A Foreign Policy Election?

A competent leader versus a lunatic would seem an easy choice. Alas.

When I saw the POLITICO Playbook headline “Biden tries to make it a foreign policy election,” my instinct was to laugh. It’s been a long time since an American presidential election hinged on foreign policy and even longer since it did when American troops weren’t directly at war.

Regardless, here’s the setup:

THE POLITICS OF A FOREIGN POLICY PRESIDENCY — The good news for JOE BIDEN this week is that he’s suddenly very popular.

The bad news is that this burst of support for the American president is in Israel.

Since the shocking 10/7 attacks by Hamas, there have been four national polls in the U.S. that show Biden stuck where he’s been for a while now, with an approval rating averaging about 40%.

These numbers come as the news has been dominated by two stories playing out in splitscreen for two solid weeks: (1) a Republican party arguably showing itself at its worst in the House and (2) Biden arguably showing himself at his best in his response to the war between Israel and Hamas.

And so far the polling data shows … nothing has changed.

To be fair, CNN’s Harry Enten notes that voters are giving Biden good marks for his handling of both Israel and Ukraine, the two issues he addressed last night in his second primetime speech from the Oval Office. Maybe that speech and his successful trip to Israel a day earlier will start to soak in and move Biden’s stubborn approval ratings.

It won’t.

The speech itself was fine:

Biden lacks the dynamism that Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barach Obama had as President but that’s no surprise. For those listening live and inclined to judge him on his advancing age, they’ll likely have those concerns reinforced. Relatively few people watched the speech, though, and will at most get a sound byte here and there.

Moreover, the message itself was quite strong. Not so long ago, it could have been given by a Republican President. Indeed, I can imagine George W. Bush reading it without edits. Alas, we are no longer in that world.

Playbook points us to Michael Hirsh‘s piece “How Biden Is Betting on the Politics of War.” It begins,

For Sen. Chris Coons, one of President Joe Biden’s closest allies in Washington, the president’s wartime mission to the Middle East and Republican dysfunction in Washington — all of it happening at the same time — offered the starkest of split-screens. In an interview with POLITICO Magazine, Coons was emphatic that Biden’s lightning-fast trip to Israel was not about the 2024 election. But in the same breath, Coons laid out in lavish detail just how telling it was that while Biden was in Tel Aviv assuring the Israelis that America had their backs, the GOP was literally falling apart on Capitol Hill.

“The contrast with Republicans could not be sharper,” Coons (D-Del.), a co-chair of Biden’s re-election campaign, said Wednesday. He then rattled off a well-honed critique of GOP disarray: how a paralyzed House of Representatives can no longer function on critical issues like aid to Israel and Ukraine; how former President Donald Trump’s comments praising Hezbollah as “very smart” and criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just hours after the deaths of more than 1,400 Israelis were strongly denounced by presidential contenders former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other Republicans; and how American voters will come to realize, at such a dangerous moment, they can’t afford an “erratic” president “who’s a disruptor.”

“I don’t think your average American wants that,” Coons said, emphasizing that Biden has far more experience than any candidate in dealing with key leaders such as Netanyahu, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “Having a president who is presidential, solid and trusted around the world is important to the American people and will play an important role in their [2024] decision.”

The president’s political advisers are not oblivious to those dynamics. They are leery of appearing to politicize the Middle East crisis with the lives of American and Israeli hostages at stake, but in multiple conversations with key figures in Biden world, both on and off the record, it becomes clear they see the opportunity presented by an unexpected crisis to feature Biden’s strengths.

Coons is surely right on the contrast. And, with perhaps a few quibbles, I think Biden is playing the Ukraine and Israel hands about as well as he can with the cards available to him. Again, I think it’s more or less how a John McCain or Mitt Romney or a Jeb Bush would have played a similar hand.

I am just skeptical that folks who were giving Donald Trump a serious look will back away on the basis of Biden’s Ukraine and Israel policies. That’s just not how American presidential elections have played out, especially in the post-Cold War era.

