Back in July, CNN polling expert Harry Enten noticed something remarkable: President Biden’s job approval rating hadn’t budged during his first six months in office. This was good news for the White House. Unlike his predecessor, who never cracked 50 percent approval in a major poll conducted during his presidency, Biden was somewhat popular. His numbers had neither gone higher than 55 percent nor sunk below 51 percent. “It’s been the most stable for any president since the end of World War II,” Enten wrote.
It didn’t last. Enten’s column appeared just as Biden’s approval rating began a downhill slide. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, on July 26, Biden’s net approval was 10 points. Less than two months later, on September 13, his net approval was underwater at -3 points. In other words: By the time Americans returned from summer vacation, they had realized that Joe Biden’s version of “normalcy” isn’t what they’d had in mind. Maybe the sea breeze awakened their senses.
Pundits tried to explain how the president’s August went terribly wrong. Was it COVID-19, the economy, or Afghanistan? Try all the above. Biden is in trouble not because of his failures in any one crisis, but because of his general incompetence. His positive approval rating wasn’t merely the victim of unfortunate events. It vanished as the public watched Biden respond to those events—and flail.
Like bankruptcy, the 13-point swing against Biden happened in two stages: first gradually, then suddenly. It started like this. Biden’s numbers declined in early August as deaths from the Delta variant of the coronavirus increased at a geometric rate. At the same time, voters soured on the economy. Consumer pessimism wasn’t simply a function of virus-related capacity restrictions, mask requirements, labor shortages, and supply-chain slowdowns. It was also a consequence of rising inflation.
“Spontaneous references to high prices for homes, vehicles, and household durables rose to its worst level since the all-time record in November 1974,” wrote Richard Curtin of the University of Michigan in a June consumer survey. “These unfavorable perceptions of market prices reduced overall buying attitudes for vehicles and homes to their lowest point since 1982.” For months, the White House and its allies dismissed inflation concerns as scaremongering. They said the rise in prices was only temporary. But “temporary” is now looking more like “indefinite.” And as consumer sentiment depreciated, so did Biden’s job approval.
Then came stage two of Biden’s collapse. His approval rating dropped dramatically in the catastrophic weeks after the Taliban stormed Kabul on August 15. Voters watched the botched American retreat with horror and disgust. They recoiled at the administration’s reliance on terrorists for security around Kabul Airport during the evacuation. They reacted with sadness and fury when terrorists killed 13 U.S. servicemen and at least 60 Afghans. They couldn’t believe that the president left behind hundreds of American citizens, thousands of U.S. legal permanent residents, and tens of thousands of Afghan partners in the 20-year war against Islamic militancy and al-Qaeda. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s disapproval rating overtook his approval rating on August 30—the same day that the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan. As of this writing, he hasn’t recovered.
Will he? There is plenty of time before next year’s midterm elections for the public to reassess its views of the Biden presidency and put him above 50 percent approval once more. The best-case scenario for the White House looks like the following: The Delta wave passes, caseloads fall, and Americans forget about Biden’s farkakteh withdrawal from Afghanistan. The fading away of inflation would be nice, too. And if Democrats pull off the legislative logroll of the century and pass what the New York Times refers to euphemistically as a multitrillion-dollar “social policy bill,” voters may reward the creators of new entitlements to paid leave, universal pre-K, and two years of community college.
Still, there’s reason to doubt that Biden will regain his footing easily. There’s reason to believe he won’t defy historic precedent in 2022 by maintaining Democratic control of the House and Senate. That reason is Biden himself. Biden’s tough talk and bold plans are cover for a chief executive who’s just not very good at his job.
Nine months into office, the president has found it much easier to blame his predecessor and Republican governors for setbacks and mistakes than to change course and moderate his ambitions. The same man who said that “unity is our greatest strength” in a video marking the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks turns around and points fingers at his political adversaries, leads a party whose congressional leaders are hankering to transform America, and oversees a Justice Department that seems to open another investigation into GOP state governments on each day that ends in “y.”
This administration’s haplessness and buck-passing touch every issue. Biden dismantled the Trump administration’s border-security protocols and found himself unable to stanch record numbers of illegal crossings on the southern border. He delegated the border crisis to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose search for the “root causes” behind the surge in illegal immigration has taken her to Guatemala and Mexico and El Paso, but not anywhere close to a solution. Biden’s proposal to curb the rise in violent crime is to make it harder for law-abiding citizens to possess firearms—a non sequitur masquerading as action. Biden claims that inflation will subside when Congress passes his several-trillion-dollar spending plans and tax hikes, and OPEC gives in to his pleas to boost energy production. It’s hard to decide which is more shocking: His economic illiteracy or his willingness to return the United States to dependence on foreign oil.
Biden blamed Trump for an Afghan withdrawal deadline that he alone altered twice. Then he scolded the Afghan defense forces for melting away once he removed the close air support that the United States had provided for decades. Biden said that he withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan to protect the lives of U.S. troops. But more soldiers died in the August 26 attack at Kabul Airport than in any single day in Afghanistan since 2011. Biden said that despite our departure the United States will be able to combat al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan through an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capability. But that horizon is far, far away: America has no bases in Central Asia, and Afghanistan is a landlocked nation surrounded by our enemies. Biden said that he wants to focus on competition with China. He hasn’t backed up his strident rhetoric with action.
Biden declared our “independence” from the coronavirus on July Fourth. Then he spent two and a half months dithering as the Delta wave spread havoc in the Southeast and Midwest. He went after governors who banned school mask mandates, but he didn’t announce a major slate of proposals to increase vaccinations and mitigate Delta until September 9—by which time the summer wave had peaked. Mr. Unity has yet to “shut down the virus” as promised. But he has given Americans plenty of additional things to fight over and complain about. “There’s little doubt that the honeymoon is over for Biden,” election analyst Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report wrote recently. “The question now is if voters are still going to be happy in the marriage come next year.”
Happy? At this rate, they’ll be filing for divorce.
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