Biden’s Polls and Magical Thinking

The President's approval has plummeted, largely because of factors outside his control.

from PxHere

After a longish honeymoon with extremely high approval ratings for a polarized country, President Biden has now been underwater for several weeks running. Naturally, Democrats are panicking.

Here is the trend as shown in the RealClearPolitics aggregate:

Here’s longtime political commentator Al Hunt:

One quality Joe Biden brought to the presidency was competency, certainly compared to his predecessor, a low bar. More than a few Republicans concurred.

That’s why the most alarming numbers in the Quinnipiac poll this past week were — by 55 percent to 42 percent — Biden’s negative ratings on competency. This goes to the core of his presidency.

Unease also is reflected in background conversations with a few Democrats, strategists, donors and officeholders. This is not just the passions of the moment, they fear, but a deeper concern that this White House may not be up to daunting challenges.

The most current, hardly the only, concern of Democrats is over the multitrillion-dollar social spending measure. For Biden, and most congressional Democrats, this is do-or-die, certainly for next year’s elections — and probably for 2024 too.

The White House has fumbled both the outside and inside role. Publicly it has permitted the agenda to be dominated by the initial size of the package — $3.5 trillion. This is a number Republicans — and a few Democrats — seized upon, ignoring that it’s over 10 years. The dialogue instead should be over the specific proposals for child care, home health care assistance, education, health care and climate. They all are very popular.

The inside role also has been problematic. The White House hasn’t always been on the same page as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will be the central figure in any success. The president made a pitch in person to the House Democratic Caucus more than a week ago to — at best — a mixed reaction.

The competence issue really flared with Afghanistan, not the U.S. withdrawal — the only sensible course — but the failure to anticipate the speed with which the American-backed government and military collapsed. Republicans, brushing aside that the withdrawal deal was first cut by Donald Trump and most of the many Afghanistan miscalculations were made by Republicans, have stayed on the attack here.

The president compounded his problems by declaring his military advisers never counseled him to retain a small force; in subsequent congressional testimony, the generals contradicted him. This enabled right-wingers to accuse the president of dishonesty and even to raise the specter of scandal. It was a self-inflicted wound for Biden.

A White House populated by experienced staffers has been too slow in making crucial appointments, with around 400 positions yet to be named. Biden never appointed an envoy to Afghanistan, and it took seven months before Nick Burns was nominated to be ambassador to China, a critical post. The situation gets worse as obstructionists such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) block confirmations when they do get to the Senate.

A report in POLITICO this morning (“‘The president’s decline is alarming’: Biden trapped in coronavirus malaise“) is even more alarmist:

In a focus group last week, Pennsylvania Democrats one after another articulated the issue vexing top White House aides, party operatives in Virginia and voters in Georgia: Why isn’t President Joe Biden’s diminished job rating rebounding?

All nine participants from Tuesday’s session gave Biden C- grades or lower. And their answers circled back to a similar point: The pandemic and the many ways it continues to hinder normal life is souring their views of Biden.

One woman said she wanted to buy a car but supply chain issues were delaying new shipments to the dealership. A man complained about understaffed restaurants.

“There is a malaise,” said Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who became a vocal supporter of Biden in 2020, and led the focus group of Democratic voters. “People don’t feel like their lives have been improved. They did sort of feel that promises aren’t being kept.”

Nearly nine months into office, Biden and his team contend that the ravages of the pandemic are starting to recede due to his actions. They point to polling showing strong support for his legislative agenda, anchored by physical infrastructure and social and climate spending packages. They note how rare it’s been for Democratic lawmakers to break ranks, even during this current, difficult period.

But Biden’s standing with Americans has plummeted, with his average approval rating plunging by nearly 15 points since late June. He’s seen a drop among Democrats and even more with Republicans, but the decline has been particularly steep among independent voters. In the same time period, the president has scrambled to salvage his domestic initiatives amid infighting among Democrats over their size and sequencing. He has presided over a chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan and faced criticism for his response to the inhumane treatment of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But it’s the pandemic that looms over it all, making it all the more difficult for the White House to turn back the slide.

