Did President Biden just have the worst first year in modern history?

The President’s approval rating is at the bottom of the spectrum for the modern era.  More people identify as Republicans than at any time since 1995, and the country is beset by challenges and crises from all sides.  For a man that promised a return to normalcy, we’ve seen nothing like it.  Of course, it’s early, but things still aren’t looking good…

Judging a presidency in real-time is always a challenging proposition.  Oftentimes, the long term vision and impact aren’t understood for decades, if not centuries afterward.  Ulysses S. Grant was considered a scandal-plagued, largely ineffectual president when I was growing up, but has since had something of a Renaissance as historians reevaluate his role in the early civil rights movement and willingness to take on racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.  More recently, Harry S. Truman left office in early 1953 considered a good man whom events had overtaken, overwhelmed by the complexities of the world and the office.  It was only over the course of subsequent decades that historians realized President Truman had succeeded in setting US foreign policy on the right course for 40 years, skillfully avoided a full scale war with the Soviet Union, and led the country on civil rights.

Judging a presidency by the first year alone is even more challenging.  Many Presidents struggle to find their footing, or find themselves faced with unexpected events.  President Truman himself learned that the Soviet Union had developed an atomic bomb years earlier than expected shortly after his first official inauguration in 1949.  Ronald Reagan struggled with out-of-control inflation and a short recession in his first two years, but quickly recovered and won 49 out of 50 states in his re-election bid.  Bill Clinton’s universal health care plan, colloquially known as Hillarycare, suffered a stinging defeat at the hands of his own party, leading to the Republican Revolution in 1994, and yet he too easily won a second term.  A failed health care push also significantly damaged Donald Trump in his first year, sowing distrust within his own party, and, of course, George W. Bush’s entire presidency was upended by the 9-11 terror attacks.  Things change fast and unexpectedly in politics, predictions aren’t any easy business.

At this point, it is impossible to say how history will remember Joe Biden, whether or not the challenges he faces are transitory or permanent, and what else lies in store, both positive and negative.  Regardless, I don’t think there’s much debate over whether President Biden has had a challenging first year to say the least.  Almost wherever you look, challenges if not fully blown crises abound:  Coronavirus, in new Omicron form, is spreading faster than ever, while his plans have proven ineffectual or been struck down by the courts.  Inflation is at the highest level in 40 years, showing no sign of slowing down, and further compounded by supply chain challenges that are limiting the supply of everything from cars to computers.  Economic growth is slowing, far faster than predicted, and job growth continues to fall well below expectations on a monthly basis as millions of workers have left the labor force since the start of the pandemic.  Violent crime is spiking in urban areas to levels not seen in decades, resulting in thousands of additional murders per  year.  Illegal immigration has sky rocketed, fentanyl is flowing across the border, and more Americans succumbed to addiction than ever before, some 100,000 dead last year alone.  The Taliban once again controls Afghanistan after American forces retreated and a war was lost on Biden’s watchRussia is massing troops on the Ukraine border, and many think an invasion is imminent.  China is sending signals they will move against Taiwan in the near future.  One might debate President Biden’s personal responsibility for any and all of these issues, but few maxims are more true in politics than the President bearing the credit and the blame for what happens on their watch, rightly or wrongly so.  In addition, two key centerpieces of his agenda are in shambles, both Build Back Better and voting rights stymied by members of his own party.