The most recent election in which foreign policy was a central theme was 2008. The fact that he was the sole plausible candidate who had opposed the Iraq War from the outset doubtless contributed mightily to Obama’s winning the Democratic nomination over early frontrunner Hillary Clinton. And it helped him somewhat in the general against John McCain, who was pushing the continued relevance of the war. Then again, the Great Recession was crashing down on the Bush administration throughout the campaign. Ultimately, that was more decisive than the war.

Before that, the Iran Hostage Crisis was surely a major issue in the 1980 contest between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. But, again, the economy was also in a shambles.

There hasn’t been another contest in my memory where foreign policy was more than a peripheral point of contention. The only other one in my lifetime—and I’m pushing 60—was 1968, when Vietnam was a central issue.

Beyond that, all the examples I can think of in the television era where it moved the needle was when the incumbent party badly misplayed its hand. I can’t think of a single instance in which good foreign policy was rewarded by the voters.

Then again, it’s worth noting that neither of the POLITICO stories quotes Biden or anyone on his team claiming that they will make this election primarily about foreign policy. Given that Biden knows more about running presidential campaigns than I do, I’m rather confident that he’s not going to try and do that.

FILED UNDER: 2024 Election, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. charontwo says:

    This may be pretty Off Topic, but to me there is only one big question – does Trump participate in Presidential debates, Trump and Biden on the same stage – or not.

    Because, confirmation bias etc., it takes a lot to get people who prefer not to see to see what should be evident.

    Trump’s senile dementia has advanced to a stage where it is quickly becoming increasingly visible. A year from now, guy will not be looking good.

    Regardless , I foresee an election about Trump, not about any version of policy

  2. BugManDan says:

    I think you can argue that 2004 was a foreign policy election.

  3. JKB says:

    The loyal media are hiding it, but Biden has a hostage crisis with the Americans being held in Gaza that remain unmentioned. Right now, the situation is waiting for our intel community to turn away from their recent emphasis on attacking Americans domestically and do their job, i.e., find the hostages so spec ops can try a rescue.

    This has many ways to turn into a foreign policy election, but Old Man Biden is not a good look. And in an overseas situation, people like to know who is really the “president” as in who is making the decisions. Do you really think the Democrats can sell Biden as that guy?

    And today I heard of the “Samson Option” that is the real driver in US, UK and even Russia/China actions. If Israel is to be overrun and the Jews fall into the hands of their enemies, well, Israel has nuclear weapons….and people about to have to watch all their babies beheaded, their daughters raped, their elderly burned alive, don’t leave doomsday off the table. (The temple of Dragon where Samson pulled down the roof on top of his enemies was in what is now Gaza)

  4. JohnSF says:


    “…find the hostages so spec ops can try a rescue.”

    Are you nuts?
    Do you think US intel in Gaza is ever likely to be better than that of the Israeli’s, and theirs is nowhere near good enough for that sort of operation.
    If they do develop actionable intelligence, the IDF will act upon it.

    This is not a movie: shove US Special Forces into Gaza and you’re liable to lose them and the hostages.

    That Israel would use nuclear weapons in the case of an invasion looking like succeeding has been known for over 50 years.
    There is zero prospect of that in the present situation.
    Not even Hezbollah could face the IDF in the field on the offensive, never mind Hamas.

    The success of the raid and its atrocities was due to culpable failures up and down the chains of intelligence and military command, and above all the IDF having to shift resources to the West Bank, due to settlers both demanding protection and attacking Palestinian villages.
    The blame for that lies at cabinet level: Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, and above all, Netanyahu, who pandered to the far-right for the glorious goal of keeping his sorry behind out of jail.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @BugManDan: That occurred to me as well. Iraq certainly loomed large over that one but I don’t know that it was the decisive issue.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:


    Only a well-and-truly brainwashed MAGAt can look at Trump and Biden side by side and conclude that Biden’s the one with cognitive issues.