Longwell said she was struck by how similar the concerns of Democrats sounded to Republicans, and also by how little Democrats in her surveys blame Republicans for standing in Biden’s way. It’s a point echoed by nearly a dozen strategists who have compiled or reviewed research into Biden’s precipitous decline.

Biden and Democrats in Washington “are in a morass of fighting with each over bills that nobody knows what’s in,” Longwell added. “It just looks like a cluster.”

So, the usual caveats apply here: While not enthusiastic about much of his agenda, I voted for Biden as a no-brainer alternative to Donald Trump. If he’s the nominee in 2024, I’ll almost certainly vote for him again even though I’ll have very strong concerns about his health and mental acuity, given how unlikely the Republicans will nominate a plausible alternative.

Still, most of the hand-wringing here is simply magical thinking. Biden has made some mistakes but even the President can only do so much. He can’t simply wish a different set of realities into existence.

Of the complaints above, I’ve been most critical of Biden’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal and his lying about what military advisors told him. But, given that I and most of his Democratic Party critics approved of the ultimate decision to withdraw from that conflict, we must acknowledge that, even with better planning, it was going to be a cluster. And that, after the initial debacle, the operation was quickly salvaged and massive numbers of refugees were successfully evacuated to safety.

Similarly, while I think Biden, Pelosi, and company have bungled their messaging on the massive spending packages, sending up the popular pieces as stand-alone bills was simply not an option. Even if they could have somehow waved a magic wand and gotten Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema on board, there is no magic powerful enough to overcome a Republican filibuster. So, the only hope was to ram them through the process via the reconciliation process, which allowed critics to attack otherwise popular measures based on the sheer massiveness of the spending.

I’m as frustrated as the next guy that we’re again wearing masks and facing restrictions ten months into the vaccine era. Not to mention the fact that people are still dying in droves. But I’m at a loss as to how that’s Joe Biden’s fault. He’s done everything imaginable to encourage people to get vaccinated and, after delaying too long for my tastes, ultimately ordered federal agencies and large businesses to require vaccinations as a condition of employment. But his predecessor so poisoned the well that a huge percentage of the population believes this is some sort of conspiracy.

And, look, Presidents get blamed for things out of their control, like gas prices, all the time. It goes with the territory and sometimes works in their favor. But what the hell Biden is supposed to do to unclog the ports, get people to go back to dangerous jobs in the midst of a pandemic, and the like is beyond me.

UPDATE: The first commenter below reminds me of Kevin Drum‘s assertion from last week that “Joe Biden’s approval rating isn’t really a big deal” because it’s typical. As evidence, Drum produces this comparison using Gallup for consistency:

Certainly, the compressed scale makes it look quite consistent. I don’t have a subscription to Gallup to manipulate the graphs but here are screencaps of the Inauguration Day through October 11 RealClearPolitics charts for the same folks (Biden’s is already atop this post):

It’s really hard to glean much from this exercise.

  • Trump essentially started underwater and dropped only four points in approval—but rose 11 or so in disapproval.
  • Obama went from the euphoria of The First Black President/Hope!/Change! to reality and a fairly sizeable drop—but stayed well above water.
  • Bush went from outrage over being the first popular-vote loser in modern times to win the presidency, stayed pretty stead, and then got a massive Rally Effect from the 9/11 attacks.
  • Biden’s approval dropped a little more than Obama’s and disapproval shot up even more than Trump’s.
FILED UNDER: Joe Biden, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    A week or so ago Kevin Drum posted a chart showing Biden’s “plummeting” approval following the same trajectory as his three immediate predecessors. It’s a constant in American politics that his rating will drop until he produced rainbows and unicorns. And that the supposedly liberal MSM will portray any falling off for a D as an unprecedented failure.

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  2. Dude Kembro says:

    In 2015-16, one of Hillary’s errors — that she now admits — was not crafting a forceful counternarrative to Emailghazigatepalooza. She was too establishmentarian and journalist-respectful to say, “This is a nothingburger witch hunt based on sexist double-standards.” In her telling, she knew there was no there there, that she would be cleared. But underestimated the toll on her high post-State approval in the meantime.

    Democrats may be making a similar 2022 error, by not trumpeting Biden’s accomplishments + contrasting those with Treason Trump’s failures and the threat of Fascism 2024.

