Will the war in Ukraine change the American political landscape?

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The site of a bomb attack that damaged residential buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post)

WASHINGTON – The war in Ukraine has destabilized American politics. The extent to which this changes American policy is the most important question for President Joe Biden and Democrats.

Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression against its sovereign neighbor has refocused the world. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a figure of international fame and admiration. Russian President Vladimir Putin has become an international pariah. NATO has been rejuvenated and the United States is once again leading the Western alliance.

How much does that matter to American voters and how much will it matter in November’s midterm elections? Today, inflation and other domestic issues remain the main drivers of the upcoming elections. One of the changes wrought by the war is that it froze the domestic political environment and placed certain issues – gasoline prices in particular – in a more than purely domestic context.

We know from scatters of recent history that at this stage of a conflict like the one that continues to unfold in Ukraine, projections of months into the future are risky, even reckless. Surprise is a certainty of politics.

Wars that directly involve US forces often produce a rallying effect for the president. When the United States launched a war in early 1991 to expel Iraq from Kuwait, President George HW Bush saw his approval rating soar to nearly 90%. Two years later, he had lost his re-election bid and was removed from office.

After the United States reacted vigorously to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the popularity rating of President George W. Bush slightly eclipsed that of his father. Republican candidates carried his anti-terrorism message to a successful midterm election the following year. Opinions on the war in Iraq had not changed enough to prevent Bush from being re-elected in 2004, but in 2006 opposition to the war was a major contributor to the Democratic takeover of the House.

This war is different. Biden built and led an international coalition that imposed punitive sanctions on Russia and came to the aid of Ukraine with continued arms shipments and opened doors for millions of refugees fleeing destruction. He called Putin a war criminal, but resisted moves he said could lead to a wider war. No American troops have been committed, and Biden has said that will not change. Yet Putin is unpredictable, as is the course of the conflict and the possible ways in which it ends.

The war in Ukraine has brought Americans closer on some things; call it the Putin effect. At a time of domestic division, Putin gave Americans a common enemy and a sense of collective purpose. According to the Pew Research Center, large majorities of Republicans and Democrats think cooperating with US allies is the right position. A similar pattern emerges from the decision to impose sanctions on Russia, with more than 8 in 10 people in each party supporting the continuation of these measures.

Republicans have moved away from the views expressed by former President Donald Trump, who hailed Putin as a “genius” as the war took shape. The elected leaders of the party quickly realized that it was foolish to try to accommodate this point of view. Putin has shown himself as he is, and many of Trump’s cronies have taken cover. While still unwilling to criticize Trump, many have denounced Putin: House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., called him a “thug.”

Some Republicans have pushed Biden to take even more aggressive steps to support Ukraine, along the lines of Zelensky’s demands for more sophisticated fighter jets or anti-aircraft weapons. There are indications that rank-and-file Republicans are more supportive of such moves than Democrats.

As the country’s leader, Biden could benefit from the broad consensus on Putin’s war. But support for Biden’s handling of the war is not yet translating into greater support for Biden himself. According to the Pew survey, more Americans approve of the US response than they disapprove of it, although there are clear partisan differences on this issue. These underlying divisions may be an indirect indicator of domestic political impact, or lack thereof, to date.

The president didn’t get any noticeable bump in his approval ratings. That could change, of course. At best, his approval ratings have risen by a point or two, but some strategists say the reason is that he brought Democrats back to his side who were unhappy with him because of what didn’t. did not perform with its national program last year. He’s solidifying his base but apparently isn’t moving any others yet. His overall approval rating remains net-negative in double digits. Historically, such numbers put the president’s party in dangerous territory ahead of the midterm elections.

Inflation remains the overarching issue in national assessments of the state of the country, and both sides know it. A message war is now underway over the price of gasoline. From the White House, the phraseology is “Putin’s price hike.” From Republican quarters, these higher prices are for Biden and him alone, though it’s clear that the more recent spikes are war-related. Still, the onus will be on Biden if prices stay high through the summer, as they could.

More than gas prices are causing voter anxiety. These are the prices in general. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates last week in a bid to slow rising prices. Whether this and future rate hikes will outweigh the impact of further supply chain disruptions caused by the war (in addition to those caused by the pandemic) and wage growth in a tight labor market is the challenge for the Fed.

The administration has changed its messaging on other aspects of its national agenda. Biden still wants to implement elements of his “Build Back Better” agenda that fizzled out in the Senate thanks to the United Republican opposition and resistance from Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., in particular. But that would come piecemeal, if at all, and the president and his allies are now talking about these proposed policies as ones that will help bring prices down.

Biden delivered his State of the Union address nearly three weeks ago. He won bipartisan support for what he said on Ukraine, but most of the speech was devoted to domestic issues, and partisan divisions were evident throughout. The speech was seen as a pivot of the kind of rhetoric that dominated last year, that of a transformational president seeking big and ambitious spending packages, towards a more modest agenda and more talk of unity. . At a time when memory is short, the State of the Union has quickly faded.

Admin challenges are now split-screen. There is the care and feeding of the international coalition trying to help Ukraine resist and fight against the Russians, a management task of major proportions and almost full-time. And there’s the array of domestic issues that remain on the president’s plate, from transitioning from pandemic to endemic in the battle against coronavirus to showing results in the battle against inflation and the keeping the economy healthy. Dealing with the former will be essential to the welfare of the world. Facing the second will be a telltale indicator of what will happen in November.

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