Biden’s Sinking Popularity and Putin’s New Proxy War

Polish Belarusian standoff
Photo by Maciej Luczniewski via Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
November 12, 2021

Since I started writing for Puck, I’ve been overwhelmed with the volume of correspondence and feedback from readers. So, while I gather string for a larger story about the discourse surrounding Joe Biden’s age and much whispered-about decline—or lack thereof—I figured I’d pause to answer a few of the most pressing questions on your mind this week. As always, you can email me at My inbox is always open.

Has the rescue of Biden’s infrastructure package ushered in a new set of talking points about his administration? It seems some Democrats have tried to assert that Biden has indeed achieved a great deal in his first year—the Covid vaccines, a soaring economy, and now a successful (if reduced) infrastructure package—and just been beset by bad communications. What’s your read?

My read is: it’s complicated. This was never going to be easy. Biden inherited a right mess: a once-in-a-century global pandemic, an economy that wasn’t sure if it was reeling or bounding back from the pandemic’s effects, a democracy teetering on the edge after January 6th, and a country split, angry, and traumatized. And if half of Americans were still shell-shocked after the presidency of a man they considered a racist, narcissistic clown, the other half were now furious at the election of a man they considered a doddering old fool who was actually a Trojan horse of the Marxists. It didn’t help that the former president and the right-wing media fed—and continue to feed—a steady stream of lies to the Republican base about the integrity of the 2020 election. (Strangely enough, the people worried about “election integrity” didn’t cry fraud over the 2021 elections that they won.) 

I recount all that to make two points. The first is that, given the magnitude of the problems he was facing on January 20, there was no possibility of Biden’s honeymoon ratings, the kind nearly every president gets while they still have that new president smell, would hold. Every president’s popularity eventually sinks, though Biden’s probably sank a little faster because, well, all the above. And Biden didn’t help himself by making some very tough and very divisive decisions, even if (in my view) they were the right ones, like ending the war in Afghanistan and imposing vaccine mandates. 

The second point is that, given how divided and polarized the country is—to the point of it sounding like the most tired of clichés—Biden’s approval rating was always going to have a pretty low ceiling, just like his predecessor. No matter how much Joe Biden believed in unity and bipartisanship, half the country was primed, perpetually, to hate him. It doesn’t help that Trump continues to be widely popular with Republicans or that the G.O.P. has approached Biden’s legislative agenda with the same objective as they had for Obama: make this Democrat a one-term president. As one Republican staffer told me over the summer, there’s a reason G.O.P. leaders and Fox hosts—themselves fully vaccinated—have been pushing vaccine disinformation. Biden, this staffer suggested, shouldn’t be getting credit for ending the pandemic when it was Trump who presided over the development of the vaccine. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which, if Trump had won a second term, the vaccination rates of Democrats and Republicans were flipped.

Politics today is a team sport. Biden’s approval ratings started sliding not when American troops started leaving Afghanistan on his orders, but when the delta surge cut short America’s hot vax summer. The surge was worst in the states that were least disposed to liking Biden, and the anti-vax, anti-mandate, anti-anything-this-White-House-proposed rhetoric kept that flame white-hot. (Remember the spring, when Biden promised Americans that, if we all got the shot, we’d be able to have a normal Fourth of July and the right went apeshit about it?)

As for the question of communication, I’m not sure that this White House has been much better or much worse than other White Houses, the sieve-like Trump White House excluded. It’s hard to message effectively when the other side is hellbent on not hearing you, or misrepresenting what you say, or changing the fight into a culture war—or is simply better at finding a simple, effective message and hammering it home with the aid of a sophisticated and insular media infrastructure. It was never going to be easy, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when it isn’t. 

Is D.C. actually concerned about what’s happening on the Belarus-Poland border or is this the E.U.’s mess to solve? How does Belarus fit in the broader range of flashpoints (Bosnia, Ukraine) in terms of managing Russia policy for lack of a better term?

Basically, yes. This is the E.U.’s problem to solve. 