    E.g., Terry McCauliffe doing his best Alison Grimes impression, running from the BBB bill’s popular provisions on drug pricing, fixing climate change, rural broadband, Medicare expansion etc. Democrats too often run scared at the first sign of stress. It’s weak, uninspiring electoral poison.

    Dementia Donald’s approval was always crap. He was unlikeable, unpopular, and his corporate socialism economy was great for rich and mediocre for the working classes (and showed early signs of recession pre-pandemic). Drama Queen Donnie left us with mass death, record debt, rising crime, social unrest, and record job loss. Yet he’s convinced many that life under Trumpism was great. How? Because he and his GQP acolytes say so ad nauseum, while the press romanticizes Trump voters.

    Biden’s stimulus, anti-poverty recovery bill, and childcare tax credits lifted millions from poverty. Unemployment is down. Stocks are up. 76%+ of the country has gotten at least partially vaccinated. Folks are traveling, partying, and gathering again. And he ended the endless Afghan war. That’s a very good record to champion, even before BIF and BBB pass.

    But because the right and its corporate media lapdogs say life under Biden is awful, folks have internalized that approval-destroying narrative. They are Hillary-ing him. And once again, Democrats are not closing ranks and pushing back forcefully enough.

    Why? Timidity? Stupidity? Yes, the media is overhyping Biden’s “plummeting” polling, which is historically average for a first-year president. Yes, the pandemic likely to be solved before the midterms. Yes, Democrats have time to hone a 2022 message. But 2016 shows what happens when you wait too long. They need to get at it.

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  3. Jim Brown 32 says:

    This was inevitable. Its all in keeping with the arc of journalistic storytelling and quite predictable.

    Media builds up
    Media tears down
    Media rebuilds
    Media tears down

    Thats the pattern. Thats what sells papers. Spring next year they’ll be building Biden up again for the midterm cycle and Republicans will be in the teardown portion of the arc.

    For the sophisticated political connoisseur..it pays to understand that most public sentiment is manufactured. Let me come to your job and start a whisper campaign that you suck. And tell story after story about you…framed from the perspective that you suck. Guess what? Most of your coworkers with think you really do suck.

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  4. Dude Kembro says:

    I also think the press is oblivious to palpable, visceral disgust with Trump and anger at his Republican enablers. Mostly because the press and pollsters think only working class white voters matter, save for occasional head nods to the suburbs.

    But iffy 2022 analysis has also been animated by the Biden campaign’s goody-goody choice to forbid 2020 foot canvassing, because pandemic. That decision left a lot of Democratic votes untapped, allowing Republicans to capture close races and turning Trumpism into the fool’s gold of politics. I don’t think any major media has explored this, I’m surprised 538 hasn’t crunched numbers on it either.

    Reporters have whiffed on Democratic enthusiasm multiple times since 2016. But the media has memory-holed its concern trolling of doom and gloom for Democrats in 2017 (NC gov), 2018, 2019 (KY and LA gov), and 2020 (GA runoffs, CA recall).

    I suspect more memory-holing if Terry McCauliffe wins comfortably and shows that anti-Trumpism is still potent in juicing Democratic turnout.

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  5. JKB says:

    You think gasoline prices are causing unhappiness, wait till the natural gas bills for winter heating start rolling in. NG is double what it was when Biden took his swipe at fracking just days after taking over.

    Food prices are rising and Christmas may be cancelled by Fauci or by the lack of stock on the shelves. Firing workers over the vaccine mandate is apparently okay but heaven forbid those workers take an afternoon off in protest like the employees of Southwest did.

    Seattle is poised to fire 400 officers from their already short-staffed force over the vaccine.

    Seems like it might be a rough winter for the regime.

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  6. Scott F. says:

    People are either witless (the Trumpist party) or at wit’s end (everybody else). Our system can’t handle the current condition and the system is impossible to reform. Magical thinking is a last resort, but that’s what we are down to now.

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  7. Raoul says:

    If one looks at governors’ approval ratings, they are also under water regardless of party. I think the pandemic is the main reason, and even though our elected officials can do so much, people are still unhappy. Also, approval ratings and elections measure different things, Gov. Newsom was underwater for most of the recall election, and some polls showed that he was very closed to being recalled, yet he prevailed by 25%. Another factor on approval ratings, people are always more willing to vent than to praise, so approval ratings always have a more negative finding (again compare elections with approvals).

