Biden Is Leading on the Global Stage. Some Voters Aren't Happy About It.

Nine months after the US Air Force shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina,  President Joe Biden is set to meet on Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping near San Francisco inside the opulent gardens of the Filoli estate. The goal of the highly anticipated meeting is to repair the diplomatic damage from the balloon episode, say White House officials, and find a way for the two nuclear powers to better compete economically without inadvertently blowing each other up.

But Biden's repair mission with Xi may put him out of step with the public, as it comes at a time when American views on China have tanked. Only 15% of Americans currently hold a favorable view of China, the lowest since Gallup began tracking public sentiment on China in 1979. The reasons for China now polling about as favorably as Congress include decades of U.S. manufacturing jobs moving to China, years of xenophobic rants from former President Donald Trump, and the continued ripple effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, for which some US leaders have said China deserves the blame.

It’s the latest example of Biden working to restore U.S. engagement on the world stage while a part of the American voting public is moving in the other direction. Biden has devoted much of his term to restoring faith in the U.S. as a reliable partner to its allies after four years of Trump trying to flip the tables on America’s long-standing commitments. But the isolationism Trump gave voice to hasn’t gone away.

On Ukraine, Biden’s effort to extend funding to Kyiv to defend itself from Russia’s continued onslaught is running into a small but vocal number of skeptical Republicans in the House and Senate. And in Israel, Biden’s facing pressure, largely from within his party, to temper his full-throated support for Israel defending itself against Hamas and Iran-backed proxy forces as civilian casualties in Gaza mount.

“There is a US-led world order that Biden is looking to protect and preserve,” says Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank. Isolationist ideas are a small but vocal part of both the Democrat and Republican voter base, says Schanzer. “They are a minority, but a vociferous minority.”

Schanzer predicts the rift within the Democratic Party over Biden's foreign policy will widen, particularly as Israel’s assault on Gaza continues.  “The longer the war goes, the more bloodshed, the more destruction, the harder I think it is going to be for Biden to ignore those voices, even if they’re a minority,” he says.

Long-term polling by Gallup of Democrats has shown sympathy for Israel in the Middle East situation declining over the past several years. Last year, for the first time in the poll, more Democrats were sympathetic toward Palestinians than Israelis. That trend continued earlier this year, with 49% of Democrats sympathizing more with Palestinians, versus 38% with Israelis.

Read more: ‘War Is Expensive’: How the Israel Aid Package Went From Big to Bigger

Biden may be more aligned with the broader country on the issue, perhaps positioning himself better in a general election. In the country as a whole, Americans' sympathies regarding the conflict in the Middle East generally lie with Israelis. The same Gallup poll found that in 2023, 54% of Americans sympathized with Israelis more and 31% with Palestinians, though that gap has narrowed in recent years.

Over the past several weeks, the U.S has mobilized ammunition and military planning support for Israel, and sent US Navy and Air Force firepower to the region to try and deter Iranian proxy forces from further escalating attacks against Israel. But Biden’s support for Israel in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that left more than 1,200 dead is increasingly paired with gentle admonitions. In recent days, as Israeli forces have surrounded hospitals in Gaza to take out Hamas fighter positions, Biden has said that hospitals needed to be protected and that he had counseled Israel to pause the fighting to allow the hostages held in Gaza to be released.

Further emphasizing this message this week will be Brett McGurk, Biden’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, who is traveling to Israel and the region. According to a White House description of McGurk’s itinerary, McGurk will not only discuss Israel’s security needs and efforts to get Hamas to release hostages held in Gaza, but will also pointedly bring up “protecting civilians in the course of military operations” as well as “the need to rein in violent extremist settlers in the West Bank.”

In California, Biden will try to set US-China relations on a new course. But that’s going to be hard to do. “It would be naive to put too much weight on this meeting,” says Matthew Kroenig, a political science professor at Georgetown University and a senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. The relationship between the two countries hasn’t gotten worse just because of a spy balloon or a trade imbalance.  “The reason relations are deteriorating is because China’s committing genocide, systematically cheating on the global trading system, its threatening its neighbors,” Kroenig says. “One meeting with Biden is not going to turn this relationship around.”

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