This is one of those weird times in politics when there are far more questions than answers. One sees plenty of intriguing theories, but few that are particularly convincing. Events and developments at home and abroad are unfolding with astonishing rapidity—the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an unprecedented economic situation featuring a sudden exodus of millions from the workplace, a global supply-chain problem that seems particularly acute in the U.S., an onset of inflation, and continuing repercussions from the events in the Capitol Building 14 months ago.
Into this maelstrom stepped President Biden last Tuesday to give his first official State of the Union address, something that many Democrats hoped would serve as a cure-all to the president’s woes.
Indeed, reviews were positive, and not just by pundits. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and party strategist Page Gardner briefed reporters on focus-group research conducted during the speech for Gardner’s firm and the American Federation of Teachers.
“Going into the speech,” wrote Greenberg in his summary, three-quarters of the participants said they thought the country was on the wrong track. The Democrats' base voters “were the hardest on them. … And the Republican Party is viewed more favorably.” During the speech, however, Biden doubled “the proportion who thought [the country was] on the right track” and improved his own favorability, Greenberg wrote. Biden improved Democrats’ stature on the issues of inflation, the economy, and the middle class, “but Democrats began in a hole that showed them failing working families.”
On Friday Democrats were busy clutching the just-released NPR/PBS/Marist College poll release that showed Biden’s approval ratings jumping up from 40 percent before last week’s State of the Union to 47 percent. His disapproval dropped from 55 to 51 percent. While I have a very high regard for the Marist polling operation, snap polls—in this case on the Wednesday and Thursday nights after a Tuesday speech—are not terribly enlightening. Americans need to both ingest and digest an event before a measurement of its impact can be usefully taken.
On Monday afternoon, a Quinnipiac University poll showed a more modest 2-point increase, from 38 percent approval before the speech to 40 percent over this past weekend, with disapproval dropping a point from 52 to 51 percent. This tracks with Democratic pollster Mark Mellman’s admonition in The Hill last week that, “Since 1978, the average State of the Union has had less than a 1-point impact on public approval of the president’s performance. Indeed, approval ratings are almost as likely to fall as to rise in the wake of these addresses.”
And indeed, one speech can’t magically make Americans’ fears disappear. My fellow baby boomers, along with our older siblings of the Silent Generation and our younger siblings in Generation X, can recall talk of a potential nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. For millennials and Generation Z, however, even a remote possibility of a nuclear war is a new experience. While it is certainly understandable why many Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Americans would like to see the U.S. and NATO establish no-fly zones over all or parts of Ukraine, the odds of a nuclear confrontation would go up exponentially with any attempt to enforce one. (Those prone to worry would be well-advised not to consult the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s 75-year old Doomsday Clock, currently at 100 seconds to midnight.)
Russia’s attack on Ukraine puts new pressures on the economy, as well. Prices for gasoline and home heating have soared of late—and probably have a ways to go before they peak. If Biden proposes a ban on importation of Russian oil or some variation on that theme, it will set him up for immediate criticism in certain quarters for making a frontal assault on the pocketbooks of average Americans. If he opts not to ban oil imports, many of the very same people are likely to attack him for not being tough enough on the Russians. Sadly, many in our political process have little shame and are equal-opportunity opportunists.
Which brings us back to the hole in which Democrats find themselves. Certain House Democrats must rue just how dysfunctional the party looked last year trying to advance its legislative agenda. The bipartisan infrastructure bill ended up taking an excruciating seven and a half months to enact, much of the time held hostage by progressives who preferred to prioritize the Build Back Better social-safety net that Biden had proposed.
There is no reason to believe that the flow of unexpected events will stop now. But moving forward, at each twist and turn, three questions should be considered. First, will whatever just happened motivate a currently lethargic and/or disillusioned Democratic base to vote in stronger numbers than they currently seem likely to do? Second, will anything dampen the enthusiasm of an already highly motivated GOP base that can’t wait to get a chance to vote this fall? Third, will the true independents, that fickle 10 percent of the electorate that does not lean toward either party, change their direction away from Republicans? Democrats need at least two out of these three to change the trajectory of this election—one that seems headed in the wrong direction for them.
Our subscribers have first access to individual race pages for each House, Senate and Governors race, which will include race ratings (each race is rated on a seven-point scale) and a narrative analysis pertaining to that race.