Saint Joe of the Low Bar: President Biden, Approval Numbers, and Ticking Clocks
President Biden has his much discussed “100 Days” landing just about as well as he could have hoped. On Wednesday, the 46th president will deliver a “not the State of the Union” address to a joint session of congress. Thursday is the actual date for the much ado “First 100 days” and will see the President travel to the politically Hotlanta in Georgia, a makeup trip that was cancelled earlier by a mass shooting. And to kick off such a busy week for the Biden Administration, good news in the approval polling department.
According to the poll, 53 percent of adults say they approve of Biden’s job as president — including 90 percent of Democrats, 61 percent of independents but just 9 percent of Republicans — while 39 percent of all respondents say they disapprove.
Biden’s job rating is higher than Donald Trump’s was at this same point in time in the poll (40 percent approve, 54 percent disapprove), but it’s lower than Barack Obama’s was at 100 days (61 percent approve, 30 percent disapprove).
Among registered voters in the new poll, Biden’s job rating stands at 51 percent who approve, 43 percent who disapprove.
For those scoring at home, that puts President Biden significantly above his predecessor, but below Presidents Obama and Bush at similar points in their presidencies. Covid dominates most folks’ thoughts in the polling, and with 54% of the eligible population now vaccinated while restrictions are lifting across much of the country, things are looking up as the Covid pandemic in America approaches it’s second summer. With his first big speech to congress on prime time, and the ensuing coverage, next week’s numbers should also be good for President Biden.
But the polling also shows the path ahead to be an uncertain one:
The president gets his highest marks on handling the pandemic (69 percent approve), on dealing with the economy (52 percent approve), on uniting the country (52 percent approve) and on race relations (49 percent approve). “I think I just like how he’s handling the Covid crisis more than Trump did,” said one Democratic poll respondent from Iowa.
But Biden’s lowest scores come on dealing with China (35 percent), handling the gun issue (34 percent) and dealing with border security and immigration (33 percent).
“He opened floodgates for illegal immigration,” said one female Trump voter from Texas.
And by a 55-to-34 percent margin, respondents believe that Biden has returned the country to a more typical way that past presidents have governed the country.
Joe Biden became president with something of a low bar to clear: Don’t be Donald Trump. That contrast was helped immensely with everything that transpired between Election Day and Inauguration Day, almost all of it Trump-centric chaos. He rode into office with a crisis of Covid but with the cavalry of vaccines already en route. President Biden pushed through and signed his biggest item of his early presidency, the massive Covid relief package. He also made a mess for himself to deal with when his “day one” executive orders concerning immigration combined with campaign rhetoric turned a surge at the southern border into an ongoing headache for the administration and a humanitarian mess that continues to be a bipartisan problem regardless of who the president is since congress can’t be bothered to fix it.
The president has been helped by his personal likability remaining high. The artist formally dubbed by President Obama as “Sheriff Joe” cuts a much different figure than his predecessor. So far, the low bar of “Just don’t be Trump” seems to be plenty for a large swath of America. The ending of the Trump presidency was very ugly optically and politically. With the efforts to overturn the election, the disaster that was the Georgia run-offs that lost Republicans control of the Senate, and the criminal mess that was the January 6th riot at the Capitol itself, the affable public persona of good ol’ Joe contrasted greatly. Such optics helped out the time-honored tradition of the new president getting to ease into office while blaming much on “the last guy.”
What is not helping the president is a mass of group think writers and media figures idiotically trying to make comparisons to FDR and calling for a sweeping presidency of massive change. Aside from the laziness of it, such comparisons are historically ignorant. FDR enjoyed sweeping majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, at one point having a two-thirds majority in both. President Biden, back here in the real world here and now, has a split senate with his VP as a tie breaker, a slim house majority, and plenty of division to deal with. Add in the fact that the first midterms are not usually friendly to the ruling party, and 2022 is going to be a redistricted election to boot, and the window for getting legislation done with those slim majorities might be shutting far sooner than the chattering class thinks.
