President Biden and the Democrats have paid a terrible toll in public opinion over the last 13 months. And his political ledger still drips with red ink, despite the misplaced optimism coming from some Democrats.
True, coming on the heels of his mostly well-reviewed State of the Union, Biden’s numbers saw a big jump in an NPR/PBS/Marist College poll, which showed his approvals jump from 39 percent in February to 47 percent, and disapproval dropping from 55 to 50 percent. The poll averages, however, show a bump of a couple of points at best, with some showing none at all.
Looking under the hood of some of these polls shows what his problems are. Last week The Wall Street Journal released the second of its new series of polls using the bipartisan tandem of John Anzalone, who was Biden’s chief pollster during the 2020 campaign, and Tony Fabrizio, who played the same role for then-President Trump. Biden’s overall approval rating was 42 percent, with 57 percent disapproval. On specific issues, his best net approval ratings were on dealing with Russia (50 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove), handling the crisis in Ukraine (47 percent approve, 46 percent disapprove), and handling COVID (49 percent for both approve and disapprove).
After those three, it got ugly. On “being a strong leader,” he was minus 16 points, on handling the economy minus 20 points, on fighting crime even worse at -23, and on securing the border worse still at -24. But the worst was handling inflation and rising costs, which found him 29 points underwater.
Two other questions caught my eye. When asked if Joe Biden tries to do the right thing, respondents gave him a net plus 2 points (50 percent agree, 48 percent disagree). While this is obviously a bad number, on the next question, whether Biden is “focused on the issues that are most important to me,” he was at -19, with 39 percent agreeing, 58 percent disagreeing. As Democratic pollster Mark Mellman has put it, voters like Democrats’ policies but not their performance. That is, they agree with some of the ideas that Biden and Democrats have promoted but don’t think those ideas would impact them. Also, poor execution (see: Afghanistan) has undercut policies that people otherwise support.
Two more recent polls released over the weekend support the WSJ data. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted March 8-11 among 2,088 adults showed Biden’s overall approval rating at 43 percent (19 percent strongly approve, 24 percent somewhat approve), to 57 percent disapproving (17 percent somewhat, 39 percent strongly). On handling “the situation with Russia and Ukraine,” 46 percent approved and 54 percent disapproved, a net minus of 8 points. On handling the economy, 38 percent approved and 62 percent disapproved, a net of -24. On handling inflation, just 31 percent approved, compared to 69 percent who disapproved, a whopping -38 net. When given a choice of seven issues most important to the country, the top one was inflation at 26 percent, followed by Russia’s invasion at 22 percent, and the economy and jobs with 20 percent.
An ABC News/Ipsos Poll taken March 11 to 12 of 622 adults revealed Biden’s approval rating on six individual issues. Biden scored best on his “response to the coronavirus,” with 56 percent approving to 42 percent disapproving. His second best was dealing with Russia and Ukraine, with 48 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving. Third best was climate change: 44 percent approved, while 54 percent disapproved.
Then things started getting ugly. On handling the economic recovery, 41 percent approved to 58 percent who disapproved. On crime: 40 percent approved, 58 percent disapproved. On immigration: 39 percent approved, 59 percent disapproved. On inflation: 29 percent approved, 70 percent disapproved. On gas prices: 28 percent approved, 70 percent disapproved.
While there are a lot of things at work here, one that is not talked about much is that Democratic members of Congress don’t seem to fear Biden, the White House staff, or their own leadership. Perhaps their party is a little too (small "d") democratic. There seems to be no sanction, no penalty, for Democratic members who held up their own president’s signature pieces of legislation; they feared no repercussions either from the president or the party leadership. The end result was that both Biden and the Democratic leadership looked weak and ineffectual, and the process seemed disorganized and chaotic.
This column has noted many times that if a president and party want to do big things, they have to win elections big first. Part of the importance of a president scaling the ambition of his legislative agenda to the magnitude of his election victory is how many votes there are to spare. With a big majority, a few strays aren’t a problem. With narrow margins, every vote matters.
Biden has only 50 Democratic senators, not the 59 and 68 that Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had, respectively, in their first years in office, and only 222 House seats, compared with Roosevelt’s 313 and Johnson’s 295—margins that gave them power to do historic and transformational things. It was folly to think that Biden or anyone else under these circumstances could carry off such an agenda. That is not a messaging problem; that is a flawed decision-making process.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on March 15, 2022.
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