May 30, 2023

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Biden’s blues: is the US president out of political capital?

Biden’s blues: is the US president out of political capital?

At the Beverly Hills home of media mogul Haim Saban earlier this month, Joe Biden painted a grim picture for a group of Democratic donors to illustrate the political battles that lie ahead for the party.

The US president said it was essential to protect against a Republican party dominated by Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement, which is gearing up for a fight in November’s midterm elections — and to try to take back the White House in 2024. “Here’s the deal, guys: what you’re doing here really, really matters. We cannot afford to let this MAGA Republican party win. We can’t.”

“The rest of the world is looking to us,” Biden continued. “There really is [a question of] ‘What happens if the US goes back to a Trumpian government?’ It is a gigantic, gigantic setback.”

The warning was intended to mobilise donor support for Democrats up and down the ballot ahead of the midterms, when significant defeats are expected, including the probable loss of control of the House of Representatives and a possible move to minority status in the Senate.

But it also reflected a more disturbing reality for the 79-year-old president: in the space of just 17 months, he has already burnt a lot of the political capital he had when he walked into the Oval Office in January last year.

President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greet staff at a Covid-19 vaccination clinic hosted by the District of Columbia’s Department of Health in Washington, DC
President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden greet staff at a Covid-19 vaccination clinic hosted by the District of Columbia’s Department of Health in Washington, DC © Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg

According to the polling average, just 39.6 per cent of voters approve of Biden’s performance in the White House so far, compared with 54.9 per cent who disapprove — a wide gap of 15 percentage points that will be hard to close.

On its own, Biden’s ratings slump could bring a midterm loss big enough to cripple his legislative agenda for the rest of his first term in office. But it will also raise doubts about his viability as a candidate for re-election in 2024. He says he intends to run for a second term, health permitting.

Things could still get worse. Biden is facing not just political polarisation and rising prices but the risk of a recession that could hit around the time that his re-election campaign begins. Having initially moved cautiously to tackle inflation, Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell is now being more aggressive in pushing for higher rates. Although Biden has backed the central banker, a sharply slowing economy may inflict a new blow to his own political prospects and those of fellow Democrats. All things considered, Biden is facing the worst possible environment for an incumbent in need of a bounce back.

“What’s most important for Biden and his party is just how bad things look right now, with just five months to go until the midterms,” said Cameron Easley, a senior editor at Morning Consult, the data and polling group. “At this point in his presidency, Donald Trump was a good bit more popular than Biden is right now.”

‘People are really, really down’

On one level, Biden’s political travails sound all too familiar — particularly given the experience of his Democratic predecessors. Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton suffered precipitous drops in popularity shortly after entering the White House, leading to bruising rebukes for the party in the 1994 and 2010 elections.

While both those presidents recovered to win second terms, it is far from clear whether Biden is able to engineer a similar comeback. He is now caught between his critics on the left, who believe he has failed to deliver on a promise of transformational economic and social change, and moderates within the party, who insist he has paid too much deference to progressives on both policy goals and personnel choices.

Meanwhile, his key economic achievement of delivering a rapid recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic with a quick return to very low unemployment has been eclipsed by rising inflation. Consumer prices rose in May at an annual rate of 8.6 per cent, a 40-year high.

A confrontation between protestors at an abortion rights rally in downtown St Louis
A confrontation between protestors at an abortion rights rally in downtown St Louis © Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP

Political analysts and pollsters say the unhappiness in the country is even broader than inflation. The gloom reflects disappointment that the US has failed to return to normal under Biden’s watch, they say, given the war in Ukraine, wave after wave of Covid and the arrival of supply chain disruptions redolent of a 1970s-style economy.

The Federal Reserve now looks likely to increase interest rates much more aggressively than expected in the coming months to limit price gains. Such a heavy-handed tightening could lead to a slowdown in growth and in the labour market, with the odds of a recession over the next two years rising sharply.

Unlike Trump, who repeatedly singled out Powell for criticism, Biden has pledged to respect the Fed’s independence as it decides the best way to tackle inflation. But that means he won’t be able to control or direct much of the country’s macroeconomic trajectory — and he will be aware of the list of presidents who failed to be re-elected due to economic malaise, from Jimmy Carter in 1980 to George HW Bush in 1992.

