Vladimir Putin United America

At the State of the Union, Joe Biden can look abroad and find a popular cause around which he and a surprisingly broad cross section of the public want to rally.

A map of the United States shaded in yellow and blue
The Atlantic; Sasha Mordovets / Getty

At some point during tonight’s State of the Union address, President Joe Biden will likely denounce Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, voice support for the Ukrainian people, and tout the significant sanctions that he and U.S. allies in NATO have placed on Russia in response. When he finishes that sentence, most if not all members of the bitterly divided Congress will erupt in applause.

That brief display of unity inside the Capitol will reflect a broad and, in recent times, unusual consensus across the country as a whole. To a remarkable degree, Americans support the economic punishment that Biden has sought to inflict on Russia even as voters oppose—as does the president—a deployment of U.S. troops to Ukraine. In a CNN poll conducted in the days after the invasion, 83 percent of respondents said they backed sanctions on Russia; that support barely differed among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. About six in 10 people said the United States should do more to assist Ukraine, but just 42 percent supported military intervention if the sanctions don’t force Russia to withdraw. Other polls have found even less support for sending U.S. soldiers into the conflict.

“It’s sort of all in, short of sending American troops,” says Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior House Republican who told me the consensus extended to high-level classified briefings that top Biden-administration officials have given to lawmakers. “There have been no sharp disagreements.”

The polls underscore a deep shift in voters’ views about war in the years since the once-popular conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began to go south. The hawkish consensus of post-9/11 America has given way to an electorate that will support confrontations with global adversaries like Putin so long as they don’t include military intervention. Three successive presidents—Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Biden—won while campaigning to withdraw U.S. forces from wars overseas. More recently, polls have found that although the public believed Biden botched the American exit from Afghanistan over the summer, it still backed his decision to end what had become the nation’s longest war.

As I noted last month, the consensus against deploying U.S. troops to directly defend Ukraine developed during the weeks in which Putin was amassing forces on his neighbor’s border. But public opinion has remained durable in the days since the Russian invasion. Some Republicans have criticized the speed at which Biden has imposed sanctions on Russia and sent arms to Ukraine, and others on the right, such as Tucker Carlson and the Senate candidate from Ohio J. D. Vance, have suggested that the U.S. shouldn’t bother helping Ukraine at all. Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois has been a lonely GOP voice pushing for the U.S. to accede to the Ukrainian government’s request and enforce a no-fly zone—an act of war that could draw America into a direct conflict with Putin, who has already placed his country in a heightened nuclear-defense posture. But there has been no discernible drumbeat for sending Americans into combat.

Support for sanctions is even stronger, according to the CNN poll, than it was after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. In a Washington Post survey, a majority of respondents said they’d support sanctions even if they resulted in higher energy prices. Biden has drawn some praise from Republicans for his handling of the Ukraine crisis, particularly the president’s decision to declassify intelligence as a way of warning the world about Putin’s plans to invade and spoiling his attempts to use propaganda and subterfuge to justify the attack. “That was a very wise move,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah told my colleague McKay Coppins over the weekend. Cole told me that when, during a classified briefing before the invasion, officials described the declassification strategy, the lawmakers broke out in spontaneous, bipartisan applause.

Yet the bulk of the credit for uniting both NATO and the American public in support of Ukraine has gone not to Biden’s leadership but to Putin’s aggression. “Remarkably what he’s been able to do is unify the vast majority of us in the Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said of the Russian president on Sunday during a joint appearance on Meet the Press with Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican.

So far, support for Biden’s economic-but-not-military response to the Russian invasion has not translated into approval of the president’s handling of the crisis or trust in his leadership. A few polls have found his ratings on Ukraine even lower than his lackluster overall standing with voters, which is now barely more than 40 percent. Cole, a partisan if congenial Republican, is no cheerleader for the president. But he noted that the crisis is still in its early stages and said Biden has a chance to seize the rare gift of unity Putin has bestowed to his own political advantage. “I think there’s an opportunity here to lead globally and nationally and to bring us together,” Cole said. “The president has the high moral ground. He’s on the right side of the issue.”

Biden will surely try to harness that solidarity, even if for only a fleeting moment tonight. He’s a president beset by divisive challenges at home—a lingering pandemic, stubborn inflation, a stalled economic agenda. But now with a common foe in Putin, he can look abroad and find a popular cause around which he and a surprisingly broad cross section of the public want to rally.