President Joe Biden has insisted he never underestimated Vladimir Putin amid uncertainty over how his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will affect his approval rating.
Mr Biden’s old remarks about Mr Putin were dredged up during a heated Q&A following his remarks on the invasion on Thursday – where he announced harsh new sanctions against the Russian leader and his allies.
The president was asked by Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy: “Did you underestimate Putin, and would you still describe him the way you did in the summer as a ‘worthy adversary?’”
Mr Biden replied by suggesting that Mr Doocy was twisting his words. “At the time he was – I made it clear he was an adversary and I said he was worthy,” he said. “I didn’t underestimate him.
“And I’ve read most of everything he’s written, did you read -” he began to probe before saying: “I’m not being a wise-guy.”
“You heard the speech he made, almost an hours-worth of speech as to why he’s going to Ukraine,” he continued. “He has much larger ambitions than Ukraine. He wants to, in fact, reestablish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about. And I think that his ambitions are completely contrary to the place where the rest of the world has arrived.”
Mr Doocy’s question echoed criticism from conservatives led by former president Donald Trump who have accused Mr Biden of being “weak on Putin”.
After Mr Biden made remarks about the situation on Tuesday, the official Twitter account for House Republicans posted a photo of him leaving the podium with the caption: “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like.”
Republican Sen Lindsey Graham doubled down on Wednesday, telling Fox News: “If Donald Trump were president, none of this crap would be going on because you got to be strong. When you’re weak is when everything falls apart. And Biden is weak, and Trump was strong.”
During Thursday’s Q&A, Mr Biden was faced with a number of harsh questions about whether the new sanctions will actually be effective given that ones announced earlier this week failed to deter Mr Putin’s invasion. He assured that they would result in a “cold day” for Russia but said only time would tell how effective they would be.
The president also refused to say why the US isn’t personally sanctioning Mr Putin.
He said he had not spoken with Mr Putin and had “no plans to talk” with him in the future.
“Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will end up costing Russia dearly economically and strategically,” he said.
“Putin will be a pariah on the international stage. Putin’s choice to make a totally unjustifiable war on Ukraine will have left Russia weaker and the rest of the world stronger.”
Ratings released earlier this week – notably prior to the invasion – showed more than half of Americans’ also weren’t satisfied with Mr Biden’s handling of the crisis.
In a Gallup poll published on Monday, just over a third of Americans said they approved of the White House’s response so far to the Russian aggression towards Ukraine which culminated late Wednesday night in a full-scale invasion of the eastern European nation.
Thirty-six per cent of Americans said that Joe Biden was doing an OK job handling “the situation with Russia”, a number which could slip further in the coming days now that it is clear that Mr Biden and other western leaders failed to dissuade Vladimir Putin from invasion.
Fifty-five per cent disapprove of the president’s handling of Ukraine, and according to the Gallup poll the president’s overall approval rating among Democrats is now at nearly the lowest point of his presidency so far; it currently sits at 79 per cent, down 3 points in a month.
The White House has strictly denied that US troops will engage Russian forces to defend Ukrainian soil, while announcing deployments of troops in Nato territories around eastern Europe. It has also refused to submit to demands from Moscow including the permanent exclusion of Ukraine from Nato and the cessation of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, to the Russian Federation.
Interestingly over that same one-month span between January and February of 2022 the president’s approval ratings ticked up among both Republicans and independents by two percentage points; those ratings now sit at 7 per cent and 35 per cent respectively.
Mr Biden’s disapproval rating now sits above 50 per cent for all major issues, with the economy his worst area (62 per cent disapproval). His handling of the Covid-19 pandemic is also facing new disdain from voters, a significant development given that trust on the issue of the ability to manage the outbreak was one of the issues where the president held an advantage over Donald Trump consistently in polling throughout the 2020 election.
It still remains one of his strongest issues according to Gallup, with 47 per cent of voters indicating they still approve of Mr Biden’s job performance in that area.
The Gallup poll tracks the opinion of voters every month. The most recent survey results were gathered between 1-17 February from a random sample of 1,008 US adults. The margin of error is 4 percentage points.