Swing voters want President Biden to display competence and strength. He’s meeting them only halfway, as we discovered in recent focus groups.
We interview “Trump-to-Biden” voters every month in our Swing Voter Project. Our most recent sessions were held the night after the State of the Union Address. They revealed both red flags and some positive signs for Biden and Democrats.
One of the top issues that concerned these 13 swing voters—eight independents, one Democrat, and four Republicans—was the war in Ukraine. Among the nine who have formed an opinion about how President Biden is handling Ukraine, six praised him.
“I think [President Biden] is being smart, and he’s being advised to be smart to move slow and be decisive,” said Bill, 64, from Gilbert, Arizona. “You do not want to box a country with nuclear weapons into a corner where there’s no way to get out. I think that it needs to be this continuous, escalating pressure to achieve what we want to do. I think he’s doing it correctly, and he’s trying to get—and he’s been successful in getting—the people most greatly affected—the Europeans—to be involved.”
But some were frustrated by Biden’s leadership.
“He’s allowing it to still go on,” said Lebene, 43, from Euless, Texas. “This shouldn’t be going on, and we have the ability as a nation to stop it.” When asked what she would do if she were in Biden’s shoes, she replied, “Well, maybe controlling the airspace. Again, it just takes a few fighter jets to shut down a lot of that stuff going on on the ground, so there are more decisive things we can do, then, just to talk and talk and talk.”
While six praised Biden’s handling of the crisis, only three said Biden comes across as a “strong leader.” Those who doubt his leadership strength said things like this:
Paul, 35, from Livonia, Michigan: “In the Super Bowl interview, Lester Holt asked him about the transitory nature of inflation. Joe Biden said six months ago inflation is going to go away; it’s a transitionary thing. Lester Holt asked him what I thought was a very simple, straight-forward question, and Joe’s response was to call him a ‘wise guy.’ He didn’t respond or engage with the question in any way. . . . That’s not leadership at all. Just answer the question. It was very frustrating for me.”
Shawn, 52, from Philadelphia: “I question his cognitive abilities, even more so now with the world falling the hell apart. I don’t know that he, to the world, presents himself as a strong leader, especially when [he] talks and [he’s] mumbling words. I’m worried that he might come off as a buffoon.”
Lebene: “He doesn’t have the forcefulness, I guess, I would want to see associated with a strong leader. Some leaders would say something, and you know you’ll be scared whenever they speak. I don’t think he quite drives that fear home . . . for people.”
Swing voters’ concerns about Biden’s leadership skills contrast with perceptions about former President Trump. Six of 13 respondents told us they don’t believe Russia would have invaded Ukraine if Trump were still president.
Magaline, 49, from Atlanta, Georgia commented, “[Trump] is a bully. He was explicit in a sense, letting [Putin] know, ‘Don’t try it because I will pull the trigger.’ That was scary for the American people. I think Trump kind of scared everybody . . . I think all the countries would stay in line with Trump [because he’s unpredictable].”
“[Trump’s] relationship [with Putin] may have kept Putin from doing what he did,” remarked Erik, 51, from Feasterville, Pennsylvania. “It seemed like a very odd dynamic, and I’m absolutely not saying it was good, but I do feel that in some way Trump was enamored by Putin, and I think that had some sort of an effect on Putin. He had a certain respect for Donald Trump in a weird, strange kind of way, and I think it may have kept [Putin] from doing what he’s doing.”
Only two members of the group were optimistic that the world situation will get better in the next six months. But nine said that Biden is competent to fix America’s problems.
“Being a career politician has pros and cons, but I do believe that experience in the Senate and as Vice president will come as an asset for Joe Biden, that experience to work across the aisle,” explained Brian, 43, from Lewisville, Texas. “I think he has the competency. He has the ability, but I think we’re under extraordinary challenges today between the destruction of COVID and the tribalism of our party system.”
“I already feel better about where we are as a country. I’m not constantly checking the news and scared about what I’m going to find. [President Biden] has a good support team that’s there to help him, to lean back on,” said Misty, 42, from Fort Worth, Texas.
The clear implication from this feedback is for Biden to promote the competency narrative and accentuate the positive that swing voters already see. He’s unlikely ever to be viewed as a strong leader by many of these respondents who want the toughness Trump projects, so there’s little point in trying.