Commentary: How Joe Biden went from most voted-for to least-supported US president
A persistent pandemic, an Afghanistan disaster and poor messaging have been his Achilles’ heel. The mid-terms and the next presidential election in 2024 don’t bode well either, says Yale-NUS' Trisha Craig.
SINGAPORE: Joe Biden was elected in 2020 with a 7 million vote, four-point margin of victory and a decisive Electoral College tally.
He seemed to promise a drama-free, somewhat centrist competency to public policy at a time when the country was in the throes of the early COVID-19 pandemic and questioning the ability of the Trump administration to control it or the resulting recession.
Biden began his term in January with an approval rating above the 50 per cent mark. At 57 per cent approval, he was slightly behind the 60 per cent average over the post-World War II period but in good company with Richard Nixon, George W Bush and Bill Clinton.
Yet Biden’s initial approval ratings were more split across party lines than any president in recent memory, with 98 per cent of Democrats viewing the new president favourably compared with only 11 per cent of Republicans, many of whom rejected the legitimacy of the vote.
Such partisan division sets the backdrop to the evolution of the Biden presidency. In April, at the 100-day mark, Biden’s support remained fairly steady. At 53.4 per cent, he had the approval of a majority of Americans and continued his very high support among Democrats.
In fact, Biden’s perceived performance three months into his presidency was solid and cause for optimism among his advisors.
Close to three quarters of the public gave him high marks for his handling of the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine then. Polls also showed broad support for Biden’s infrastructure plan to overhaul America’s ageing infrastructure and add jobs.
Today, the situation has shifted dramatically. His support has eroded sharply - at 43 per cent approval, Biden is rated lower in his presidency now than any leader in the last 50 years (save for Donald Trump), and 71 per cent of Americans now say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
A WORSENING PANDEMIC SITUATION
The emergence of the Delta variant in July in the US despite vaccines becoming widely available meant a summer surge of illness, death and mask mandates.
People expecting to return to their pre-pandemic lives lost faith in Biden’s ability to govern.
Axios polling data shows that in June, over one-third of Americans thought their lives would be largely back to normal within six months but by October, that number had fallen to 13 per cent.
Responses to COVID-19 in the US have been particularly politicised: Democrats and Republicans are deeply split on vaccine mandates, mask requirements or even whether COVID-19 represents a real threat to public health.
But as the pandemic persisted, the country’s divisions sharpened. Biden was viewed by a majority of the country as responsible for its divisions.
BIDEN’S MANAGEMENT OF THE US ECONOMY
Another major stumbling block has been the public’s perception of the economy.
Throughout fall, economic issues have weighed heavily on Americans. This has to some extent always been Biden’s Achilles’ heel. Even during the campaign, voters were more likely to rate Trump ahead of Biden on ability to manage the economy.
Biden has two problems with respect to the economy. One is a deteriorating situation on things voters care deeply about. Gasoline prices, which have an outsized effect on presidential approval ratings, have soared to a seven-year high.
The pandemic has also affected global supply chains, with reports that Christmas shopping will be disrupted by the lack of goods.
Inflation is also hurting the president’s standing. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that over half (56 per cent) of the US public feels harmed by inflation and a majority feels it will only get worse.
The White House also belatedly changed its message on inflation, which it had previously insisted was a temporary phenomenon. With a 6.2 per cent increase in the price index taking its toll, both Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris have begun to talk about the difficulties facing families in speeches and gatherings.
Messaging is the core of the second problem for the Biden administration. When two thirds of the country believe the economy is in poor shape, it is a struggle to break through with positive news on growth, jobs and wages.
This is unfortunate because although such economic anxieties are real, the overall performance of the economy remains extremely strong. The Federal Reserve sees the US on course to finish out 2021 with a robust 5.9 per cent annual real growth rate.
DIFFICULTIES IN FOREIGN POLICY
Biden also faces difficulties in the foreign policy realm. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August with images of cities overrun by the Taliban and desperate scenes of civilians trying to leave the country undermined his image of competency.
A majority of Americans favoured ending the war and bringing troops home, leading observers to expect that Biden’s poll numbers would bounce back.
They did not, and Afghanistan hangs over today’s situation with the Ukraine. As Russia rattles sabres with threats to invade, the administration is being blasted by Republicans who criticise the White House for an insufficient show of credible US strength and claim it is damaging the US’s role and standing in the world.