As far as I can tell, Biden’s only clear successes are a large coronavirus relief bill passed last March and a rare bipartisan investment in infrastructure signed into law this fall, though others would likely cite the economy and vaccine distribution, more on that in a moment.  Beyond those two achievements, however, the President seems far more a victim of circumstances and his own self-inflicted wounds than an effective leader of either the country or his party.  Perhaps even worse, he has become increasingly shrill as a result, catering to his base in a way that is unlikely to change any minds.  Last week, we witnessed the odd spectacle of a Democrat President taking direct aim at two Democrat Senators over voting rights, comparing their opposition to removing the filibuster to advance his preferred legislation to both Confederates in the Civil War and segregationists during the Civil Rights movement.  In response, Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin refused to relent.  Senator Sinema actually took to the floor of the Senate before a meeting with President Biden to announce once and for all that she wouldn’t vote to remove the filibuster in what was widely seen as a huge snub.  Nor are Senators the only Democrats snubbing the President.  He made his big voting rights speech in Georgia, home of Democrat hero and voting rights activist, Stacey Abrams:  She cited scheduling conflicts and wasn’t even in the audience, many considered it a sign of President Biden losing influence on his party.

Evidence of a broad loss of support can also be seen in recent polling, where his personal numbers and overall party identification numbers are moving in the completely wrong direction from his perspective.  A Quinnipiac Poll conducted from January 7 to 10 found that only 33% of Americans approve of his job performance, a whopping 20 percent below the 53% disapproval figure.  President Biden’s disapproval greatly exceeds his approval in all of the top three issues.  On the economy he stands at 34% approval, 35% on foreign policy, and 39% on the pandemic.  These approval ratings are well towards the low end of the spectrum for Presidents at this point in their time in office.  Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were slightly higher.  Barack Obama, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson might as well have been on another planet with ratings well above 60%.  The President’s current approval rating also stands in stark contrast to the numbers he enjoyed in his first 5 months, taking office after the tumultuous, polarizing Trump years, but before the defeat in Afghanistan and the resurgence of the virus.  Once upon a time, he regularly polled over 50%.  Incredibly, Quinnipiac also found that about half of those surveyed feel Biden is performing as expected, suggesting a reasonable slice of the electorate chose him as the lesser of two evils compared to Trump.  Only 7%, however, believe he’s doing better than expected while 49% say he is actively dividing the country, compared to 42% who believe he is uniting Americans.

Approval ratings rise and fall, surely few would have anticipated Ronald Reagan riding to a landslide victory at the end of his first year, but a recent Gallup report suggests that Biden’s first year may have been accompanied by the largest political realignment in recent decades, representing a huge shift from the Democrat to the Republican Party.  Gallup found that there was a “dramatic shift over the course of 2021, from a nine-percentage-point Democratic advantage in the first quarter to a rare five-point Republican edge in the fourth quarter.”  Surveys conducted in the first quarter of 2021 found Democrats leading Republicans in voter identification by a 9 point margin, 49% to 40%.  In the second quarter, it was down to 6 points, 49% to 43%.  The numbers tightened even further in the third quarter, reducing the Democrat advantage to 1 point, and by the fourth, the parties had flipped.  Republicans are now up by five points, 47% to 42%, representing an overall swing of 14 points in favor of the GOP.  This is a massive shift by any reasonable measure, supported by a massive amount of polling data covering interviews with 12,000 US adults, a very large sample size.  Gallup itself describes the Republican lead as “rare,” noting “Both the nine-point Democratic advantage in the first quarter and the five-point Republican edge in the fourth quarter are among the largest Gallup has measured for each party in any quarter since it began regularly measuring party identification and leaning in 1991.”  Further, the GOP advantage has only been this high in four quarters over the full thirty year period.  The last time they held this advantage was in 1995, and the only time it was higher was in 1991 itself.

This data suggests the country is moving away from Biden in record numbers, losing voters by the millions and giving the lie to repeated claims from experts and the media that progressives are essentially guaranteed a voting majority by demographic destiny alone.  Incredibly, it also appears that President Biden may be losing the mainstream media as well.  If a trickle precedes a flood, there are inklings that at least some in the media aren’t happy.  CNN’s Julian Zelizer actually comes out and asks, “Is Biden’s presidency doomed?”  He begins by noting the obvious, “President Joe Biden is struggling politically. Recent polls have shown that his approval ratings continue to fall.” He ends with some wishful, aspirational thinking.  “It’s possible that Biden’s troubles will fade, and he and the nation will eventually look back on a successful two-term administration.”  Meanwhile, Politico’s West Wing Playbook reported that “Biden’s favorite columnists revolt,” consolidating opinions from numerous pundits, including Jennifer Rubin, who recently claimed “Biden needs a reset.”  Likewise, The New York Times’ David Brooks concluded that “There’s no path forward for a leftist agenda.”  Even Chris Mathews is convinced he’s “too far left.” Some have claimed he is too small for the office and unable to inspire the country.