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  8. @JKB: It is practically an apocalypse out there.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JKB: Translation: RUN AWAY!!! SUN AWAY!!!

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  10. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Thanks, James. Good analysis.

    Only one thing: Unless Politico improves when Blake Hounshell goes to the New York Times, I think we should avoid quoting it except as a terrible example, and even then think twice before spreading its garbage.

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  11. Kathy says:

    Democrats are bad at messaging.

    For instance here they have Sir Anthony of Fauci the All-Powerful, and no one but a few nuts know this.

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  12. Andy says:

    Sure, Presidents get credit or blame even when they’re not directly responsible. But the President has made a lot of own-goals which hasn’t helped his credibility. That the establishment has come to the conclusion that even most of those aren’t Biden’s fault, says more about the establishment than anything else. In particular, it’s amazing the extent to which this administration’s miscalculations on Afghanistan have been waved away via post-hoc rationalizations or blame-shifting to Trump.

    It’s been a month since Biden announced there would be an OSHA vaccine mandate and there’s still no mandate. The administration’s confusion on covid boosters as well as the confusing covid guidance generally that often seems based on things other than science isn’t helping his credibility. Failing to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the Australian sub deal that pissed the French off was a particularly bizarre lapse.

    A personal pet peeve of mine is that the FDA is still slow-rolling testing approval, despite the ample evidence of how good cheap and easily available testing is in Europe and most of the rest of the world. And Biden still hasn’t even nominated a new FDA head!

    Then there is the economy, which is in a weird state that doesn’t make sense to me and is unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. Biden can’t be blamed for that, but he’s also not doing or saying much about it.

    All that’s added on the normal post-honeymoon decline.

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  13. George says:

    Does Biden’s dropping support matter as long as the GOP leader is Trump? You can disapprove of what Biden is doing while simultaneously holding that Trump was (and would be in the future) far worse — in fact this is the normal way people think. You might think your mechanic or plumber could stand to dramatically improve, but still prefer their work to that of other places you’ve tried.

    I’d be extremely surprised if even 1% of the people who approved of Biden a few months ago but who now disapprove would change their vote from Biden to Trump.

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  14. Dude Kembro says:

    @George:

    That the establishment has come to the conclusion that even most of those aren’t Biden’s fault, says more about the establishment than anything else.

    Biden’s approval with Democrats is ~80-90% depending on the poll.

    I would say “the establishment” are the yt guys who’ve swallowed whyte media men’s conventional anti-Biden wisdom. Not the poor families benefitting from childcare credits or the women, black folk, queer and queer-friendly folks who comprise the Democratic base and who’ve resisted this phony sky-is-falling narrative.

    Funny how the press starts pushing malaise whenever we have a president who places working families ahead of corporations and the rich investor class. Establishment indeed.

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  15. Dude Kembro says:

    @JKB:

    Food prices are rising and Christmas may be cancelled by Fauci…Seems like it might be a rough winter for the regime.

    Doom, gloom, fear, negativity, paranoia, and whining, and concern trolling seem to be all the right has left. Its sad, really.

    I’m old enough to remember when the talking heads declared Ron DeFascist winner of the pandemic while swearing Gavin Newsom was due for a rough recall vote. And before that, how Biden’s Georgia win was a gravity-defying fluke, surely not to be repeated in *both* Senate runoffs.

    The Virginia governor’s race should be clarifying about who’s in for a rough winter. As my Southern grandma would say, “Y’all haven’t learnt yet I see, but y’all gon learn.”

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  16. Mister Bluster says:

    It is practically an apocalypse out there.

    It may even be as bad as Texas after a snowstorm. But don’t worry JKB’s kindred spirits will have everything under control.
    “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!”

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  17. wr says:

    @Andy: “Failing to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the Australian sub deal that pissed the French off was a particularly bizarre lapse.”

    You got it, man. Afghanistan and Australia. Because if there’s one thing that Americans really, really care about, it’s foreign policy.

