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If Biden's approval rating is falling, he's got himself to blame

Biden has been strangely passive in reversing his polling spiral, in contrast to the boldness he first exhibited.
Image: President Joe Biden speaks to reporters outside of the White House on Sept. 26, 2021.
President Joe Biden speaks to reporters outside of the White House on Sept. 26, 2021.Samuel Corum / Getty Images file

Joe Biden’s not having a great fall. His legislative agenda is treading water, his poll numbers are slipping, and even his core supporters are unhappy. While they are prone to point the finger at the GOP and the press corps, the reality is that the White House has largely itself to blame.

What is the good news story that this White House has to tell?

Indeed, for all the sturm und drang about Biden’s lousy polling, the question that could be asked is why so many Americans approve of the job the president is doing. What is the good news story that this White House has to tell?

September was another brutal month for Covid-19 cases and deaths, and though the numbers are finally starting to decline, more than 1,600 Americans are still dying every day. In fairness, this is only partially Biden’s fault, since the vast majority of deaths are happening in red states and among the unvaccinated. For Covid, at least, Biden is getting blamed for a problem largely created by Republican governors.

But the president also has agency on this issue. He did not announce his plan for vaccine mandates until early September. While federal employees and members of the military are now required to be vaccinated, amazingly the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) still hasn’t issued guidelines for employers to impose mandates on their workers.

Had the president acted sooner, like in the spring when it was clear that vaccine rates had stalled, vaccination rates would almost certainly be higher now — and many deaths could have been averted. Biden’s apparent fear of sparking a political backlash might have seemed politically prudent then, but in retrospect it was a major missed opportunity. The growing frustration over America’s inability to return to normal, the masking requirements that still exist in a number of states, the tentative economic recovery, the fact that millions of Americans are still working from home and, of course, the ever-rising death toll have likely been the biggest contributor to Biden’s weak polling numbers.

While Biden came into office and moved quickly in proposing and enacting his bold policy agenda, he’s replicating his tentativeness on Covid on other fronts.

It’s easy to blame Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema for the legislative roadblock in Congress (and they do deserve most of the blame), but where is the urgency from the White House? Biden is acting more like an interested bystander than a politician whose presidency is riding on Congress’s ability to deliver on his Build Back Better agenda. Democratic partisans complain that the media has done a poor job of explaining the bill’s specifics to the American people. But perhaps Congress spending the past few months haggling over price tags is part of the reason.

I realize it’s hard for any White House to get its message out directly, but Biden billed himself as a guy who can get things done — and right now, nothing is getting done in Washington. In addition, Biden is not doing nearly enough to use the presidency’s bully pulpit to his advantage. This is his bill, and he is ceding ground to feuding Democrats in Congress and allowing them to be the face of his policy agenda.

Ironically, the one place where Biden threw political caution to the wind and acted decisively came in August, in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet, that is when Biden’s numbers began to spiral down — unfairly, I would argue, and in part because it punctured the aura of competence that he had cultivated on the campaign trail and in his first few months in office.

In addition, the president’s liberal supporters, who had their hopes set on police reform or progress on voting rights, are being stymied left and right. Not all of that is Biden’s fault — in fact, most of it isn’t. But the nuances of who is to blame for police reform not happening or the details of the Afghanistan withdrawal are lost on the vast majority of voters.

What’s happening to Biden is little different from what has happened to every modern president.

What’s happening to Biden is little different from what has happened to every modern president. There’s only so much any commander-in-chief can control. But Biden has been strangely passive in reversing his polling spiral — and that stands in stark contrast to the boldness and boundary-pushing that defined his first few months in office.

Yet, for all the bad news buffeting the White House these days, it’s quite possible that this is much ado about nothing. Biden’s numbers have declined in some polls, but in others they have remained stable. Moreover, because of the intense polarization in the American electorate today, Biden is not going to be hitting a 60 percent approval rate anytime soon. Any approval ratings in the low 50s (a point that Trump never reached during four years in the White House) would be a significant achievement.

That benchmark should be achievable. Assuming the Covid numbers improve — and with close to 80 percent of Americans vaccinated that seems like a reasonably safe assumption — one should expect Biden to get a political boost. Same goes for the announcement, most likely coming soon, that children can get the vaccine.

Barring a full Democratic meltdown, Congress will likely pass an infrastructure bill and a massive spending package that will pump billions of dollar into the economy between now and November 2022. If that happens, it stands to reason that it will spur the economic recovery and get people back to a place of normalcy. Biden will then be well positioned to reap the political benefits. In addition, if Democrats hold governor’s seats in Virginia and New Jersey next month, this too may pass. If Biden’s numbers improve, congressional Democratic incumbents can run with the president at their side and take the fight directly to Republicans as a party united.

But if there is anything to be taken away from Biden’s summer and fall of discontent, it is that his political success and that of his party cannot depend on good things just happening; the president needs to be actively involved. The White House apparently needs to be reminded of an important political truth: Ultimately, boldness and risk-taking will trump passivity.