Of course, many also believe a comeback is imminent and the challenges facing Biden aren’t as daunting as they seem:  Also in Politico, Jack Schaefer wrote “Why You Can Count on a Biden Bounce,” urging us to prepare ourselves “for the Biden comeback.”  Mr. Shaefer apparently believes that Biden is “cratering at just the right time,” because “academics agree” that “successful policy initiatives appear to drive popularity upward” and that “things are looking up,” including “economic signs” that “look great.”  It’s easy for conservatives to dismiss this as wishful thinking, but this is essentially the position of the Biden Administration:  Inflation and supply chain challenges aside, the underlying economy is poised to take off.  Coronavirus is going to pass as well. Biden’s mandates were defeated in court, but he has succeeded in vaccinating hundreds of millions, and they can ultimately get on with progressive governance sooner rather than later.  In support of this position, President Biden and his surrogates are fond of touting positive economic numbers.  Some, like Bloomberg’s Mathew A. Winkler, believe “Biden’s Economic Performance Has Proved Unbeatable.”  Josh Boak from the Associated Press noted far more honestly that “ By some counts, President Joe Biden can lay claim to a banner first year in office. But numbers also reveal plenty of setbacks.”  On the positive side, he referenced economic data like the drop in the jobless rate to 3.9%, down from 6.4% at the start of his term as employers have added some 6.4 million jobs.  It is also true that the economy continues to grow.  If these were normal times, the numbers might well translate into Biden being considered a successful economic president.

The times are far from normal, however, nor is this a normal economic recovery from a run of the mill recession.  Never before has the government ordered the shutdown of huge swaths of the economy.  Therefore, comparing the jobs created in the wake of a once in the history of the world occurrence to the performance of other Presidents has limited utility.  In my opinion, the average person isn’t given Biden the credit progressives feel he deserves because they realize, intuitively, that these aren’t “jobs created” in the usual sense of the term.  They are much closer to “jobs recovered,” as in those that were lost because of intentional government intervention.  Likewise, the economy is growing, but still remains only slightly larger than it was in January 2020.  It is also true that, despite the growth, the economy is consistently underperforming expectations in recent months, with the jobs created far, far below those expected, and economists are lowering their forecasts.  Factor in 7% inflation and it seems reasonable that most people simply aren’t prepared to give President Biden credit for a great economy, at least not yet.

Of course, it’s too soon to tell.  Biden has three years left in office and could well turn things around as other Presidents have done, but it’s difficult to see precisely what that turn around might look like if he continues down the current path.  Biden’s promise to America was simple:  Turn down the temperature, reduce the political polarization, and return us to something resembling normalcy after the constant drama of President Trump’s time in office.  So far, he has failed on all counts, and much of that failure has been his personal responsibility.  You simply cannot unite a country while calling everyone that disagrees with you, even members of your own party, Confederates and segregationists.  The President surely knows this, and yet he persists.  This, however, is something he has the capacity to change as part of a planned rebranding and reset.  The early signs are not good, given the President claimed just yesterday that he is actually “overperforming. “I didn’t overpromise,” he said. “I have probably outperformed what anybody thought would happen.” Otherwise, we’ll have to wait and see, but even if he chooses a more centrist direction he will still remain beholden by events.  No President, however popular or well-liked, can survive 7% or hire inflation for long, a slowing economy, an ongoing pandemic, and potential foreign policy crises with China and Russia.  Forget the President himself, it’s not clear how much the country as a whole can take.


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