A majority of Americans celebrated Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States, hoping the veteran politician would turn the clock back and govern with a steady hand. But, just seven months later, a plurality of Americans disapprove of how he’s handling the presidency.
Before the election, Biden’s perceived strength, other than not being Donald Trump, was that he would bring competence and empathy to the White House after four years in which chaos overwhelmed accomplishments.
For a few months, Biden looked good. His administration smoothed the waters with allies, rolled out the COVID vaccines effectively, and saw rates of coronavirus infection drop.
Meanwhile, many Americans liked his proposed populist spending bills, and most saw his professional and more laid-back governing style as a major improvement over the last four years.
It hasn’t taken long for that to change. Biden’s approval numbers started cratering in late July (more on this below) as the delta variant spread. The decline accelerated with the Afghanistan crisis.
The last few days have worsened the storm. In just an hour on Friday, the Pentagon admitted a drone strike in Afghanistan killed children, not terrorists; a Food and Drug Administration panel opposed most of the White House’s plan on booster shots; and France recalled its ambassador.
So, what has happened? Here’s a partial list.
1. The Pandemic
COVID communications issues started popping up quickly, with Biden officials contradicting each other. In May, after mixed messaging, the administration said fully vaccinated people did not have to wear masks indoors. When the delta variant spread, that changed. At about the same time, Biden touted his goal of 70% of American adults getting at least one shot of the vaccine by July 4. It didn’t happen.
Making things worse, just before Independence Day, the president tamped down concerns over delta. He said: “I am not concerned there’s going to be a major outbreak – in other words that we’re going to have another epidemic nationwide.”
Of course, that’s exactly what happened, with new COVID infections rivaling January’s peak numbers.
His comments weren’t quite as bad as Trump’s “We have it totally under control,” but Biden was supposed to be the competent president.
One final COVID communications embarrassment: As soon as Biden announced his “booster-shots-for-all” plan, even members of his administration started dissenting.
An FDA panel has now partially put the brakes on the proposal. The whole saga raises questions about Biden’s promises to not politicize COVID and to follow the science.
All of the confusion gives ammunition to anti-vaxxers, to everyone's detriment.
The Pentagon apologized Friday for a drone strike in Kabul, acknowledging that it did not kill its intended target, an ISIS bomber who supposedly posed an imminent threat to U.S. troops. Instead, it killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children.
This tragic blunder joins many others in the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The final pullout from the “forever war” will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the worst debacles in American foreign policy history.
The withdrawal also raised questions about Biden’s ability to work with allies. He clashed with European countries on the pullout’s timeline, and the quick collapse of the Kabul government left many citizens of allied nations stranded in Afghanistan.
Did Trump set the groundwork for what happened? Yes. Was Trump intending to withdraw on a similar timetable? Yes. Would Trump have handled it better? We will never know, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Still, despite the many mistakes during the 20-year war, the responsibility for the tragic and chaotic withdrawal lies with the man who’s currently in the Oval Office.
3. International Relations
Beyond Afghanistan, U.S. allies have complained that the Biden administration has not sufficiently consulted with them in taking decisions that have had a global impact.
Now, France has gone as far as recalling its ambassador to the U.S. You read that correctly: France, not Russia, Cuba, or China.
No NATO member did that during the prior administration, even in the face of Trump's repeated verbal attacks against them and the alliance itself.
For perspective, France helped the U.S. become a country as its first ally in 1778. Never have the French withdrawn their ambassador.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian says the U.S. betrayed France by cutting it out of a secret nuclear submarine deal Biden reached with the U.K. and Australia. “It was really a stab in the back,” Le Drian said. “It looks a lot like what Trump did.”
All of this undercuts Biden’s claim of being a steadier hand than Trump and a more reliable friend.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents encountered more than 200,000 migrants at the southern border in August. That’s just slightly less than in July, which hit a 20-year high. In only eight months of 2021, CPB has far surpassed the total number of encounters with migrants of any full year since 2000.
Just last week, a new crisis emerged as thousands of Haitian migrants crossed Rio Grande in the vicinity of Del Rio, Texas.
5. Legislative Agenda
Much of Biden’s agenda is tied up in a $3.5 trillion budget spending bill championed by progressives in his party. If approved, the bill would deliver the largest expansion in social programs since the New Deal.
However, moderates in the Democratic Party (and others) are concerned about the enormous cost, especially when it comes on top of huge spending approved earlier this year, much of it to support workers and the COVID-battered economy.
Among the concerns are that the U.S. national debt as a percentage of GDP has reached the highest level since World War II.
Also, spending surges have led to sharply worsened inflation. The U.S. is seeing the biggest price increases in 13 years.
And, to pay for the $3.5 trillion, the proposal calls for new taxes on the rich and corporations that would be the largest tax increase in more than half a century.
All of that has led to serious Democratic Party infighting and doubts about whether any bill can be passed.
WHAT ABOUT BIDEN’S APPROVAL RATINGS?
Despite all the talk about how divided the U.S. is politically, Biden began his presidency with substantial support, belying beliefs that American political polarization would no longer allow a newly elected leader to have a presidential honeymoon.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s “poll of polls,” Biden had 53.9% approval and 35.1% disapproval when he took office. That put him 18.8 percentage points “over water,” which meant his net approval rating was four times the margin of his popular vote victory.
Sure, Biden trailed Presidents Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama, who all had net approval ratings of more than 32 points. But he still had a strong reservoir of support, much more than his predecessor. Trump began his term with a tiny net approval rating of +2.0 points.
Things have changed for Biden. Bigtime.
Today, FiveThirtyEight shows 48.8% of Americans disapprove of Biden’s job performance, while 45.7% approve. The RealClearPolitics average of polls shows 49.7% disapprove, while 45.8 approve.
In both surveys, Biden is on the verge of having most Americans disapprove. Also, the negative swing in his ratings is stunning: almost 22 percentage points in the FiveThirtyEight average.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
The point of this opinion piece is to focus on the negative, the reasons for the decline in Biden’s approval, even though he can rightfully claim a series of achievements.
The facile reactions are that polls are always wrong (they’re not), or that they reflect disenchantment with Biden from moderate Republicans who were initially positive toward the president but were destined to turn against him.
That’s not the case, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll of American adults, the most recent survey included in the averages of polls cited. Biden’s approval rating has declined among all groups, including Democrats.
Of special concern to the White House: Only 33% of independents approve of how Biden is handling his job.
The important question is whether Biden’s decreased standing with the American public will hurt his ability to lead domestically and internationally.
The country can’t afford a diminished U.S. president.
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Cover photo: President Joe Biden pauses while listening to a question from a reporter about the situation in Afghanistan in the East Room of the White House on August 26, 2021, following a suicide bombing near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that killed at least 182 people, including 13 members of the U.S. military. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)