Although there is some danger that the Biden administration’s preferred focus on Asia could be derailed by conflicts like Russia’s challenge to Ukraine, so far that does not appear to be happening.
A recent virtual Biden-Xi summit yielded no breakthroughs but kept lines of communication open. The surprise joint announcement between the two countries following the COP26 meeting on jointly meeting climate targets showed some cooperation between the superpowers is possible.
There is also more attention to ASEAN than in recent memory: Numerous members of the administration including vice-president Harris, secretary of state Blinken, and secretary of defense Lloyd Austin have visited the region.
Singapore for the first time in almost five years has a US Ambassador and there are plans for an ASEAN summit at the White House in early 2022.
While none of this may help Biden’s standing in the polls in the short run, it is important for the future of US foreign policy that he show progress on US foreign policy on Asia, particularly China.
LOOMING MID-TERM ELECTIONS
Lurking in the background of this slide for Biden are the 2022 mid-term legislative elections. The party in power almost always sees a decline of Congressional seats in the mid-terms. The question is how large a rout the Democrats will face.
Contests in early November did nothing to reassure the party. A Republican upset in the governor’s race in Virginia, a state Biden took by 10 percentage points, and an extremely and unexpectedly narrow victory in the blue state New Jersey gubernatorial contest were wake-up calls for the Democrats.
They highlight another threat to Biden: The factionalism of the Democratic party.
While he largely brought the party together in the 2020 election around opposition to Trump, the Democratic coalition is an uneasy mix of centrists, liberals and progressives.
Party infighting on Biden’s signature domestic legislation on infrastructure and social policy was on full display. Passage of the US$1 trillion infrastructure bill was held up by liberal democrats who wanted assurances on the accompanying package on social and climate policy.
Meanwhile, the bigger ticket item, the Build Back Better bill that focuses on social spending, has passed the House but faces uncertainty in the Senate. Centrist Democrats were instrumental in gutting provisions most popular with voters but not to corporate lobbyists, such as expanding dental and vision coverage.
The failure to pass legislation is taking a toll on Democrats and eroding support for Biden and his agenda. Biden, elected as someone who could build bipartisan support for popular programmes that would help regular Americans, seems incapable of unifying even his own party.
SALVAGING THE SITUATION
Looking ahead to 2024 when Biden has indicated he will run again, can he pull out of this slump? Something close to a 50 per cent approval rating is thought necessary to win.
Underlying fundamentals should help. The jobs numbers and wage growth are strong. The bottom 40 per cent of families are better off. Infrastructure spending will take years to really become noticeable, but job creation, which cuts across racial lines and helps blue-collar families, should become visible sooner.
Although it is notoriously difficult for the US government to get inflation under control, there are signs it may begin to moderate. The US, along with several other large countries, recently released tens of millions of barrels of oil from their strategic stockpiles. While not a panacea, this is stabilising gas prices at the pump in the short run.
Global supply chain issues, related to the surge in inflation, are tricky and unpredictable in light of COVID-19. Yet there is some sentiment that the worst is behind us as production in Asia rebounds.
While important parts of the supply chain like microchips may not improve for years, some semblance of recovery by early 2024 is critical for Biden’s re-election chances.
Still, 2024 is a long way off and there are many unknowns, making it difficult to predict whether Biden can recover.
One wild card is the Trump factor. His potential candidacy and hold over the Republican party means others are stymied for fear of looking disloyal. Although he beats Biden in a hypothetical election, increasingly damning information emerging about his role in the Jan 6 insurrection may decrease support among independents and fence-sitters.
Bringing the Democratic party closer together will be critical. Part of that depends on the outcome of the mid-terms and how different factions interpret the losses. Getting the vote out and pulling back groups like young people, Latinos, and Black voters is essential.
Finally, the great unknown is COVID-19. The public’s perception of the economy is tied to their views about the pandemic.
Fixing COVID and economic expectations is the common wisdom, but the appearance of the Omicron variant undermines the ability to fully control COVID-19.
That or another more virulent strain of the virus could doom Biden’s re-election chances, an ironic coda for a president who came to office with the expectation he was the one to beat it.
Trisha Craig is Vice President (Engagement) and Senior Lecturer of Social Sciences (Global Affairs) at Yale-NUS College. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not represent the views and opinions of Yale-NUS College or any of its subsidiaries or affiliates.