WASHINGTON — After promising America a return to normal following four years of his predecessor’s chaos, President Joe Biden is closing out his first year in office getting a harsh dose of presidential normalcy: getting blamed for things beyond his control.
Biden won approval of a stimulus package in his first months, a bipartisan infrastructure bill more recently, ended a 20-year-old war in Afghanistan and oversaw the vaccination of more than 200 million Americans against the coronavirus. Despite this, he is finishing 2021 with an approval rating not much better than that of Donald Trump, whose unhinged language and behavior kept his approval below 50% the entire four years of his term.
An average of recent polls by Real Clear Politics shows that only 44% of Americans approve of Biden’s performance, while 53% disapprove. A new poll by Morning Consult and Politico this week says more Americans disapprove of him than approve on the economy by 13 percentage points, on energy by 4 points, and national security by 6 points. Even in his handling of the coronavirus, Biden barely had a 48-47 point advantage.
Republicans have a ready answer for Biden’s unpopularity: his decision to pursue big-ticket policies like a dramatically increased child tax credit, improved health care for poorer Americans and renewable energy initiatives.
“Instead of leading the country, Biden chose to follow a minority sect within his party. It was a colossal blunder,” said Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked on Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said Biden, like previous presidents, chose to treat his modest victory and his party’s thin margins in both chambers of Congress as a mandate from the electorate. “Whenever a party takes control of the White House and Congress, there is a tendency to over-reach, and the Biden White House simply couldn’t help themselves,” he said.
Biden’s White House, though, points out that the legislation Republicans spend so much time attacking is immensely popular, even more so when Americans are asked about its individual components. And, more important, the top priority remains ending the pandemic.
“We’re empathetic, and we know, too, the challenges people are going through, which is that we’re still battling through a pandemic. Life doesn’t look like what it looked like a few years ago,” press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday during the daily press briefing. “But we’re going to be driven by policies. We’re not going to be driven by the ups and downs of the polls.”
Regardless of the underlying reasons, that Americans are blaming the sitting president for the fears and frustrations in their own lives — regardless of his culpability or even ability to do much about them ― is hardly a new phenomenon.
Biden’s approval numbers, which had been fairly stable in the mid-50s for his first five months in office as the economy continued to improve and the pandemic steadily receded, began falling this summer after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the arrival of the coronavirus’ delta variant.
While Biden failed to plan a more orderly departure, which culminated in the death of 13 U.S. service members in a terrorist suicide bombing, Americans also appeared to blame him for the resurgence of the theocratic Taliban, even though that result was essentially guaranteed by Trump’s agreement with that group a year and a half earlier.
Voters similarly seemed to blame Biden for letting the delta wave sweep across the country with new hospitalizations and deaths, even though its severity was helped along by a number of Republican governors who downplayed the benefits of the vaccines and fought Biden’s attempts to require them in workplaces.
But voters’ greatest discontent currently appears to be with inflation, as easily noticed prices for essentials like groceries and gasoline have risen nearly 7% from their pandemic lows a year ago as demand has returned.
The last time inflation was a major problem was in the 1970s and early 1980s, when it helped end the presidencies of Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter. It remained high into the first term of Ronald Reagan, before it was subdued by the Federal Reserve, which essentially throttled it with sky-high interest rates.
In 1992, a relatively mild recession — which had technically already ended ― sank the presidency of Republican George H.W. Bush, who had approval ratings close to 90% in 1991 following the successful liberation of Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion.
On the flip side, presidents can also take credit for things that happen on their watch, regardless of how much or how little they did to cause them.
Democrat Bill Clinton boasted of a booming economy that took place, at least in part, because of the budget deal struck by his predecessor, Bush.
And Trump endlessly bragged about a strong economy that in reality was growing less quickly than it had been during the second term of Democrat Barack Obama.
One longtime Biden adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that was perhaps the one Trump trait that Democrats should emulate: taking credit for good things.
“Our side should be taking some victory laps. Instead, we’re taking time just wallowing in frustration,” the adviser said, pointing to the back-and-forth sniping over Biden’s stalled Build Back Better legislative package. “We have to shut out the voices in our party that are despondent about, God knows what ― about everything. We need to tell our story, and it’s a good story to tell.”
To an extent, Biden and his White House have already been doing this. They frequently talk about how job growth during his administration has been higher than any previous presidency — but neglect to mention that, coming out of a pandemic-induced recession, the jobs numbers really had nowhere to go but up.
Similarly, they boast about how many Americans are vaccinated against COVID today compared to how many were inoculated under Trump — but do not point out that the vaccines only became available in the final weeks of Trump’s term.
On Wednesday, the White House worked to take credit for solving a problem they had already been getting blamed for by Republicans weeks ago: the cancellation of Christmas gift-giving because of the global, post-pandemic supply chain delays.
After weeks of working to get seaports and trucking and rail lines to move more goods more quickly, the White House staged a roundtable discussion led by Biden and sent out a news release titled: “Despite Doomsday Warnings, Consumer and Supplier Data Shows That Christmas Gifts Are Arriving On Time.”
“Good news,” Psaki joked at the briefing. “We’ve saved Christmas.”