    It’s fun how you try so desperately to convince us you’re not just another unhinged, brain-dead MAGAt, and then you fuck it all up by being an unhinged, brain-dead MAGAt. But I find it comforting watching you try and pretend to rationality. It confirms my core belief that almost no one changes or learns or grows. Some few do, you don’t.

  7. Scott says:

    @JKB: There have been articles/news pieces by PBS, Guardian, NBC, etc. Your basic premise is wrong. So the rest of your thesis is BS.

    BTW, not that it should make a difference, how many of these Americans hold dual citizenships/passports and are also Israelis, Palestinians, etc.?

  8. just nutha says:

    @JKB: And old man, can’t-even-put-on-spray-tan-evenly-anymore Trump is a better one? Yikes!

    ETA: (And the Philistine’s god’s name was Dagon, not Dragon.)

  9. JKB says:

    @JohnSF: If they do develop actionable intelligence, the IDF will act upon it.

    Likely true, but there could be many spec ops teams on hostage rescue if they find them. They took Filipino hostages and the Philippines have a very good spec ops group.

    But the point it, Biden has a hostage crisis. Well, unless the $100 million he’s promised is really a ransom to Hamas. Look to see how much more money they send the Iranians.

    True, many of the Americans are Jews so the NY Times, WaPo, etc. will be looking to hide the facts. Not unlike the university faculty and students on American campuses tearing down the posters of the hostages as has been well documented.

    But in the context of this post, there are many, many avenues that this foreign policy election could not be good for Biden in 2024. Trump on the other hand, sorted out NK which was threatening to nuke SF before Trump, he opened the dialog with MBS that has led to the Saudis not rushing into the fray and he got everyone thinking of thinking of how to operate if China becomes non-viable, which is has since progressed toward apace.

    But then, for the election, on the non-Trump side, there’s always RFK to vote for. And Newsom, who is definitely not challenging Biden, is heading to Israel for California foreign policy interests.

  10. Stormy Dragon says:


    The temple of Dragon

    My body is a temple.

    In that it’s old and decrepit, possibly haunted, and occasionally gets raided by barbarians. =3

  11. gVOR10 says:


    I think you can argue that 2004 was a foreign policy election.

    Indeed you can. W’s primary motive for invading Afghanistan and Iraq worked perfectly.

    ETA: and don’t think the GOPs haven’t noticed how they won their only popular vote since whenever.

  12. gVOR10 says:

    @JohnSF: MSNBC had a hostage rescue operator and expert on. He pointed out the reality that almost all hostage rescues fail. They have to try, but they know the likely outcome.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Trump did literally none of those things. He gave the Norks a free propaganda boost which had no downstream effect on their behavior. He was pitiful against the Chinese, all mouth and no legislation, no policy, no follow-through because his culties like you only pay attention to the mouth. His Abraham accords ignored the Palestinians while setting up an anti-Iran coalition which, surprise! the Palestinians were not okay with.

    He also tried to corrupt Zelensky and licked Putin’s taint and attacked NATO, which encouraged Putin to think he could get away with invading Ukraine. And right now the Russians make no bones about the fact they want Trump back so Putin can get another tongue-bath.

    In short you remain an ignoramus, a liar, a MAGAt, and your cult leader is weak, terrified and hysterical.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    I said same day this happened that there’d be no alternative but to essentially write off the hostages. JKB’s macho fantasies aside, (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Statham, Neeson and Gina Carono, with really big guns!) the only hostages we’ll get back are those we pay for.

  15. JKB says:

    @Michael Reynolds: no alternative but to essentially write off the hostages

    True or not, do you think Joe Biden could win reelection writing off American hostages. I don’t believe there will be a rescue operation possibility, but Joe can’t abandon the hostages even as the media and the professors try to erase their existence. When Joe and the career gov’t functionaries try to abandon the hostages, their existence becomes large in the election. And Hamas will make or break the Democrats in November 2024.