If you don’t know what this reader is referring to, here’s a quick recap: In May, Belarusian authorities called in a fake bomb threat to a RyanAir flight traveling through E.U. airspace and forced it to take a detour and land in the Belarusian capital. This was because the flight was carrying Roman Protasevich, a young blogger and activist who helped organize the protests against Belarusian dictator Alexandr Lukashenka, who was widely believed to have stolen the 2020 presidential election. Protasevich was detained, apparently tortured, and made to flip. The E.U., horrified, imposed sanctions on Belarus, as well as restrictions on Belarusian planes entering E.U. airspace. 

In the months since, Lukashenka has retaliated in the most cynical way possible: his government has sent smugglers to actively recruit refugees, many of them Kurds, Syrians, and Afghans, luring them to Belarus with false promises that they will be going to the E.U. Instead, the Belarusian government is dumping these refugees on the borders with Poland and Lithuania (both E.U. members) and forcing them to cross. Lithuania and especially Poland have been forcing the migrants back, sometimes with tear gas and riot police, and potentially violating international law about how people are allowed to ask for asylum. The Belarusian authorities then beat the migrants and push them back across. Stuck in the middle are the migrants themselves, many of whom have been found wandering in the cold woods on the border, starving and freezing, often fatally. It is an absolutely appalling disregard for human life and dignity, using the most desperate people as disposable political pawns.

But Washington has bigger fish to fry. While the State Department offered its public support for Poland—a spokesperson told me that America “strongly condemn[s]” the “callous exploitation and coercion of vulnerable people”—I don’t expect anything much beyond strongly worded statements and, perhaps, some behind-the-scenes pressure or help for the migrants. 

For at least the last decade, America has been turning steadily inward, consumed with its own domestic turmoil, and leaving the global stage for others to handle. As much as Trump was seen as an aberration, the more keen-eyed observers in Washington’s foreign policy community note the continuity from Obama to Trump to Biden. The language and, erm, tactics may have been different under the Trump presidency, especially when it came to respecting America’s traditional allies and international law, but the underlying current of isolationism is unmistakable.

Part of this, of course, is the trauma of Iraq, of starting an unnecessary war because of faulty intelligence and, in the process, destabilizing a whole region while causing untold death and suffering, and mangling an entire generation of American soldiers. It is good and proper to reevaluate what our foreign policy looks like after such an extravagant debacle, but, two decades later, we’re still feeling our way toward an answer. We know that we don’t want to be the world’s policeman, but we also know that there are far more nefarious actors, like Russia and China, who would love to take the baton. In fact, they are already doing so in many places, such as Syria and Myanmar, and the results don’t point toward a benevolent stewardship of global affairs.

Washington still values human rights, but what tools do we have for promoting such vague ideals abroad? How far are we willing to go to export democracy, after our ill-fated efforts in the Middle East? So far, it seems we’re not willing to go far at all. Despite their egregious human rights abuses at home and abroad, we continue selling arms to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. With Russia, where a crackdown on civil society and independent media is accelerating with vicious speed, we seem to have all but given up. Because what can you do with a nuclear power that stretches across eleven time zones, is rich in natural resources, and whose president, Vladimir Putin, doesn’t seem to mind the pain that Western sanctions inflict? I don’t pretend to know the answer, and I doubt anyone in the White House has a good one either. From what I’ve heard, this administration understands that not much is possible under Putin, and have adopted the policy—if one can call it that—that the U.S. will just have to wait until Putin dies or is no longer president, though it’s highly unlikely that he’ll leave the Kremlin while there is still breath in him. 

In the case of Belarus v. Poland, there’s not all that much we can do. Putin will likely back Lukashenka, as he did when the West imposed sanctions over the RyanAir bomb threat. Plus, Lukashenka gives exceedingly few fucks: the only alternative to remaining on the throne is death (or Russian exile under Putin’s thumb), so why not fight harder and dirtier? Poland, which has gone hard right and has a past riddled with xenophobia, is probably violating international law by pushing the migrants back, but they’re technically our ally and what is the Biden administration going to do? Make the Polish government take in thousands of migrants even as the U.S. continues pushing migrants back across our own southern border? There, again, we see the continuity, from Obama to Trump to Biden. And it’s left the U.S. without much of a moral leg to stand on.