For analysis of what’s at stake for Europe, Russia, the US and the world more generally in the crisis in Ukraine, I’ll defer to experts for foreign policy analysis. Beyond that, I’ll just advise everyone to be wary not only of partisan point-scoring, but also of any pundits who begin with the assumption that everything traces back to the actions of the United States.
What I can talk about is what is and isn’t at stake for President Joe Biden. For that, I’ll lean as I usually do on Richard Neustadt’s 1960 book, “Presidential Power.” What Neustadt emphasised, above all, is that presidential actions should do what they can to increase the president’s influence in the political system — necessary, he explained, because the Constitution doesn’t automatically grant presidents very much influence (what Neustadt called “power”) at all.
And presidential influence is needed to make the US political system run smoothly. Therefore, Biden shouldn’t just be thinking about what’s good for the nation; he should also be thinking about how to use Russia’s actions to help himself. Presidents do that, Neustadt says, by maximising their popularity and by building impressive professional reputations.
Let’s start with popularity. The truth is that, crass as it may be to say so, very, very few US citizens care about Ukraine. Indeed, voters very rarely care about foreign policy at all. It is possible that Russian actions in Ukraine could produce a short-term change in Biden’s approval ratings; whether “rally around the flag” effects happen depends mainly on whether the out-party praises or criticises the president during something that the media treats as a major crisis.
But such effects dissipate quickly, so they rarely matter much. In the longer run, don’t expect many direct effects on public opinion, assuming that American troops do not get involved. But there certainly could be indirect effects if sanctions wind up raising the price of oil or otherwise affecting the US economy, which certainly can change presidential popularity.
How the president will act
But presidents can’t just do whatever they think will help the US economy because they also do, and should, care about their professional reputations. This part of it is more complicated. Reputation isn’t just good or bad. It’s more complicated, including not only general assessments of the president’s bargaining skills and whether people think he’ll win or lose fights, but also general and specific expectations of how the president will act.
Expectations, that is, of people who the president deals with and the people they deal with: other politicians, bureaucrats, interest-group and party leaders, national journalists, and more. Because doing their jobs depends on understanding what presidents will do, all those folks try hard to figure them out.
Reputation changes all the time
Biden probably began his presidency with unusually high assumptions about his national-security abilities, perhaps the best since George H.W. Bush, but after he was widely criticised for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, he could probably use an event that reminds people why they thought he knew what he was doing. This doesn’t necessarily require winning, whatever that would mean in this situation.
Instead, what matters is what the people involved — such as diplomats, leaders of allied nations and foreign policy experts — think about how Biden is handling it. Neustadt argued that this all built up over time, with each episode adding to the president’s reputation. And a strong reputation, in turn, helps the president have more influence and get more done; a poor reputation makes it that much harder.
The good news is that concern for their reputation gives presidents a strong reason to do well for the nation in these situations, even when electoral incentives don’t really work — as is the case with most foreign policy episodes. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll make the best choices.
And, yes, it’s always possible that presidents will make good choices because they love their country, or because they are brilliant, or for some other noble and altruistic reason. But I’m with James Madison; I’d rather put my trust in healthy incentives.
Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University