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The only thing that Biden can sort of control is the one thing most Americans don’t care about

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/20/2022 James Pindell
President Biden has had foreign policy successes, but his popularity is flagging amid concerns about the economy. © Al Drago President Biden has had foreign policy successes, but his popularity is flagging amid concerns about the economy.

When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, his campaign promise when it came to foreign policy was short enough it could be put on a bumper sticker: “America is back.”

What Biden meant was that after four years of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, which stressed inward-looking nationalism over leadership on global issues, Biden would go back to the mindset of Republican and Democratic presidents alike since World War II: deep engagement and leadership around the world.

He’s kept his promise. Critics can argue they would make different decisions and that’s fair. But no one can deny Biden has spent significant time rebuilding coalitions around the world and has steered America into taking a leadership role on issues he particularly cares about.

This week showcased that in abundance. Biden called for more money to be sent to Ukraine to aid them in their fight against an invading Russia. The bill passed with wide bipartisan support.

Biden also met with leaders from Sweden and Finland, as he orchestrated their joining the North American Treaty Organization. This move is deeply opposed by Russia, strengthens the West, and is the exact opposite of the divisions that Trump tried to create in NATO. That Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, led a delegation to Ukraine last weekend and called for NATO’s expansion, shows how much has changed since Trump’s tenure.

After working to contain Russia, Biden personally flew off to Asia, where he was focused on strengthening partnerships with allies against the rising threat from China.

Few things are more popular in America than taking on China. And Biden has hardly been subtle about it, to the point his administration’s stances have apparently offended the Chinese government.

Despite the successes abroad, The Associated Press found Biden reached a new low in their periodic polling of his presidency. Just 39 percent approved of Biden’s job performance in the poll released Friday. Only three-quarters of Democrats are on board with Biden at the moment; a year ago 90 percent were.

The poll is hardly an outlier. The FiveThirtyEight average of recent polls puts Biden at just 40.7 percent, just .03 percent better than the worst average of his presidency.

The reason for this disconnect between foreign policy progress and voter sentiment is as interesting as it is obvious: Americans don’t care about foreign policy (though in Biden’s case his pullout from Afghanistan has been one major exception).

What they do care about is their wallets.

While Biden is in South Korea, inflation back home is still a major problem, gas prices are up, interest rates are spiking, the stock market is on its biggest losing streak since the 2001 dotcom bust, and headlines are blaring nonstop about a crisis involving baby formula availability with many Americans clamoring for the Biden administration to fix it immediately.

Since 2011, the same structural dynamic has been in place for the presidency. A partisan Congress has done very little, except in addressing the COVID-19 crisis. While that has stifled presidents’ domestic agendas, forcing them to resort to executive orders, they have had wide latitude on foreign policy.

During that time, Obama orchestrated the Iran nuclear deal, decided not to punish Syria for crossing a red line, killed Osama bin Laden, and entered the United States into an international climate change accord.

Trump negotiated directly with a North Korean dictator, stirred tensions with NATO, pulled America out of the climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and worked to create lasting Middle East partnerships between Israel and Arab nations.

Unsurprisingly, just like Biden, neither Obama nor Trump really saw poll numbers go up or down because of these moves, either. Their fate hinged more on domestic events.

That’s the way it goes in American politics in the post-Cold War era.

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