WASHINGTON - As President Joe Biden meets with key allies in Brussels to coordinate a stronger response to Russia's monthlong assault on Ukraine, a new poll shows Americans have yet to rally around his leadership.
Concern about Russia has swelled and support for a major U.S. role in the conflict strengthened in the last month, but Biden's negative approval rating has not budged, according to the poll Thursday from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Few are very confident that he can handle a crisis, and a majority thinks he lacks toughness in dealing with Russia.
Only 43% of Americans approve of Biden and a similar percentage approve of his handling of the relationship with Russia. Both measures are a little different from an AP-NORC poll conducted days before the Feb. 24 invasion.
The U.S., along with NATO allies, have tried to isolate Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin with sanctions, including freezing foreign assets of Russia’s central bank and cutting off its supply to essential war material. But Russia has continued for a month to batter cities in Ukraine with airstrikes and artillery, despite a stalled ground invasion.
Over the next three days, the Biden administration aims to work with key European allies on a united strategy to aid Ukraine militarily, increase sanctions on Russia and wrestle with the worsening humanitarian crisis, according to Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.
Biden does so on shaky ground with the American public. Only about a quarter are very confident that the president has the ability to handle a crisis, promote U.S. standing in the world or effectively manage the U.S. military, though most have at least some confidence.
Fifty-six percent of Americans think Biden has not been tough enough on Russia, while 36% say his approach has been "about right."
Even among members of his own party, Biden faces pressure to do more. The poll shows Democrats are closely divided over the president’s response, with 43% saying he hasn’t been tough enough. Somewhat more, 53%, say it’s been "about right."
"I understand he’s between a rock and a hard place," said Rachel Collins, a 41-year-old Democrat from Chicago. "It just feels like Putin’s not going to stop at Ukraine."
Collins, an elementary school teacher, said she feels like she’s watching history unfolding yet again.
"How many years are we gonna watch this happen and then have to step in anyway?" she added. "It just feels inevitable and, in the meantime, we’re just watching all these people suffer."
While support for a major U.S. role has grown since last month, from 26% to 40%, Biden faces a tightrope walk to avoid war and to curb the impact on the American people. The poll shows close to half of Americans are "extremely" or "very" concerned about being drawn into war with Russia.
Biden has repeatedly said that he will not send American troops to Ukraine, though some have been deployed to neighboring NATO countries.
"I think that he’s doing the right thing and being cautious, but it’s really hard when you’re watching and reading about these stories day to day," Collins said. "More aggressive at where we are means putting troops on the ground, and I don’t necessarily know if that’s the answer either."
"Then, you know, there’ll be people saying ‘why are we putting troops in there,’" she added.
While Republicans are less likely than Democrats to support the U.S. having a major role in Russia’s war, most also say they think Biden’s response has not been tough enough.
"He’s scared," said David Stoddard, a retired border patrol agent in Sierra Vista, Arizona. "He’s scared of Putin. He’s scared of (China’s) Xi (Jinping). He’s scared of everything."
Stoddard, 76, would prefer somebody like former President Donald Trump over Biden to tell Putin "that Putin may have a red button but the United States’ red button is bigger," he said.
Stoddard thinks there’s more Biden could be doing to strengthen sanctions and support Ukraine militarily, including transferring Polish MiG fighter jets to Ukraine from a NATO air base in Germany, which the Pentagon declined to do earlier in March. The administration has said it is determined to avoid further action that could be seen as escalatory by Putin.
Majorities of Republicans and Democrats alike said they approve of economic sanctions imposed on Russia in general and on the ban on Russian oil in particular, according to the poll. But while 77% of Democrats approve of how Biden is handling the relationship with Russia, just 12% of Republicans do.
While some Democrats acknowledged thinking that Biden could be doing more, many are confident in him to do what’s best for the country.
"I’m sure there’s more that he could do," said Chris Hollander, a research assistant in Denver. "But as far as being tough, he’s not a pushover."
Listening to the intelligence community and getting NATO countries to work together reflects Biden’s "behind the scenes" leadership, Hollander, 33, said. "I think he’s threading a needle."
The AP-NORC poll of 1,082 adults was conducted March 17-21 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.