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How Putin’s war could cost Biden with American voters

An invasion of Ukraine would be likely to drive up gas prices amid the highest inflation in decades, wipe out the stock market and give Republicans a new line of attack.
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WASHINGTON — As President Joe Biden makes a final diplomatic push to stave off a Russian invasion of Ukraine, he is faced with looming political consequences at home that could have long-lasting effects on the Democratic Party’s ability to maintain its power in Washington. 

A Russian invasion of Ukraine, which White House officials have said could occur as early as this week, would be likely to drive up gas prices amid the highest inflation in decades, wipe out significant gains in the stock market and give Republicans a new line of attack to argue against Biden’s foreign policy acumen — putting an already unpopular presidency on even shakier ground with voters heading into the fall midterm elections, Democratic strategists and pollsters said. 

The White House “needs to prepare the American people for what might happen in Ukraine if Putin invades and how that war impacts American national interests,” said Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We can pretend that wars far away don’t affect us, but history, especially World War I and World War II, shows they tend to eventually influence our security.”

Biden began preparing Americans for the consequences in remarks Tuesday warning that energy prices could spike, but he said his administration was working on ways to blunt the impact.

“To be clear, if Russia decides to invade, that will also have consequences here at home, but the American people understand that defending democracy and liberty is never without cost,” Biden said.

White House officials have said politics aren’t factoring into their foreign policy decisions around Ukraine, but a person close to the administration said officials are keenly aware of how Biden’s political opponents are looking to leverage whatever moves he makes. 

While there has been a mostly bipartisan unified front in Congress on how to respond to Russia, some Republicans have already begun to try out various lines of attack, looking for any opening to accuse Biden of not being strong enough against Putin. Last month, House Republicans seized on a suggestion by Biden that the U.S. response could differ if Putin carried out a “minor incursion,” a statement the White House quickly sought to clarify. Other congressional Republicans have since piled on the attacks. 

“This new international policy of appeasement to dictators and thugs, rather than a demonstration of strength, has become a license to people like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Iran, the Taliban. There is a lot to be said for Joe Biden’s culpability in what’s happened,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview.

“I think it’s already having a pretty devastating effect on the Democratic brand and on the midterm elections,” he said.

Former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly criticized former President Barack Obama for his handling of the annexation of Crimea in his 2016 campaign, has sought to link Putin’s increased aggression toward Ukraine to Biden’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying it emboldened Putin. 

“It feels as though not only is the economy going poorly, but everything overseas is going poorly,” said T.W. Arrighi, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It started with the Afghanistan debacle, and confidence in Biden has really plummeted from there.”

Beyond the lines of political attack, Biden and Democrats also risk Americans’ feeling the direct effect of an invasion on their own finances. Because Russia is one of the world’s top energy suppliers, sanctions against it in retaliation for an invasion could drive up gas prices, which are already at an eight-year high. That would further add to inflation, which is at its highest levels in decades, and voters have cited it in polls as one of their top concerns. 

“If Russia invades Ukraine, it is not going to be something that’s small. It’s going to be kind of a massive invasion, and that will simply have to be met by a massive economic response from the U.S.,” said Max Bergmann, who was a State Department official in the Obama administration. 

Russia could retaliate against sanctions by cutting off the flow of natural gas to Europe, which would drive up prices globally and cause business disruptions across the continent, Bergmann said. Possible sanctions on Russian companies involved in exporting raw materials could also contribute to supply chain disruptions, and Russia could also retaliate against the U.S. with cyberattacks. 

Wall Street analysts and lawmakers also say the stock market could take a downward turn from an invasion that would rattle investors’ confidence in the global markets. In a glimpse of what could come for the markets, the S&P 500 sank by 1.2 percent and oil rose past $95 a barrel Monday on increasing jitters over an invasion. 

“When you have countries at war, there’s the lack of predictability of the future, so it will have an impact. People will be nervous,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a Biden ally who is on the Foreign Relations and Finance committees. “It’ll affect investors and obviously affect investors in Ukraine. There will be supply chain problems. There will be efforts to consolidate more resources in regards to defense. So there’s a lot of impact from an act of conflict.”

While Biden spent the majority of his life focused on foreign policy matters, he has struggled to win back voters’ support in that area after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in August. Just 37 percent of Americans approved of his handling of foreign policy and relations with Russia in an NBC News poll in January, before the White House began raising alarms about a Russian invasion. 

But the standoff between Russia and Ukraine also gives Biden an opportunity to bolster those numbers if an invasion is averted and he can demonstrate he was able to do it by building a coalition and leadership on the world stage — perceptions that were hurt by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, said Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster at Hart Research who worked on the NBC News poll. 

“There is not much of an appetite for involvement here from public opinion in terms of military conflict, so I think the president is walking the line there and trying to demonstrate the ability for competency on foreign policy that did take a hit after Afghanistan,” Horwitt said. “The imperative here is that what voters thought they were getting was more competency and more consensus-building both internationally and domestically.” 

In a CBS News/YouGov poll released last week, a slight majority of Americans, led by Republicans, said they think the U.S. should stay out of any negotiations around the situation with Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, the majority of Republicans said Biden was “too friendly” toward Russia. Democrats overwhelmingly supported Biden’s handling of Russia, whereas 44 percent of independents said it was about right and 30 percent said he was too friendly toward Russia. 

One reality of electoral politics works in Biden’s favor: Voters aren’t normally motivated by events overseas unless U.S. lives are at stake, said both Democratic and Republican pollsters.

“As a general rule, foreign policy events that do not involve American kids dying in a war pale in comparison to domestic issues,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “As long as Americans are not dying — as they were in Iraq in 2006 [when then-President George W. Bush’s Republican Party lost seats in both the House and the Senate] — foreign policy does not normally drive electoral outcomes.”

The White House has been trying to shift the focus in the second year of his presidency to selling the benefits of the infrastructure spending bill he helped push through Congress and pitch what else the White House and Democrats plan to get done, such as initiatives on prescription drug prices and child care, if they maintain control of Congress after the midterms. 

But Republicans would look to use a Russian invasion, which would be the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II, to heavily detract from those messaging efforts and broaden the criticism beyond the conflict in Ukraine. 

“With the collapse of Afghanistan, which was deadly and disgraceful, Joe Biden’s signal to the world was that he was weak and indecisive and ineffective, and Putin thrives on weakness,” said Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a member of the GOP leadership team.

Putin is “cunning, he’s opportunistic, he’s aggressive,” Barrasso said. “And when you see this from the president of the United States in Afghanistan, people watch. Putin watches, China watches, Iran watches, North Korea watches.”

Democrats, however, remain skeptical about just how effective those attacks would be.

“If the Russians do invade, I don’t think that’s going to be good for anybody,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “But I don’t think people are going to look at Joe Biden and say it’s Joe Biden’s fault that the Russians invaded by any stretch of the imagination.”