that narrative: first, in the wake of price increases hurting many Americans’ pocketbooks and renewed economic hardships due to the latest virus surge, the story rings a bit hollow. It may have more credence in a few months if things trend back to normal on the economy, but right now the story of America’s economic revival as step one in the foreign policy re-write isn’t credible.
The second problem with this story: the Biden team isn’t telling their own story well.
4. What we’ve got here is failure to communicate: Biden foreign policy edition
Even taking into account point number 2 – there’s no big win to brag about in Biden’s foreign policy – there are any number of small victories that directly impact Americans’ lives in the foreign policy realm that the Biden team puzzlingly doesn’t talk about all of that much. There seems to be a tendency to use strategic communications on foreign policy to pander to some small constituency at home or trumpet an issue that is important but doesn’t capture the imagination of most Americans.
Last month, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked about the administration’s top foreign policy successes in 2021, and she asked for some extra time to be thoughtful about it. She came back later with this list, which was heavily laden with multilateral process and talk of allies. Even with the extra time and thought, this list wasn’t as sharp as it could have been in explaining the tangible ways this new foreign policy was making Americans safer and more prosperous.
The same can be said of the national security advisor’s speech at the Council on Foreign Relations – where he used phrases like “latticework of alliances” that mostly went over the heads of many Americans.
The key point: if the Biden team wants to improve how Americans see their foreign policy, it is going to have to achieve some foreign policy wins and then talk about it in ways that people can understand.
Where to go from here
In a world of trouble where it’s hard to see any big foreign policy wins on the horizon, there are still a couple of things the Biden administration can do:
1. Set some more modest goals and then deliver.
Biden did this better on his broader agenda in the first few months. One example: the goal he set, met, and then exceeded in delivering 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days in office (his administration delivered 200 million by that time). That’s the stuff that wins confidence and boosts public support.
This could be done in a particular foreign policy or national security area that really matters to Americans – take cybersecurity for example, something that impacts or potentially impacts tens of millions of Americans on a fairly regular basis. Tell them the plans you have to make them safer on this front, do it, and then tell them you did it, again and again.
Remember the Colonial Pipeline hack that caused a public panic with gas lines last spring and the ransom paid in cryptocurrency to the hackers to end the crisis? Probably not. The FBI got the money back. But there really wasn’t much of a discussion or story told about it at the time or since then, which is why it may only sound vaguely familiar.
In retrospect, it was a blip on the screen but those blips, especially if they directly impact people’s lives, are the ingredients of a narrative about security and America’s role in the world.
2. Talk about how America’s moves on the international scene inform the domestic agenda to make America safer, stronger, and more prosperous.
The Biden team could do a much better job talking about the moves it has made in places like Europe to build stronger economic and commercial relations in a way that creates jobs here at home. But even in his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Sullivan didn’t offer details on such important accomplishments.
For example, last fall, the Biden team made a number of important moves on the international economic front in Europe that could’ve shown what a “foreign policy for the middle class” looks like.
3. Get out of the bubble and speak directly to Americans.
Donald Trump held rallies about once a month in middle America and he usually sprayed the audience with a firehose of lies. The country will be dealing with the damage done by Trump for years to come. But Trump spoke in a language that many people understood that connected with some sense of national identity – an ugly distorted one that wounded the national spirit, perhaps irreparably, but it was a language that connected.
No one on the Biden team really speaks to Americans in language they connect with on foreign policy. President Biden has shown flashes of that ability to connect with wider audiences when he goes a bit unscripted, but those times have become fewer and far between in his public appearances.
Right now, some members of the Biden team are diligently working on a variety of documents like a new national security strategy to follow up on last year’s interim national security guidance and a slew of papers to come out of the Pentagon like a National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and the Missile Defense Review.
All of the hard work that goes into these documents won’t mean much unless the Biden administration puts some points on the board in its foreign policy and then tells Americans the story behind the game its playing and why it matters to their lives.