The Competency Question

September 23, 2021

When Biden was running for president, his message was pretty straightforward: I'm the guy who will bring normal back to Washington. Where President Trump was unorthodox and chaotic, Biden would be conventional and organized. Trump ran the White House like a reality show, Biden stocked his cabinet and high-level staff with Washington insiders with establishment credentials. He was going to usher in an era of boring, but predictable. 

But, less than a year into his tenure, voters don't see the 'return to normal' they had been promised. Far from turning the corner on COVID, the country remains anxious and divided over everything from booster shots to vaccine mandates. A botched Afghanistan pull-out was quickly followed by more chaos on the southern border. Earlier success at bipartisan legislating has dissolved into intra-party fighting over the contours of the president's signature legislation.

"I'm kind of a little weary," said one woman in a recent focus of voters who had supported Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. "I think it [Biden's term] started off strong, but some scary things are happening now."

All of this has taken a toll on Biden's standing with the public. Not only are his national job approval ratings underwater (the fivethirtyeight.com average currently has him at 46 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable), but he's slipped under 50 percent in a recent Washington Post poll in Virginia — a state he easily carried in 2020. Private polling is picking up double-digit drops in Biden performance in competitive House seats.

There's nothing that remarkable — or unique — about a first-term president hitting a soft patch early in his tenure. New presidents often confront a crisis they didn't expect. For Bill Clinton, it was the April 1993 stand-off in Waco, Texas, between federal law enforcement officers and cult leader David Koresh that resulted in the deaths of 75 people. Other times, presidents create their own crises; Trump was probably the best at that (see: Comey, Charlottesville, late-night tweeting, etc.) Obama ran as a transformational candidate who would unify the country. However, his legislative efforts on health care and economic stimulus brought about significant backlash from Republicans in Washington and at the grassroots level. 

The bigger question, however, is whether a president can recover after early stumbles. This is even more relevant in this ultra-polarized era where a president starts with unified support from his base, but a shallow reservoir of "benefit of the doubt" from the opposite party or independent voters. In other words, a president doesn't get much of a bump in approval rating when things go well, and he doesn't get much sympathy when he messes up (or is perceived to have messed up).

Trump was able to recover quite a bit from his 'summer swoon' of 2017. For example, at this point in 2017, Trump's job approval rating had plummeted to just 37 percent. But, by late October of 2018, his approval had climbed 6 points to 43 percent. That wasn't enough to help Republicans hold onto their House majority, but his stronger standing was enough to help red-state candidates expand their majority in the Senate.

However, the challenge for Biden is that these early mistakes go directly to the very rationale of his presidency; that it would be low drama and high competence. This was especially true with Afghanistan. While Americans are eager to have our troops out of the country, and may even have assumed there'd be some chaos due to that drawdown, they also expected that this administration's deep expertise and experience, would prepare them for any unexpected snafu. That turned out not to be the case. 

Immigration is never an easy issue for Democrats. Like Obama before him, this president is caught between Democratic activists who want to see fewer restrictions and swing voters who are wary of lax enforcement and porous borders. Moreover, it's an issue that animates the GOP base, but rarely motivates Democrats. But, the situation on the border today — with images of thousands of people crowded under a Texas underpass in squalid conditions as border agents use horses to corral them — is one that angers both left and right. And, as with Afghanistan, the situation reeks of mismanagement and chaos, two things this administration promised it would not allow.  

As for the COVID situation, early on the Biden administration got much of it right. Bureaucracy cranked into gear, replacing the ad hoc disarray of the Trump Administration. But, the rise of the Delta variant — and the continued politicization of the virus — put the administration on their back foot. It's also taken a toll on Americans' optimism about an economic recovery. A mid-August report from Michigan's Consumer Sentiment found a "stunning loss of confidence" by the public, a drop that was one of the biggest in the last 50 years. "There is little doubt that the pandemic's resurgence due to the Delta variant has been met with a mixture of reason and emotion," wrote Richard Curtain, the survey's director. "Consumers have correctly reasoned that the economy's performance will be diminished over the negative economic assessments also reflects an emotional response, mainly from dashed hopes that the pandemic would soon end. "

On top of it all, the former senator and vice president looks more like a helpless bystander than an experienced Capitol Hill deal maker, watching from the sidelines as his party struggles with internal divisions over critical legislation. For many voters, things in Washington look like more of the same; politicians squabbling instead of solving problems.

If the president can recover lost ground, getting legislation passed in Congress is the first and easiest step. This is what happened back in 2017 when Republicans finally gave Trump a victory with the GOP-passed tax bill. Not long after the December 2017 passage, Trump's approval ratings started to rise. The bill itself wasn't popular. But, for the first time in a while, Trump and his party appeared to be in charge. Moreover, it allowed Trump to turn the page from all the things he had done (and was still doing) wrong and focus on the things going right, like the growing economy. 

This is why I think Democrats are ultimately going to pass both infrastructure and reconciliation. To fail to do so would only add to the perception that the president lacks a firm grip and a steady hand of leadership. And, for Democrats who worry that Biden's declining fortunes are dragging them down, failing to give him a victory will only make things worse for both him and them. A midterm election is a referendum on the president. When he flops, so does his party.

To be sure, the legislation isn't going to be a 'silver bullet' for Democrats in the midterms. In fact, it can also provide Republicans with plenty of fodder to use against them next fall. While Democrats have been fighting among themselves over the price tag, they've failed to define this legislation for the public. No one knows what "Build Back Better" means for their own lives. Meanwhile, Republicans have been effectively attacking the legislation, as part of a 'socialist’ overreach responsible for rising consumer prices. The longer Republicans define the legislation, the harder it will be for Democrats to get control of the narrative.

As we move toward 2022, it's also going to get harder for Democrats to rely on the contrast with Trump to ease voter concerns. In 2020, many voters picked Biden, not because of who he was but because of who he wasn't. But, the longer he's in the White House, the higher the expectations. He has to be more than just the guy who's less impetuous than the previous president. Back in August (right after the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban but before the bombing at the Kabul airport), I had to chance to listen in on a group of white male voters, many of whom had supported Biden in 2020 after voting for Trump in 2016. When asked how Biden was doing, one of the men from suburban Chicago compared Biden to the experience of ordering a Coke at a restaurant but being served a Pepsi instead. You still got a soda, but it wasn't exactly what you wanted. Still, said this man, it was better than what happened in 2016 when he voted for Trump thinking he'd get that Coke. Instead, he said, Trump turned out to be worse than Pepsi; he was a Diet Coke, something this guy hates with a passion. The longer Biden fails to deliver on his promise of bringing back competency and normalcy, the greater the risk that he becomes more than just a less-than-ideal alternative, but a completely unpalatable one. 

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