Biden’s Miscalculations Led Him Here

November 18, 2021

The euphoria that Democrats felt Monday afternoon watching President Biden signing the $1 trillion infrastructure bill into law had to have been somewhat muted by the parade of worrisome news of the last two weeks.

First came the tough losses in light-blue Virginia and a near-loss in the gubernatorial race in very blue New Jersey. Then the University of Michigan’s closely-watched Index of Consumer Sentiment hit a 10-year low in consumer confidence. The Consumer Price Index on Friday indicated a spike in inflation to 6.2 percent, the largest 12-month gain in 30 years. Finally, a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Biden’s approval rating dropping to 41 percent (disapproval 53 percent), with Republicans taking a 10-point advantage on the generic congressional ballot test.

It all suggests that next year’s midterm elections may fit the rule: The party holding the White House has lost House seats in 36 out of 39 midterm elections since the Civil War.

The RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages for Biden’s approval ratings are 42 and 43 percent, with most of that polling also conducted prior to the depressing economic news. Of the newly elected presidents since the end of World War II, only Donald Trump had job-approval ratings at this stage worse than Biden’s, another bad omen for a midterm election when losses are the norm.

It is folly to think that the struggles that Biden and Democrats in Congress faced in getting the infrastructure bill and companion social-spending measure through Congress are a primary reason for his low job approvals and bleak midterm outlook. But taking on such a, shall we say, transformational legislative undertaking with some of the narrowest Senate and House margins in a century may not have been the wisest decision any president has ever made. Mandates for big change, along the lines of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, come from landslide victories, not just in the presidential election but in House and Senate elections as well.

A president who scores a massive electoral victory obtains clout, if not fear, among fellow party members on Capitol Hill, and usually brings begrudging respect from those on the other side of the aisle. Watching the excruciatingly slow and troubled journey of the infrastructure bill over five months makes it abundantly clear that there are plenty of congressional Democrats who do not fear the president. Taking on this infrastructure package in the way it was, joined at the hip for much of the trip with the social-spending measure, is one of the greatest legislative miscalculations by a president in modern times. That misjudgment is not something that can be blamed on AOC and The Squad, or on Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. That was a mistake made in the White House.

But beyond the struggles of the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills are several other huge political problems plaguing this administration, from the illegal-immigration situation along the U.S.-Mexican border to the execution and visuals of the departure from Afghanistan, to the COVID-19 spike.

Monthly Gallup polling tells the tale: Biden’s approval number among all adults has dropped 15 points since just after he took office, from 57 percent to 42 percent. Among Democrats, the drop is just 6 points, from 98 to 92 percent; among Republicans it's only a 7-point drop, from 11 to 4 percent. Among independents, however, the decline is 27 points since early February, from 61 to 34 percent, and 21 points since June.

The biggest challenge right now is the economy, particularly inflation, another miscalculation by the administration. Let’s face it: Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was right when he began warning early this year that the enormous injection of federal spending over the last year and a half has produced a surge in demand, as supply remained low. That includes in the labor market: For the first time in years, workers have the upper hand. They have and will use that leverage to secure better pay, which will result in higher prices and the vicious circle.

Democrats have long had a propensity to focus on addressing unemployment, and unquestionably, widespread joblessness is horrific for those without employment and their loved ones. But as Summers noted Sunday on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS show on CNN, “The difference between higher and lower unemployment is 2 or 3 percent of the people being unemployed; the difference between higher and lower inflation is 100 percent of the people feeling they are being robbed of purchasing power by higher prices.” Summers later added, “This year we had a fiscal stimulus program equal to ... 14 to 15 percent of GDP, in an economy that was only a couple percent short of its capacity. If you inject that much demand, with that little a capacity margin, it figures you are going to get inflation.”

So now Democrats are in a real pickle. The biggest question is whether Republicans will figure out a way to interfere in Democratic self-destruction. In other words: Can the GOP manage to keep Trump from taking center stage next year?

The article was originally published for the National Journal on November 16, 2021.

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