HAVE ANYONE voters demanded more of their leaders than modern Americans? The thought came to your columnist while listening to a group of eight Georgians, Ohioans and Pennsylvanians, all under 30 and college graduates, give their thoughts on President Joe Biden this week. It wasn’t pretty.
Enjoy more audio and podcasts on iOS Where Android.
“Covid is the worst it’s been and the government is doing next to nothing about it,” Lydia said, speaking from Philadelphia. “We don’t even use Donald Trump’s good sides, if there were any,” Desiree said in Atlanta. “I don’t know what kind of powers Biden has,” offered Sara, another Georgian, “but I feel like he should do a lot more.” Asked to rate the president, the group, which had been convened remotely by Sarah Longwell, a conservative activist, awarded him four Cs, three Ds and an F. And it was not a hostile crowd. All of the band members were Biden voters, and none regretted their vote. Indeed, if asked to back the president again in 2024, all said sullen, they probably would.
With friends like these, Mr. Biden might ask, who needs a slew of voters convinced that he is a senile election-stealing socialist? Anyway, he has them. After being told for a year by conservative loudmouths that the president suffered from dementia, most Republicans believe he does. Together, these disenchanted Democrats and misleading Trump voters have made Mr. Biden the most unpopular president since records began. Only 42% of Americans approve of his efforts. Only Mr. Trump, out of 39% at the same time in his term, was rated lower.
To explain this debacle, most commentators have focused on Mr. Biden’s weaknesses. Verbose and error-prone, both overcautious and overly changeable, the 79-year-old has rarely made Democrat hearts beat faster even before he’s aged, as he has noticeably done in recent years. The modesty of his talents was so evident during the election campaign that it almost seemed like a perverse sales pitch, evidence to support his promise to restore low-key normalcy to government. But with its predecessor irrelevant, for now that promise seems less compelling. And Americans find themselves guided through tumultuous times by their least charismatic and politically capable president since George HW Bush.
However, as it is always tempting to bash the politician, Mr Biden’s flaws are only a marginal reason for his unpopularity. The main one is the sad reality that half the electorate was against him from the start. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Mr. Trump was the first modern president not to have been backed by a significant minority of his opponent’s supporters early in his term. By contrast, the fact that Mr. Biden started with an approval rating two percentage points higher than his share of the popular vote seemed like a feat. But relentless criticism and misinformation from the right quickly turned the tide. According to the modeling of The Economist, which correlates historical presidential approval ratings with measures of partisanship, one would expect a generic president to have a 46% approval rating at this point in his first term.
The resurgence of covid-19 and related economic problems have made this slippage even more inevitable. Despite the overall strength of the economy, an alternative polling model, which correlates presidential approval with inflation and unemployment, also puts the generic president at 46%. That Mr. Biden’s ratings are even lower than the models predict is likely due in large part to the virus itself. Although most of the focus group participants understood that he had limited power to quell the anti-mask and anti-vax mob that has fueled America’s covid struggles, most faulted him for not l have done anyway. “If you don’t have anyone in charge, there is no control,” said one participant.
This analysis should not ignore Mr. Biden’s mistakes. The debacle in Afghanistan, which helped propel its slide, was a howl. The administration downplayed its success in muscle building through a trillion-dollar infrastructure upgrade and overstated its ability to pass additional climate and social spending. It also allowed this package to be defined by its cost, not its content, and eventually got it past Mercurial Senator Joe Manchin. Yet the likelihood that a more inspirational president, who has made none of these mistakes, will be nearly as unpopular as Mr. Biden suggests their 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 gave a few good speeches, including a well-judged jab at his predecessor on the anniversary of the Capitol riot and some remarks about economic recovery that thoughtfully dwelled on rising prices. Nonetheless, the administration’s hopes of winning back disenchanted Biden voters — the only guy he likely has a fighting chance with — seem naïve.
These disgruntled Democrats tend to be relatively young, disengaged, and unlikely to consume mainstream media. Only one of the chat group members watched the cable news; the others got their information from social media, where the president’s speeches make little noise. Moreover, some members of the group displayed such an exaggerated view of presidential power that Mr. Biden’s modest expression of empathy and implied admission of failure on inflation seemed destined to leave them cold.
Failure is the only option
This is another new way presidents are set up to fail. In response to the misleading media coverage and deadlock in Congress, many voters, especially on the left, have come to imagine the office possesses “superman powers” – both impressive and non-existent – says Jeremi Suri , a specialist in the presidency. Overwhelmed by such expectations, it becomes hard to imagine any mortal achieving it, let alone Mr. Biden with feet of clay. Even if inflation and the virus recede much faster than expected, a midterm bombardment for his party looks highly likely. ■
Learn more about Lexington, our columnist on American politics:
The uprising, one year later (January 8)
What the Chicago Neighborhood Map Fight Says About Racial Politics in America (January 1)
The American Christmas Wars (December 18)
For coverage of Joe Biden’s presidency, visit our dedicated hub and follow us as we track changes in his approval rating. For exclusive insights and reading recommendations from our correspondents in America, sign up for Checks and Balance, our weekly newsletter.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Death, taxes and a failing presidency”