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Biden: success of the POTUS and Ukraine

Mike McCartney

17th March 2023

An unprecedented move by a sitting President but will it help his presidency?

I know Biden's visit to Ukraine was a little while ago, but we have been discussing the old chestnut of whether presidencies are doomed to failure, and some in my class were a little surprised that Joe Biden's show of solidarity with the people of Ukraine is unlikely to make much difference to his chances of securing a second term (which in itself, often used as a metric of the success of a presidency).

A reminder of the Biden visit below...

As ever when looking at topics in US Politics, we have to go back to the Constitution. Indeed, when looking at the government topics in essays, it's well worth referencing the important bits from that document.

American Politics students should be familiar with the gap between the expectations placed upon the President and the powers he has at his disposal to enact legislation. The Constitution of course hands all power to initiate legislation to Congress, as stated in Article 1 Section 1. The Presidents legislative powers are much more limited, only being able to recommend matters form time to time to Congress, and holding the veto to block legislation. It is important to remember that the framers of the Constitution very much saw Congress as the centre of politics, with the executive head (with George Washington in mind) being above the fray. But since the 1930s the occupant of the White House has effectively become de facto chief legislator. In other words, the President is essentially hamstrung by the separation of powers put in place by the Founding Fathers who were cautious about creating a new political system that could lend itself to executive tyranny. For this reason modern Presidents must employ a range of techniques that can assist their power to persuade. So how does the 46th President measure up?

On the two year anniversary of Biden's inauguration PBS carried out a mini half term audit and described his time in office until that point as a bit of a 'mixed bag'. A major success was his infrastructure bill, but the domestic economic landscape doesn't look great.

But poll numbers seem to reflect that voters place much more emphasis on the latter. The fact is that inflation, as is the case in a whole host of major economies, is high by recent historical standards, and while petrol prices have fallen, they hit an all time record of $5 a gallon in June 2022 and this barometer of the cost of living has left a mark.

It is no surprise, therefore, to discover that Biden's poll ratings are less than stellar. In fact his approval ratings have been flatlining at just above 40% for the last several months. According the 538.com, the latest figure stands at just 43.7%.

A bit of digging on 538 gives us a bit of context here. By comparison, at equivalent stages in their presidency reveals that Biden's predecessors rated as followed (following 786 days):

  • Trump: 41.4%
  • Obama: 48.1%
  • Bush Jr: 55.7%
  • Clinton: 45.9%
  • Bush Sr: 85.8%
  • Reagan: 41.1%

One can debate, of course, whether poll ratings such as these matter all that much when we consider which presidents went on to win re-election, but we can't get away from the fact that Biden is struggling in the domestic sphere.

Because the limitations in engineering changes domestically are so severe (scholars have variously noted that: the President needs Congress; the President and Congress are like two halves of a dollar bill, both useless without the other half; trying to get Congress to act is like nailing a custard tart to a wall/pushing a wet mattress up a spiral staircase/pushing treacle up a hill with a fork) often White House incumbents will turn their attention to international affairs.

This is because when it comes to foreign policy making, despite their being a complex network of interlocking forces, the POTUS has much more room for manoeuvre. Some academics have variously described this as the idea of 'two presidencies' or described this scenario as the 'bifurcated presidency'.

So what does this mean in terms of Ukraine? Here the domestic and international become intertwined. Reports from inside the beltway suggest that white Biden has publicly presented a united front, tensions have emerged between Washington DC and Kiev on future strategy. Furthermore, public support for US support for Ukraine is flagging, and the Republicans (both potential presidential nominees and members of Congress) are potentially seeking to exploit this.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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