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  18. Console says:

    @Dude Kembro:

    Drama Queen Donnie left us with mass death, record debt, rising crime, social unrest, and record job loss. Yet he’s convinced many that life under Trumpism was great. How? Because he and his GQP acolytes say so ad nauseum, while the press romanticizes Trump voters.

    What Trump pulled off is even more brilliant then that. He also managed to convince his supporters that all the bad things that were happening, were only happening to blue states. Rising crime was allegedly restricted to blue cities. The recession was the fault of blue governor restrictions. Social unrest was the fault of liberals that hate America… Any right wing counter demonstrations were peaceful protests, and to the extent they weren’t, it was leftists pretending to be right wingers… Etc etc.

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  19. Dude Kembro says:

    @Console:

    He also managed to convince his supporters that all the bad things that were happening, were only happening to blue states.

    You’re right, obviously. But will the cognitive dissonance hold when American quality of life is benefitting from the BIF and BBB overhauls no Republican voted for? When the pandumbic is effectively over in highly-vaxxed blue states and cities by summer 2022, while the Republican base its still killing itself off to own the antivaxxers?

    I don’t think the full effect of these GQP own-goals will be known til the day after the 2022 election, when we wake up to find Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia have two Democratic senators apiece. But I’m sure the New York Times and Politco news desks will be ready to prompt the usual Democratic handwringing with stories on where the left underperformed, how Pelosi is a liability, and why Biden’s successor will lose to Trump in 2024 unless s/he goes full Manchin.

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  20. Dude Kembro says:

    …here are screencaps of the Inauguration Day through October 11 RealClearPolitics charts for the same folks (Biden’s is already atop this post)…

    Any explanation why RCP’s polling aggregate has Biden’s approve-disapprove at an alarming 43.3%-52%, while over at 538 it’s a mere margin-of-error gap of 44.6%-49.2%?

    RCP has a rightward editorial bent while 538’s is lefty, but ‘the data are what the data are’ so whar gives?

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  21. Andy says:

    @wr:

    You got it, man. Afghanistan and Australia. Because if there’s one thing that Americans really, really care about, it’s foreign policy.

    If you look at the actual polls and even the analysis of the polls it quickly becomes apparent that Afghanistan is driving a lot of the downward pressure on Biden’s numbers.

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  22. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    Failing to lay the diplomatic groundwork for the Australian sub deal that pissed the French off was a particularly bizarre lapse.

    Yes, France, who was working against the US Pacific strategy vis-a-vis China, was angry when the US convinced Australia* that they were better off joining a coalition to strongly resist China’s encroachments rather than keep going with the French non-confrontational approach.

    *Or more precisely, the egregious bad behavior of the Chinese such as banning Australian coal imports because Australian officials had called out the Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang, getting caught attempting to bribe government ministers, and pressuring Australian officials of Chinese descent to place China’s interests before Australia’s, to name just a few, convinced the Australians that France’s decade old strategy of a non-confrontational approach to China was not working.

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  23. keef says:

    LOL

    The devil made him do it………..

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  24. Gustopher says:

    @JKB:

    Seattle is poised to fire 400 officers from their already short-staffed force over the vaccine.

    Firing the officers who are most radicalized by right wing nonsense would give the department a chance to rebuild, honestly. A few bad apples spoil the barrel, but if they want to get out, more power to them (just not police power… Go, live your lives elsewhere).

    We have had a problem with excessive force, racism and incompetence from the Seattle PD. If we can get it down to just incompetence, it’s a big win. Fewer police riots might be nice, too.

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  25. Dude Kembro says:

    @Gustopher:

    Firing the officers who are most radicalized by right wing nonsense would give the department a chance to rebuild, honestly.

    This. There’s gonna be a handful of good folks with legitimate concerns lost to these kinds of firings, but as a pithy tweet put it (paraphrasing), vaccine-or-test mandates are ridding us of teachers who don’t believe in critical thinking, healthcare workers who don’t believe in science, and police officers who don’t believe in the common good.

    Not necessarily a bad thing.

    And note: it’s vaccine-OR-TEST. In many cases, those quitting or getting laid off could opt for a weekly nose swab in lieu of getting vaccinated. I don’t feel bad for them.

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