  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    It’s important to remember that there’s two sets of hostages here: the Americans being held by Hamas, but also there are Americans who were in Gaza when this started and who are being prevented from leaving by the IDF

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    Hey, hey, there’s another straw! Grasp it!

    As we get close to the election here’s what’s going to happen: the Gaza war will be over, Hamas will have smeared themselves with even more shit by murdering hostages, which will put an end to any opposition to Israel. It’ll be too much even for Ilhan Omar and idiot college kids. The Ukrainians will have (actually already have) crossed the Dnieper, Russians will be (already are) abandoning their Crimea bases, Zelensky and the new Israeli PM will both come to the White House and praise Biden to the heavens.

    And your cult leader will have been exposed as not-really-rich, he’ll have to sell off his NY businesses in a fire sale and no, the Saudis won’t save him. Trump will be effectively bankrupt. Again. Georgia will find him guilty and issue an arrest warrant. More Trump co-conspirators will flip and the documents case will be seen as a slam-dunk, no matter how the Trumpy judge abases herself. And he’ll owe Jean Carroll another hundred million because the creature you worship is a rapist. (Remember when Republicans were actually against rape? Good times, good times.)

    Already Trump’s fundraising is falling behind Biden’s. His ‘campaign’ will be totally devoted to 2020 and Trump’s whining about the past, his past. He’ll lose. Again. And then he’ll either flee the country or die in jail. Broke.

    The only straws you actually have are high interest rates and their effect on housing, and gas prices. Inflation is already down. Employment and wages are up. You’ve got ‘my mortgage is too damn high,’ and, ‘gas is too expensive.’ That’s it. That’s all of it. This isn’t 1980 and Trump is not Reagan.

  18. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Hostage: a person seized or held as security for the fulfillment of a condition.

    What condition is Israel demanding we fulfill? What threat are they leveling at these ‘hostages’? In what sense are they hostages, then? Eh?

  19. just nutha says:

    @Michael Reynolds: The condition necessary has been declared to be the utter destruction of Hamas. The fact that the US has no ability to meet the condition* has not, so far, enabled them to leave. That they are not in any particular peril (except for not being able to leave a war zone) makes the term “hostage” a bit hyperbolic, I will admit, but I suspect that most ‘Murkans in their situation might consider themselves as held hostage all the same.

    *My suspicion is that Israel cannot fulfill the condition either given that they created (although far from unilaterally) the “greenhouse” in which Hamas is grown.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    @just nutha:
    Words have meaning. By your definition I’ve been held hostage repeatedly on passenger jets that refused to let me get off when they sat on the runway. These are not ‘hostages’ and Israel is not engaged in ‘genocide.’

  21. DK says:


    And Hamas will make or break the Democrats in November 2024.

    Red Wave 2022!!!11!!

    Forced birth, insurrection, book banning, and rightwing extremism has been breaking the Republicans in special elections all throughout 2023. Republicans are a trainwreck who cannot govern and are about to get wiped in upcoming Virginia elections.

    Trump gave Israeli defense intel to Hamas and via his buddy Putin. Americans do not want to defund Ukraine like Republicans do. Not a good look for conservative foreign policy, especially alongside the Trump crime family’s $2 billion Saudi bribe.

    Not to mention Trump stealing and sharing nuclear secrets, writing love letters to communist North Korea, colluding with Russian election meddling, receiving unexplained Chinese income, praising Putin’s warmongering, siding with Russia over Europe, and inciting a terror attack on Congress to destroy American democracy.

    Good luck selling treason and choas to American voters. Have Republicans elected a Speaker yet? Lol

  22. DK says:


    And Newsom, who is definitely not challenging Biden, is heading to Israel for California foreign policy interests.

    Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York has been in Israel since Tuesday. Maybe she’s running for president lol

  23. DK says:


    When Joe and the career gov’t functionaries try to abandon the hostages, their existence becomes large in the election.

    Looking forward to your compliments of Biden and the US diplomatic team:

    Breaking: Two U.S. hostages taken custody by Hamas have been released, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

    The two fell into the clutches of Hamas after the militants on Oct. 7 launched a surprise terror attack on Israel.

