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More of the Same Won't Rescue Biden
The White House needs to start acknowledging Americans’ concerns rather than pretending they don't exist.
More than anything else, President Joe Biden won the presidential election because he presented himself as a competent and steady hand who could replace the chaotic Trump presidency. As The New York Times noted in 2020, Biden’s “central message” was that he was a “stable, experienced leader.”
With this winning message, Biden was able to defeat both his Democratic primary rivals and Donald Trump. After a tumultuous four years, many Americans were ready for a boring but effective president who could simply make things work as they should.
But Americans are starting to find that Biden isn’t living up to his promise to deliver that competence. Consequently, his popularity has taken a beating over the past few months. According to FiveThirtyEight’s aggregate of public opinion surveys, the president’s favorability has dropped to around 43 percent. While he is not nearly as unpopular as the former president was when he left office, Biden is still significantly underwater.
Polling also finds the president’s approval ratings falling among a range of groups, from independents (where his approval rating fell from around 50 percent in June to 35 percent in late October) to African Americans (around 80 percent to just below 70 percent over the same period) to Hispanics (over 65 percent to below 50 percent).
Issue polling reveals that a few key factors are driving Biden’s decline. Just 35 percent of Americans approve of how the president is handling immigration. As Americans witness chaotic scenes of migrants from Central America, Haiti, and elsewhere at the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s clear that the administration has lost the public’s confidence on that issue.
Chaos is also likely the reason behind why so many Americans disagree with Biden’s handling of the war in Afghanistan, where his approval rating is lower still, at 34 percent. While there was strong public support for withdrawing from Afghanistan, most Americans found fault with how that withdrawal was conducted.
Meanwhile, rising inflation also appears to be dragging the president down. A poll from Politico and Morning Consult found that 89 percent of voters are concerned about inflation and that 62 percent think that the Biden Administration’s policies are very or somewhat responsible for rising inflation.
Finally, we should remember that Biden promised he would “shut down the virus,” referring to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. One poll shows just 44 percent of Americans are “very” or “somewhat” confident that Biden can bring about a quick post-pandemic recovery. Cliff Young, the president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs, noted that Biden hasn’t been able to demonstrate what moving past the pandemic would look like. “The problem is convincing those who are vaccinated that they have the tools to navigate a COVID world,” he noted, adding that “people are confused” because “there’s no sense of what the endgame is.” And while more Americans view Biden’s response to the coronavirus positively than negatively, his net approval on the issue collapsed from 30% in June to 4% today.
The botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the crisis at the border, inflation, and the ongoing pandemic have shattered Biden’s image as a competent leader. Additionally, his decades in Washington have not prevented him from mismanaging issues like Afghanistan and the border, nor have they guaranteed his ability to get bipartisan legislation (notwithstanding the recently passed infrastructure bill) through Congress.
Of course, Biden is not solely responsible for failing to fix all the country’s problems. But he is responsible for failing to acknowledge and address issues as they arise. For instance, Biden spent much of this year downplaying the surge in migrants showing up at the border, suggesting it was just a seasonal issue even when data showed this was unlikely. The administration failed to clarify a false story of Border Patrol agents striking Haitian migrants with their reins at a time when it was coming under fire for failing to prevent thousands of people from gathering and being held under an overpass in Del Rio, Texas.
The administration has pursued a similar path on the economy. As inflation continues to cut into American wallets and supply chain disruptions worry consumers, Biden spent the summer downplaying the prospects of long-term inflation. Only last week did Biden finally address the issue head-on. Even if Biden’s summer projections prove correct, and the current trends do taper off next year, he took far too long to express sympathy with Americans concerned about their economic situation.
It’s too early to forecast Biden’s political fortunes or those of his political party. Plenty of presidents who have hit rough patches in their approval rating go on to be reelected and become fairly popular. President Obama is a good example: his approvals fell to the low forties for much of 2011, and he still came back to defeat Mitt Romney the next year and ended his presidency with approval ratings in the mid-to-high fifties.
But it’s clear that Biden’s honeymoon period is over. Most Americans may have been exhausted by the Trump presidency, but that doesn’t mean they have no expectations for President Biden.
The White House should acknowledge Americans’ concerns about the hardships we’re experiencing in both domestic and foreign policy. Reasoning with the public and admitting missteps in Afghanistan or at the border isn’t a sign of weakness but one of strength.
Strong leaders can reason with their people about when things go wrong. Continuing to spin and telling Americans things are going better than they really are asks them to disbelieve their own eyes, and it’s unlikely to lift Biden’s sagging ratings.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter where he writes about current affairs at inquiremore.com.