HAVE ANY voters demanded more of their leaders than modern Americans? The idea came to her columnist while she was listening to a group of eight Georgians, Ohioans and Pennsylvanians, all under 30 and college-educated, weigh in on President Joe Biden this week. it wasn’t pretty
“Covid is the worst there has ever been and the government is basically doing nothing about it,” said Lydia, speaking from Philadelphia. “We’re not even using the good parts of Donald Trump, if he had any,” Desiree said in Atlanta. “I don’t know what kind of powers Biden has,” said Sara, another Georgian, “but I feel like he should be doing a lot more.” When asked to rate the president, the group, which had been convened remotely by Sarah Longwell, a conservative activist, gave him four C’s, three D’s and one F. And it wasn’t a hostile crowd. All members of the group were Biden voters and none regretted voting for him. In fact, if they were asked to support the president again in 2024, they all said sadly, they probably would.
With friends like these, Biden might ask, who needs a crowd of voters convinced he’s a senile socialist stealing the election? Anyway, he has them. After a year of being told by conservative loudmouths that the president has dementia, most Republicans believe this to be the case. Together, these disenchanted Democrats and Trump’s misled voters have made Biden just about the most unpopular president since records began. Only 42% of Americans approve of his efforts. Only Trump, at 39% at the same point in his term, received a worse rating.
To explain this debacle, most commentators have focused on Biden’s weaknesses. Verbose and error-prone, both too cautious and too moody, the 79-year-old rarely makes Democrats’ hearts race even before he gets older, as he has remarkably done in recent years. The modesty of his talents was so obvious on the campaign trail that it seemed almost a perverse selling point: evidence supporting his promise to restore discreet normalcy to government. But with his predecessor out of the picture for now, that promise seems less compelling. And Americans find themselves being led through tumultuous times by their least charismatic and politically capable president since George HW Bush.
Yet while it’s always tempting to criticize the politician, Biden’s shortcomings are only a marginal reason for his unpopularity. Chief among them is the sad reality that half the electorate was against him from the start. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Trump was the first modern president who was not endorsed by a significant minority of his opponent’s supporters early in his term. By contrast, the fact that Biden started with an approval rating two percentage points higher than his share of the popular vote seemed like an achievement. But relentless criticism and disinformation from the right soon reversed that. According to the modeling The EconomistCorrelating historical presidential approval ratings with measures of partisanship, a generic president might be expected to have a 46% approval rating at this point in his first term.
The resurgence of covid-19 and related economic failures have made that slide even more inevitable. Despite the overall vigor of the economy, an alternative poll model, which correlates presidential approval with inflation and unemployment, also puts the generic president at 46%. That Biden’s ratings are even lower than the models predict is likely due in large part to the virus itself. Although most focus group participants understood that he has limited power to crack down on the anti-mask, anti-vaccine mafia that has exacerbated America’s fights against Covid, most blamed him for not doing so. in any case. “If you don’t have someone in charge, there is no control,” said one participant.
This analysis is not to ignore Biden’s mistakes. The debacle in Afghanistan, which helped fuel his slide, was a howl. The administration underplayed his achievement by forcing a trillion-dollar infrastructure upgrade and overestimated his ability to approve additional climate and social spending. He also allowed that package to be defined by its cost, not its content, ultimately making an effort to get the mercurial Senator Joe Manchin through. However, the likelihood that a more inspiring president, who made none of those mistakes, would be nearly as unpopular as Biden suggests that his importance has been overstated.
It follows that Mr. Biden’s ability to regain his footing appears limited, despite a modest improvement in his efforts of late. He has delivered some fine speeches, including a well-timed jab at his predecessor on the anniversary of the Capitol riots and some remarks on economic recovery that sensibly focused on price increases. Still, the administration’s hopes of winning back disaffected Biden voters, the only guy he probably has a fighting chance with, seem naive.
These disaffected Democrats tend to be relatively young, out of touch, and unlikely to consume the mainstream media. Only one of the focus group members watched cable news; the rest got their data from social media, where the president’s speeches cause little stir. Furthermore, some in the group displayed such an exaggerated view of presidential power that Biden’s modest expression of empathy and implicit admission of his failure on inflation seemed destined to leave them cold.
Failure is the only option.
This is yet another new way that presidents are primed to fail. In response to misleading media coverage and congressional gridlock, many voters, especially on the left, have come to imagine that the office possesses “superman powers” that are both staggering and non-existent, says Jeremi Suri, a scholar of The presidency. Burdened by such expectations, it is becoming difficult to imagine any mortal succeeding, much less Mr. Biden with feet of clay. Even if inflation and the virus recede much faster than expected, a medium-term thrashing of his party seems highly likely. ■
Read more from Lexington, our columnist on American politics:
The insurrection, one year later (January 8)
What the Chicago Ward Map Fight Says About Racial Politics in America (January 1)
America’s Christmas Wars (December 18)
For coverage of the Joe Biden presidency, visit our dedicated hub and follow along as we track changes in his approval rating. For exclusive information and reading recommendations from our correspondents in the United States, subscribe to Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter.
This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Death, Taxes, and a Failed Presidency.”