    You were saying?

    Did Trump ever get any American hostages released anywhere, besides the poor kid that came back from his communist North Korean buddies in a vegetative state?

    And weren’t Republicans just arguing last week that Biden should have abandoned American hostages held by Iran? I can’t keep up with where rightwing goalposts have been moved to this week.

  24. DK says:


    Have Republicans elected a Speaker yet? Lol

    Whoops, just heard molester-protector Gym Jordan is dropping out of the race. Yikes.

    How can voters trust Republicans to run the country when they can’t even run the House? Thd right can’t even figure out an internal Speaker election, I’m sure they’re going to be great at the 2024 elections lol

    Conservatives should focusing on rescuing their own Speaker nominees first, and leave the international hostage situations to the adults haha.

  25. JohnSF says:


    “… there could be many spec ops teams on hostage rescue if they find them…”

    Are you serious?
    This is an utterly absurd scenario.
    Multiple national teams with different languages, operating doctrines, command structures and communications systems thrown into an improvised operation in one of the nastiest urban environments on the planet is a recipe for disaster.
    Much as the UK military would love to rescue our people, I suspect generals would resign if ordered to implement this sort of insanity.

    That the administration was attempting to get Iran to agree to deal is known.
    That this had any connection to the Hamas attack is not, and I think it rather unlikely.
    The indications that Hezbollah were not prepped for an offensive inclines me to think Tehran was not in the decision loop.
    That Iran are now trying to shove themselves into the equation is entirely unsurprising. It’s now a question of deterring them, and Hezbollah, from doing so.

    As to North Korea, there seems to have been little change in their truculent acts of defiance and periods of relaxation either before, during or since the Trump administration.
    Kim and his generals are fully aware that to mount an all-out attack on South Korea is to sign their own death warrants.
    The only difference, to them, that their initiating nuclear weapons use would make, is that the their ends would come much more rapidly, and at a higher temperature.

    If you think the al-Saud would ever rush to into the fray on the side of Hamas, the allies of Iran, and Ikhwanites at that (an odd mix, but there you go), you really don’t know as much as you might think you do, or really need to, regarding the politics of the Middle East.

    And Trump had no plan that I can see for rendering China “non-viable” as a global actor.

    RFK? LOL. He’s a nutcase.

  26. reid says:

    @DK: Yep, the only things Republicans have to keep them going at all are gerrymandering, a rightwing propaganda machine, and voter apathy/ignorance.

  27. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    It’s remarkable, when the Trump exculpators get going, how often they alight on “Russia did not invade Ukraine on Trumps watch!”
    Without ever pausing to think “why not”?

    Putin may be mendacious and malevolent, but he’s not always and inevitably foolish.
    From 2015 to 2021 he was still hoping to use the “Minsk Process” to subordinate Ukraine to Russia without the risks and costs of an all-out invasion.

    The combination of Trump’s indifference (at best) and German pusillanimity gave him reason to hope this would work.
    But it turned out that Ukraine would not capitulate, Germany (to it’s credit at the end) and France would not press them to do so, and the US under Biden was not inclined to go for a re-enactment of Munich.

    Things could have turned out very differently, given the Trump administrations indifference re. “Minsk Process”
    This was one of the things that turned Johnson and other key Conservatives against Trump; the Russian gameplan was perfectly obvious to the old cynics of Whitehall.

  28. JohnSF says:

    Incidentally, it looks like the USS Carney is sailing in harms way.
    Latest reports are of it taking out around 20 missiles and drones fired by the Iran-aligned Houthi forces in northern Yemen; most on a northern trajectory, but some apparently aimed at it and other US ships.
    This could get awfully hot awfully quick.
    God bless the jack-tars.

  29. Michael Reynolds says:

    They might want to watch out in Yemen, I imagine Arleigh Burke class destroyers have counter-battery capability. If they don’t the Gerry Ford certainly does.