Since August of this year, President Joe Biden’s popularity has been plummeting. The rule of thumb is that a president needs to have an approval rate that is at least ten points higher than his or her disapproval rating in order to stand a good chance of being reelected.
According to 538, in early August Biden was up 52 – 42%. It was that month that the president announced that the United States was initiating a thorough and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, where American troops had been since shortly after Nine-Eleven in 2001.
At the time of Biden’s announcement, MSNBC anchors Nicolle Wallace and Brian Williams jointly said that they speculated that 95% of the American people would support the withdrawal while 95% of the media would oppose it. If it was true that the preponderance of the American people supported the departure, it did not take long for the media to exercise overwhelming influence over the populace. By early September, Biden was underwater (higher disapproval than approval rating), 46%-47%. It wasn’t just Afghanistan; it was the lack of organization and progress with key domestic legislation such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Build Back Better Act (expanding the social safety net).
Biden had formidable members of Congress who preferred gridlock to giving him victory when he really needed it. The so-called “corporate Democratic twins” in the Senate, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, did and continue to block passage of the Build Back Better Act. If the bill passes at all, it will probably be at a tab that is $1 trillion less than what forty-eight other Democratic senators want.
In the House, the Progressive Caucus fashioned a strategy whereby the infrastructure bill would not be voted upon without a commitment to vote for the Build Back Better bill. They withheld their votes on the infrastructure bill, but fortunately thirteen Republicans voted for it to allow it to pass (nineteen Republicans in the Senate also voted for it earlier in the year). But the lack of unity among the Democrats made Biden look weak to some and contributed significantly to his drop in the polls.
To many, the fact that Joe Biden is such a nice guy and doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in his body would be reason enough for his popularity to stay well above water. Yes, he has made tactical mistakes with both foreign and domestic policy, but we all make mistakes, don’t we?
The fact that he has been burned for the kind of miscues that anyone might makes causes me to think that maybe the so-called independent voters are more like Republicans than Democrats. Republicans are much less tolerant at giving Democrats a break than Dems are of Republicans. Biden’s good intentions and humane governance is not playing well enough with independents to keep his job approval rating intact.
Is there anything that Biden can do to improve his job approval rating, and encourage citizens to be more positively inclined towards Democrats in general? Molly Jong-Fast of the Atlantic Magazine writes that “Biden Needs an Enemy.” She asserts that demonizing his enemies is what has allowed Donald Trump to stay so popular among his base. Biden needs to play hardball and forego giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt. The reluctance of Republicans to support virtually any proposal from Democrats shows that while the GOP can talk the bi-partisan game, it rarely plays it. One of the most telling incidents was in 2009-2010 when President Barack Obama was bending over backwards to get Republicans to support the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). He had exclusive meetings with Republicans in which he encouraged them to share their thoughts and let his administration know what they wanted in the bill. Of course, this was all premised on the assumption that they cared about improving affordable and effective health care for American citizens. That proved to not be the case.
Iowa Senator Charles Grassley seemed interested in engaging in the dialogue, and Obama repeatedly tried to incorporate some of his suggestions into the bill. But whenever it became time to count noses and see who would approve a compromise version of the bill, no Republicans would indicate support. At the time when the bill was passed exclusively with Democratic votes, Grassley admitted that he never had any intention of supporting the bill. He seemed to simply enjoy jacking around Obama and other Democrats.
Joe Biden has tried to forge bi-partisan alliances for his domestic policies. To a certain extent, it worked for the infrastructure bill. But for the most part, Republicans have shown little interest in collaboration. Those who worked and voted with him on infrastructure are now facing repercussions from party leadership. The bottom line is that there is little point in Biden using valuable time to try to get Republicans to try to change their ways.
But what if Biden adopted a different strategy; one in which he is played hardball and essentially attacked Republicans whenever they engaged in behavior that was outside the bounds of the rational and empathetic thinking that characterizes most Democrats, both in and out of Congress and the White House? Even if it would be a good idea for Biden to do this (and there are ample opportunities for his team to poll the American people on how they would react to this), it really would be an impossibility for one simple fact.
Being nasty and aggressive is not who Joe Biden is. What’s more, he doesn’t seem to have a sarcastic sense of humor, the type that Barack Obama utilized at the White House Correspondents Dinner against Donald Trump in 2011. He himself would likely become a target of mockery if he tried to vitriolically lash out at his opponents.
However, he could be firmer in his deadlines with Republicans. It hurt him that votes on much of his domestic agenda extended beyond the time that he decided to pull the United States out of Afghanistan. Since Republicans have a consistent and proven record of jacking around Democratic presidents, it would serve him well to give them ‘x’ amount of time to contribute to a solution, and if they don’t, then move ahead as best he can without their input. It may be that this will irritate Joe Manchin, but Manchin too is going to have to show that he does not want to make the Democratic Party look tentative and even feeble at time.
Those who criticize Biden for being either too patient or too rash are being unfair to him because neither option is without its negative consequences. What is important to keep in mind is how he is a quantum leap over Donald Trump in how to function as president of the United States. It is not Biden’s fault that Republicans are as strong as they are in the Congress. He has been dealt a difficult hand. Let’s work with him and encourage others to show compassion towards him. We have already gotten half a loaf of what we want from him; hopefully we can up that considerably with passage of a credible form of the Build Back Better Act and then focus on maintaining control of one or both houses of Congress in 2022.