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell
Unlike Donald Trump, who repeatedly singled out Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell for criticism, Biden has pledged to respect the central bank’s independence as it decides how to tackle inflation © Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

“It’s a question of conditions and how people are feeling about their lives,” says Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist and professor of politics at USC. “If you have a big recession next year, and we’re not out of it by 2024, [Biden] could find himself in the same position as Bush in 1992,” he adds.

On top of all that, US politics remains starkly polarised, despite Biden’s goal of delivering more “unity” to a society torn apart in the wake of Trump’s four years in the Oval Office. Republicans have strenuously opposed much of Biden’s agenda, and there are bitter divisions over a number of issues ranging from abortion rights to the findings of the Congressional panel investigating the January 6 attacks on the US Capitol.

“People are really, really down”, Biden conceded in an interview with the Associated Press last week.

‘The clock keeps ticking’

Biden’s political appeal has steadily diminished among key groups of voters, pollsters report. He lost the support of many independents after the resurgence of Covid last summer and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Democratic infighting has hurt his standing with the base of the party.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who helped Biden’s 2020 campaign, says she and other bipartisan pollsters conducted a series of focus groups with women voters over 50 years old last month, a politically pivotal cohort who tend to vote in proportionally high numbers and also swing back and forth.

“These are women who basically thought they were going to be set for life. They thought these were supposed to be their golden years. And it’s so tumultuous. It’s a different crisis every day,” says Lake. “And they really want politicians — elected officials — who are in touch with that [reality] and are going to do something about it.”

A rally urging action on the Build Back Better legislation during morning rush hour in January in Washington, DC
A rally urging action on the Build Back Better legislation during morning rush hour in January in Washington, DC. Joe Biden’s political appeal has steadily diminished among key groups of voters, pollsters report © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history at Princeton University, says that is a “terrible position” for the incumbent to find himself in. “Between midterms historically going poorly and the convergence of so many issues that are not favourable to the administration, Democrats are right to be incredibly concerned about what’s coming in November. The clock keeps ticking, and the time between now and November keeps getting shorter, which means the problems will probably last,” he says.

As for the presidential election in 2024, some in Washington are not so sure that it would be wise for Biden to run. Gunner Ramer, an analyst at Longwell Partners, an anti-Trump Republican consulting group, says that those who voted for Biden in 2020 are now unenthusiastic about him “or at least unenthusiastic about him running again”.

“They say he’s too old and, depending on which group and what kinds of Democrats you’re talking to, he might be a little bit too hard left or he’s a little bit too moderate,” Ramer says. “They thought he was a great choice to go up against Trump, but not going forward. Democratic voters want to move on, by and large.”

During the 2020 race, Biden had promised to be a “bridge” to a new generation of leaders within the Democratic party, suggesting that perhaps he might stop short of seeking a second term. But the power of incumbency, and the relatively uninspiring approval ratings for his vice-president Kamala Harris, appear to have led to a change of heart, for now.

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice-president as her husband Doug Emhoff holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington in January 2021
Poor approval ratings for vice-president Kamala Harris may have prompted Biden to commit to a second term in office © Erin Schaff/The New York Times/AP

Inside the Biden administration, there is still confidence. “We understand the political headwinds we face but we do feel optimistic,” says one Biden adviser. “I think it’s also important to make this a choice and a contrast for people,” the adviser adds, noting the extent to which Trump-friendly candidates have gained traction in Republican midterm primaries.

Ramer agrees that the extreme views of some Republican candidates represent an opportunity for moderate Democrats. “In swing states across the country, Republicans are nominating absolutely insane insurrectionist candidates,” he says. “Traditionally, you would expect some backsliding, with inflation on the rise and all of that . . . but because these candidates are so bad and so extreme, these seats are still on the table for Democrats.”

Instant gratification

Biden now has a handful of months before the midterms to chalk up tangible accomplishments he can sell to voters as a win.

