Skip to content

‘Pariah’ vs. ‘May be far worse’: Swing voters have a clear choice on handling Putin

In comparison to other issues, Biden gets highest marks on Russia, Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during meetings with Russian military officers at the Kremlin on June 27.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during meetings with Russian military officers at the Kremlin on June 27. (Getty Images)

President Joe Biden and his top aides, again, are out of step on Russia and Vladimir Putin, this time in the aftermath of an apparent failed mutiny.

Still, the contrast for independent and anti-Donald Trump Republican voters between Biden and his most likely 2024 general election foe could not be clearer.

On Russia, Team Biden has portrayed a methodical policy process run by career foreign policy and national security professionals. Trump, largely a team of one on his Moscow policy, has continued his coy defenses of the embattled Russian leader whose military has fired missiles into Ukrainian apartment buildings.

“A big mess in Russia, but be careful what you wish for. Next in may be far worse!” Trump wrote Monday on social media.

In direct contrast, Biden on Wednesday again cast doubt on Putin’s strength and future, telling reporters he “has become a bit of a pariah around the world.”

Which approach will independent and never-Trump GOP voters prefer?

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Wednesday continued putting forth the Biden side’s thinking. Of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s weekend run toward Moscow with some of his Wagner Group mercenary forces, Blinken said: “I don’t want to predict where this is going to go [or] when it’s going to get there.”

About Putin, Blinken told a Council on Foreign Relations forum: “I do know that … Putin has a lot of new questions that he has to answer for.”

Biden national security officials have publicly declined to forecast what the unprecedented challenge to his power means for the Russian strongman remaining in power. Mostly, they have tried to paint the former KGB officer as weaker on his own soil while stubbornly continuing a war that’s unpopular among Russian citizens.

“But the fact … that he directly challenged President Putin, the fact that as you said he questioned the very premises that Putin has advanced for the war, is significant,” Blinken said of Prigozhin, before casting the matter as a puzzle only Russians can solve. “But again, how this plays out in Russia, it is ultimately an internal issue for them, and they’re going to have to work through it.”

On that point, Biden and Blinken are singing the same note, with the president saying Wednesday that Putin is “losing the war at home.”

Yet, there are reasons for independent and swing Republican voters to question Biden, who wants a second term even though he is 80 years old, and his foreign policy team.

For instance, while Blinken has been notably mum about Putin’s future as the Russian leader, Biden went much further with his “pariah” assessment.

Biden administration officials, including Blinken, maintain they have no policy of fomenting what foreign policy experts call “regime change” in the Kremlin. But they also repeatedly say Russia’s future and who leads it is a matter for its citizens to work out. Nudging some kind of movement in Russia to replace Putin would start by undermining the perception he remains too strong to topple.

So it’s notable that Biden put a finer point on his stance about just that when a reporter asked on the South Lawn, “Do you think Vladimir Putin is weaker today than he was before all those events?” Biden’s response: “I know he … is.”

That came after Biden, before his staff tried walking it back, said this of Putin last year in Warsaw, Poland: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

In contrast, Trump has never begun to address his strange relationship with Putin. Remember the usually machismo-oozing Trump’s docile performance alongside the Russian leader at a news conference that wrapped their 2018 summit in Helsinki?

Polls suggest voters have mixed feelings about Biden’s handling of foreign policy, and any presidential race featuring an incumbent is partially a referendum on their first term. Forty-one percent of respondents to an Economist-YouGov survey conducted earlier this month approved of how Biden was running U.S. foreign policy, with 47 percent disapproving. But Biden got lower marks on issues like inflation (34 percent approve), immigration (35 percent approve) and crime (37 percent approve), according to the same poll.

A Quinnipiac University survey conducted before the attempted mutiny found U.S. voters split on how Biden has handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: 46 percent approved and 47 percent disapproved. Notably, those were the highest marks the president received in that poll on questions related to his job performance.

A number of former Western foreign policy officials and national security officials and longtime analysts told the Atlantic Council think tank that Putin has been exposed as weaker than he was believed to be. This aligns with Biden’s assessment.

“Prigozhin’s mutiny has exposed Russia’s major defense blind spots and highlighted Putin’s weakening grip on power. The Kremlin’s strongman turned out to be a strawman; and a colossus of Russian military power appeared to be standing on feet of clay,” Yevgeniya Gaber, a foreign policy adviser to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and now an Atlantic Council senior fellow, told the think tank in an extensive analysis posted online on June 24.

Rather than defend Putin, some Trump-aligned MAGA Republican lawmakers have instead offered praise of Trump’s record or mocked Biden for twice this week saying “war in Iraq” when he clearly meant Ukraine.

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., tweeted: “Joe Biden just said that Putin is losing the war in Iraq. I guess Biden’s brain shut off some time during that war, so he thinks we’re still fighting it.” Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., went the flattery route, tweeting: “The world was a much safer place with Donald Trump as our president.”

A better response probably would be to, as your correspondent will here, wonder aloud, what has been in Biden’s Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) lately that has Iraq on his mind? But one wouldn’t score points with the MAGA base that way. However, vague defenses of Putin, questionable claims about Trump’s foreign policy and personal shots at his likely general election foe do.

The independent and never-Trump voters who will decide the 2024 race have a clear choice: the former president who defends Putin or the current one who calls him a “pariah” and says he cannot remain in power.

Both approaches are flawed, largely because of Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal. That’s yet another problem for which both candidates need to lay out a remedy that would help keep those warheads inside their silos and submarines.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett, a former White House correspondent, writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter. His column will return on Friday, June 30.

Recent Stories

Eight questions for elections in five states on Tuesday

Paul Pelosi attacker sentenced to 30 years in prison

House Over-slight Committee — Congressional Hits and Misses

Biden kicks off outreach to Black voters as protest threat looms at Morehouse

Editor’s Note: Stock market no panacea for Biden, Democrats

Photos of the week ending May 17, 2024