The polling is great on Covid response for the president. It’s also an issue decreasing in importance for many Americans. As they become vaccinated, and over a year into it fatigued by all things Covid-related, the general public are seeing Covid and related issues as less and less of a pressing issue. But after that those approval numbers get closer to representing the divide in the congress, and the country for that matter. The “this proposal has bipartisan support” for anything that has over 50% public polling is a clever line, but that’s a two-edged sword those same folks won’t like being wielded back against their preferred policies. The taxes and spending line on that chart show the president under water, which is not a great place to start with the looming $2 trillion infrastructure debate coming up next which will feature plenty of spending and necessarily the taxes to pay for it. China is a problem that won’t get any easier. Gun control will be a huge issue for the president and his base but will face an uphill climb. Then there is the border situation that the president has already quietly admitted to botching on day one by reinstating some Trump-era policies as the administration looks for solutions that can make both his base and his opponents, if not happy, at least quieter. But it is going to take more than just swapping chain link for clear plastic in the detention centers in photo-ops to deal with the border crisis, or help the president’s poor polling numbers on the issue.
Time is not on President Biden’s side. The last two presidents both came into office with majorities in both the House and the Senate, and both only got through one major piece of legislation before control changed in the midterms. President Obama spent enormous amounts of political capital pushing through the American Care Act (Obamacare). President Trump signed his tax cut legislation. And that was about it on the big-ticket items. And both President Obama and Trump had wider margins than President Biden currently has. Already, Senate Majority Leader Schumer has said the HR1 voting reform bill has a deadline of August now, and the infrastructure bill that is supposed to be next is starting to show strain as various factions jockey for things to be included or excluded. The HR1 delay is the telling one; the first rule of legislating as the majority is “if you got the votes, vote.” Schumer delaying means the Democrats do not, in fact, have the votes.
As President Biden takes the national stage for his Joint Session speech on Wednesday, and the coverage the following day which marks his 100th day in office, the question of just what the Joe Biden presidency is going to be is very much up in the air. With favorable marks on the pandemic so far, and his personal likability high, President Biden will probably maintain his poll numbers for a while yet. But the make-or-break moment for this presidency is quickly approaching for the 46th president. The easy part of shepherding an in-progress Covid response to success is drawing down as those wanting to get vaccines do so, and those who don’t remain to be convinced. Polling already showss fewer and fewer Americans thinking Covid is the most pressing issue of the day. There is a very real chance of gridlock in congress and not much else legislatively going into the win column for Democrats. If congress breaks down into prolonged fights over legislative procedures like the filibuster — as important as that is — the general public will only gaze from afar and see the same old dysfunctional congress they already think very little of. And the issue the president polls best at is not going to be an issue forever.
By this fall, the congress critters’ attention will start to turn towards their own political fortunes in what is lining up to be a tumultuous 2020 midterm election complete with a redistricting twist, and less on worrying about President Biden looking good. And beyond our shores and outside the current attention of most Americans right now, a wider world roils and always threatens to upset the best laid domestic plans of any administration with the unexpected.
For a man who is finishing his fifth decade in Washington and has the reputation of going along and getting along before ascending to the White House, President Biden is going to have moments coming soon where being personally liked and empathetic is not going to be enough. Events will arise where just not being Donald Trump will be an insufficient answer to the problems that cross the Resolute Desk. These big speeches full of numbers and promises usually don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things for presidents. For a president who is hanging his early presidency on big, bold legislative action, recent history and current circumstance shows the incline up that mountain getting steeper by the minute.
The “first 100 days” framing as both goals and media rhetorical device is what it is. Speeches like the don’t-call-it-a-State-of-The-Union Joint Session are long on numbers, stats, and promises and short on lasting effects. The initial sprint of the Biden Administration is done and now the grinding marathon of governing the nation sets in. Joe Biden also gets to benefit from an opposing political party in the GOP that is dealing both with the specter of an out-of-office but ever-present Donald Trump and also the pressing issues of a not-quite-united front against President Biden and the Democrat majorities. History might say midterms are good for the party out of power, but those elections still have to be run, and won.
President Biden will have his moment tonight, and enjoy his 100 days while proclaiming the high points of his administration thus far in the afterglow news cycles. Probably his approval polling will reflect good news in the days to follow.
But then what? Time and tides and midterms wait for no one. Especially American Presidents. And they won’t for Joe Biden either.