The White House would like to see a bipartisan compromise in Congress on legislation to even modestly tighten gun laws as well as an agreement on a plan to subsidise the domestic semiconductor industry to make it easier to compete with China.

After months of intraparty bickering there is also a chance of securing a deal on a slimmed-down version of the administration’s flagship Build Back Better bill, which has been stalled in the Senate since last summer, amid opposition from centrist Democrats. The alternative bill would raise taxes on the wealthy and large corporations, while lowering prescription drug costs and making new investments to fight climate change.

Trump supporters wearing MAGA caps attend the ‘American Freedom Tour’ event in Memphis, Tennessee, this month
President Biden has warned against a Republican party dominated by Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again movement, which is gearing up for a fight in November’s midterm elections © Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters

“Good policy is good politics. It is important that we get things across the finish line. Our legislation doesn’t help Americans if we don’t get it through the House and through the Senate and to the president’s desk,” says Suzan Delbene, a Democratic congresswoman from Washington state who chairs the New Democrat coalition, a group of more centrist lawmakers in the House.

Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist at public affairs agency BPI, says Biden’s situation reminds him of when he worked for Obama in 2012. “In president Obama’s re-election campaign, voters didn’t feel like everything had been accomplished that needed to be accomplished after the financial crisis. But our message was ‘forward’, to continue to make the progress that we were making.”

Administration officials have been weighing other moves such as slashing some tariffs on Chinese imports, forgiving some student debt and scrapping the federal petrol tax, at least temporarily — a proposal Biden backed on Wednesday.

Internationally, Biden is planning a controversial visit to Saudi Arabia next month to nudge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pump more oil. US officials have been debating how to best structure the EU’s ban on Russian oil so that it doesn’t lead to another sharp increase in energy costs — a subject that is up for debate at the G7 summit in Germany this weekend.

But the president’s ability to rally western nations towards a mostly unified military, diplomatic and economic response to the Ukraine war has not brought political dividends for Democrats.

Lake blames voters’ desire for instant gratification and a tendency to focus on the issues closest to home: “People think, ‘Yeah, this is really good what we did and those are really bad people, but we need money in Detroit’,” she says. “I think because the domestic problems are so great, it drowns out . . . international successes. People are like, ‘the gas price, the gas price’.”

Yet if Biden’s downward drift continues, or even if he fails to bounce back quickly, the tensions and frustrations within the administration and on Capitol Hill are bound to get worse. That raises questions about the effectiveness of the operation run by Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, and the president’s top political advisers, including Mike Donilon, Jen O’Malley Dillon and Anita Dunn. It also increases the possibility of a personnel shake-up in key positions after the midterms.

Easley of Morning Consult says that one of Biden’s biggest political weaknesses has been that he “hasn’t even really sniffed” 50 per cent “strong approval” ratings among polls of Democrats for five or six months.

Fuel prices on display at a Chevron service station in San Francisco, California
Biden is planning a controversial visit to Saudi Arabia next month to nudge Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pump more oil © David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

“I think a lot of young Democrats view Biden as, you know, representing the past, rather than the future . . . over promising at the beginning . . . and looking like they’re going to under deliver in a pretty big way.”

For the broader electorate, Easley says the criticism is different. “At times . . . this White House look like they’re caught on their heels by issues and aren’t particularly out front and engaged on them,” he says.

Ramer says that while it is clear that there have been some wins for the administration on issues such as infrastructure and Supreme Court appointments, “kitchen table issues” will always take centre stage: “If a bunch of people in the US feel like they’re paying way too much, and they’re being stretched way too thin, that’s going to take precedence over any other sort of thing.”

The president and his team still need to prove that they are moving quickly and decisively to tackle those concerns, says Felicia Wong, president of left-leaning think-tank the Roosevelt Institute and a member of Biden’s transition team. If they did Americans might “respond differently” to his presidency, she says.

But she believes there is a disturbing gap between Biden’s achievements so far and his ratings. “They were dealt a very, very, very bad deck of cards,” says Wong. “The tightrope that they are trying to walk is incredibly thin and I think it’s important to say that what they are doing substantively is far better than they’re getting credit for — even with all the problems.”