With Democrats in the doldrums, just how much is Biden to blame?

President, for months, fostered unrealistic expectations among party base

President Joe Biden, here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October, allowed left-wing Democrats for months to dream of a $3.5 trillion social spending bill, even though it had no plausible route through the Senate, Shapiro writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden, here with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in October, allowed left-wing Democrats for months to dream of a $3.5 trillion social spending bill, even though it had no plausible route through the Senate, Shapiro writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 16, 2021 at 6:00am

It is a standard polling question that will probably be asked a million times over the next year: “If the election were being held today, would you vote for … ?”

These days, any partisan Democrat hearing that question might be tempted to shout, “Thank God, the election isn’t being held today. We’ve got time. We’ve got time.”

Democratic hopes right now are probably at their lowest ebb since the heady days of 2018 when the party took back the House and nurtured the dream that Donald Trump had driven every college-educated voter — aside from Ted Cruz — out of the Republican Party. 

Ten months ago, Joe Biden took office declaring, “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” But these days, Republicans have deliberately become the party of amnesia over Jan. 6 as Trump spreads his conspiratorial bile about a stolen election. 

Ten months ago, even at the depths of the pandemic, there was hope that vaccines, science and a steady hand in Washington would soon defeat COVID-19. These days, we have come to grips with the reality that during the pandemic the true enemy is us. Anti-vax sentiment — as dangerous and irresponsible as it may be — has become a major strand in far-right Republican rhetoric. 

Ten months ago, as the economy was still reeling from the homebound blues, inflation was seen as an artifact of the 1970s. Those with long memories could picture bell bottoms and Jerry Ford’s WIN buttons, which stood for Whip Inflation Now. These days — after the worst burst of inflation in three decades — the price is never right. Especially if you’re trying to buy a home or a car.

All of this is reflected in poll numbers that have Democrats staring bleakly into the abyss. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll had Biden’s approval rating at a dismal 41 percent, with the new president unable to even command a majority for his handling of COVID-19.

A late October NBC News poll showed that only 22 percent of Americans believed the nation was on the right track. While the national mood has long been pessimistic, 36 percent felt things were headed in the right direction back in the heady days of April. 

My point is not to prematurely declare the 2022 elections a GOP landslide and to prophesize the triumphant 2024 return from Mar-a-Lago of a certain “former guy.” These are the kind of glib predictions you can find everywhere these days, from the Farmers’ Almanac to the nearest tarot card reader. 

Foreseeable problems

What is far more relevant, nearly a year from the midterms, is to decipher how much of Biden’s current decline was inevitable. 

Some of the problems bedeviling the American economy are beyond the control of any president, though it is possible Biden could have done a bit more at the margins. 

Maybe a Marvel Comics superhero could have figured out a way to unravel the global supply chain snarl. In my imagination, I see Superman tossing around shipping containers as if they were baby blocks. But the inherent problems of just-in-time industrial production seem more rooted in 21st-century capitalism than in the identity of the American president.

Inflation is a trickier issue. In hindsight, former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers was right when he warned that the $1.9-trillion stimulus package Biden signed in March was more than the economy needed. 

But Biden was far from alone in dismissing inflation as a realistic threat. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and many business leaders also believed that price hikes were temporary glitches triggered by the weirdness of spending patterns during the pandemic.

How much is Biden to blame for the nation’s grim mood as we head for our second bleak pandemic winter? 

Since the end of June, Biden has seen his approval rating for handling COVID-19 sharply decline from 62 percent to 47 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The July 6 celebration at the White House may be remembered as Biden’s “mission accomplished” moment, akin to George W. Bush hailing victory in Iraq. As a jubilant Biden put it in his holiday weekend remarks, “The virus is on the run, and America is coming back. … This is one of the greatest achievements in American history, and you, the American people, made it happen.”

This may indeed be the case — next Fourth of July. 

Big expectations

But it is hard to place too much blame on Biden for the chilling resilience of the virus. Yes, the White House has given confusing signals on booster shots. But the root of the problem is that only 71 percent of American adults are fully vaccinated — a problem with origins on Fox News rather than in the Oval Office. 

Looking back at Biden’s 10 months in office, probably the biggest mistake in narrow 2022 political terms was to foster unrealistic expectations among Democratic activists over what is legislatively possible through budget reconciliation in a 50-50 Senate. 

For months, the president allowed left-wing Democrats to dream of a $3.5 trillion social spending bill, even though there was no plausible route through the Senate. Now that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are still dragging their heels over a downsized $1.75 trillion package, there is a self-destructive sense among Democrats that Biden is a failed president.  

The Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that only 44 percent of Democrats strongly approved of his performance as president. Nothing is more enraging than the failure of Democrats to remember that the alternative to Biden is not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It’s a second act for Donald J. Trump. 

Lyndon Johnson, in the depths of Vietnam, used to remind Democratic critics, “I’m the only president you’ve got.” That sentiment is far more powerful these days when it comes to President Joseph Biden. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.