No U-Turns for President Biden ahead of midterms
President Biden begins his second year in office with a 42 percent average job approval rating. Republicans hold a 1 point lead over Democrats in the congressional generic ballot (and the generic ballot question often underestimates GOP support). The Gallup organization reports that in the final quarter of 2021 Republicans took a 5 point lead in party identification for the first time since 1995. As of this writing, 28 House Democrats have announced their retirements, with more expected to follow. Biden’s agenda is stalled in Congress, the Supreme Court blocked his employer vaccine mandate, the coronavirus pandemic continues, and inflation is higher than at any point in the last 39 years. The country—not to mention the president—could use a reset.
We’re not getting one. Instead, on January 19, we got Biden’s combative, discursive, and delusional mess of a 1 hour and 51-minute press conference. Among the reasons the occasion was notable—and notorious—was that it forced the White House to clarify later Biden’s comments on not one but two issues: Biden’s ambiguity over America’s response if Russia launches a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, and Biden’s repeated assertion that the Senate’s failure to pass his election takeover bills throws the legitimacy of the midterm elections into doubt. To watch Biden at the lectern was to experience shock and dismay interspersed with moments of alarm and dark humor. No wonder he hides from the media. It was the worst presidential press conference since Donald Trump stood next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018.
Biden’s message to the 64 percent of the public that says the country is headed in the wrong direction: Everything is fine. Biden’s message to the 42 percent of the public that says economic conditions are poor: You must be joking. “We created six million new jobs—more jobs in one year than at any time before,” Biden said. “Unemployment dropped—the unemployment dropped to 3.9 percent.” Yes, Biden conceded, there is “frustration and fatigue in this country.” But that is due to the pandemic. As for inflation, Biden went on, it will subside when the Federal Reserve tightens the money supply (true), when Congress passes “my Build Back Better plan” (false), and when his anti-monopoly executive orders take effect (also false). “I didn’t overpromise,” Biden said. “But I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.”
In one sense that’s true—Biden has turned out to be much worse than anybody expected. Just 28 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal of confidence” in his management of the White House. Forty-nine percent say he is doing more to divide than to unite the country. Less than a third want him to run for reelection. Biden shows no sign of taking these atrocious numbers seriously. “I don’t believe the polls,” he said Wednesday. It shows.
I had flashbacks during Biden’s presser to President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress in September 2011. Like Obama, Biden didn’t back down from his agenda. Like Obama, Biden challenged Republican obstructionism and tried to define the choice for the electorate between Democratic egalitarianism and Republican extremism. In retrospect, Obama’s economic address was the launch of his reelection campaign. Even though his proposal never became law, he succeeded in casting his opponents in a negative light. It helped him define Mitt Romney the following year as an uncaring plutocrat and win a second term. The Obama-era retreads who fill the Biden administration—including Biden himself—must assume that a similar strategy will limit their losses in the midterms. They tell themselves that if they keep their heads down and soldier on, the left will remain happy, and the center will come back to the Democrats out of fear and dislike of Trump and the MAGA Squad. “What are Republicans for?” Biden said Wednesday. “What are they for? Name me one thing they are for.”
Stopping you, for starters. And, judging by the polls, that may be enough. There are many differences between Obama in 2011 and Biden in 2022, and they don’t work in the incumbent’s favor. For one thing, time is running short for Biden. He has less than 10 months before Election Day. For another, Obama had a Republican House of Representatives to triangulate against. All the voters know now is that Democrats are in full control of the federal government and making a mess of it. A third difference is the state of the world. Obama’s controversial first term looks like a placid oasis compared with the hellscape of today.
Then of course there are the stylistic divergences between Obama and his former vice president. Obama was a cultural figure as well as a president, a man of distinction and suavity whose oratorical presence and position atop his party was never questioned, even if plenty of people (including me) disagreed with just about everything he ever did or said. The same isn’t true of Biden. Obama is incapable of a press conference as rambling and disheveled and politically harmful as Biden’s. Even Bill Clinton, four years Biden’s junior, would have done better. And Clinton’s been out of office for 21 years.
Biden pledged to make some changes this year, however. Not to his White House team. Not to his vice president. According to Biden, they are all doing fine. Nor will he alter his policies. Maybe Build Back Better can pass in “chunks,” maybe Congress can reform the Electoral Count Act to prevent election subversion, but overall Biden is satisfied with himself. “Can you think of any other president that has done as much in one year?” Biden asked in one of his biggest whoppers of the afternoon. “Name one for me.”
Biden doesn’t want to make substantive changes. He wants a different schedule. “I’m going to get out of this place more often.” Never mind that he spent a quarter of his first year in Delaware. “I’m going to go out and talk to the public.” And “now that I have time,” he’s going to seek more advice from “experts outside,” including the “presidential historians” who convinced him that he is FDR and LBJ reborn and set him on the road to a 40 percent approval rating. Finally, Biden said, “We’re going to be out there making sure that we’re helping all those candidates.” No doubt. I, for one, can think of many candidates who Biden is helping. They are all Republicans.