Eighteen months after receiving the most votes of any presidential candidate in history, President Biden is stuck in rut — his 39% approval rating, based on an average of the four most recent national polls, has Democrats worried about a historic wipeout in November’s midterm elections.
It’s no surprise the White House is desperate to engineer a turnaround.
That’s what Biden was trying to do this week, with trips to Iowa and North Carolina to highlight efforts to lower consumer costs and create jobs. But beyond generating a few favorable local headlines, these events rarely move the political needle in an era of nationalized politics and calcifying partisanship.
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Given those dynamics and the circumstances of Biden’s presidency, it’s not exactly clear how the White House can turn things around. Biden’s fortunes, and those of his party, could well improve in the coming months, but that may depend more on factors beyond his control: Will inflation ebb? Will Russia end its war in Ukraine? Will the pandemic take another nasty turn? Will Biden’s most helpful foil return to the campaign trail? Will the Supreme Court overturn Roe vs. Wade in June, helping Democrats galvanize women voters and a disappointed base in the fall?
Happy Friday, everyone. I’m Eli Stokols, White House correspondent for the L.A. Times. No one has the answers to those questions, and our politics are too volatile to make any electoral predictions yet about 2022 or 2024. But the inexorability of our polarization and the coronavirus pandemic — two things Biden vowed to fight — are as fascinating as it is depressing. And it explains much about the president’s predicament.
A couple weeks ago, it was plainly obvious the White House was seeking to inject some sizzle into its messaging campaign when it invited former President Obama to join Biden at an event touting their successes at expanding access to healthcare. The East Room was full of Democratic lawmakers, giddy for an hourlong sojourn to the heady days of 2010 when their party passed the Affordable Care Act by the skin of their teeth — and then lost their majority months later.
Obama’s reminiscing about that period was a reminder that, in politics, seeking to enact an ambitious agenda can have big payoffs, even if it hurts you at the polls.
When Obama and Biden walked out of the East Room, the former president responded to a reporter’s question about Democrats’ midterm prospects. “We’ve got a story to tell,” he said. “Just gotta tell it.”
The reunion also reminded voters that Biden, to put it mildly, is not the effective rhetorician Obama was and is. He may have a better case to make than Obama at this point in his presidency. Both inherited major crises that they managed but failed to quickly eradicate. But Biden faces an electorate that’s even more polarized than it was a decade ago (if you can believe that). At the same time, he is battling the same historical headwinds that have almost always cost presidents control of Congress in midterm elections.
Inflation continues to nullify political benefits of a strong job market
In a normal time, a president would be reaping political dividends from an economy marked by rising wages and an unemployment rate at a nearly 50-year low. But inflation, which hit a new 40-year high in March according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Tuesday, and rising costs are souring Americans’ feelings about the economy and Biden’s stewardship.
When Don Lee and I wrote about that dynamic earlier this week, I was struck by something Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, told me when I asked why the bad news about the economy seemed to be overwhelming the good. Although he reminded me that he’s not an expert on political messaging, he said Democrats would benefit from contrasting the relative health of the economy today with the uncertain state of things two years ago when the pandemic first hit.
“I would give the voters the pandemic version of ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’” Wolfers told me. “I would say, ‘Remember 2020, when the economy cratered and you didn’t know if you were safe, didn’t know if you had a job, didn’t know if you could trust the White House? Now you know you can get a job, wages are rising and you can trust the White House. No one is asking now if we’re on the cusp of a great depression.’”
It’s a given in politics that voters’ attention spans and memories are short. Reminding them of where they were could buy Biden and Democrats a bit more patience.
Moreover, some of the main factors contributing to inflation — a pandemic snarling global supply chains, Russia’s war in Ukraine roiling energy markets and still historically low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve — are largely out of Biden’s control.
Not that those explanations, which Biden articulated in Greensboro, N.C., on Thursday, will be enough to fend off the barrage of attacks from Republicans blaming the president for rising costs. Even voters who want the U.S. to do more to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian attacks may not be very forgiving in November if they’re paying more for gas or bread as a result of the war.
‘Things just don’t feel stable’
Although Biden has been given reasonably high marks for the U.S. response to the war, the conflict appears likely to bog down into a conflict that could last years.
Biden has proved to be a unifier of a reinvigorated NATO alliance that’s found new purpose in response to Putin’s unprovoked war. His rhetoric has conveyed moral clarity, although the ad hoc nature of his declaration that Putin “can’t remain in power” and characterization this week of the war as “genocide” has caused confusion about whether Biden was speaking in a personal capacity or announcing a shift in U.S. policy.
Such rhetoric only enhances the pressure on the West to intervene further to aid Ukraine, but analysts who Courtney Subramanian and I spoke to this week believe there are no happy endings in the offing and that a long, bloody stalemate might be “the least worst plausible outcome.”
While a decisive Ukraine victory could lift Biden, a protracted conflict and months of grim reports from the battlefield could compound the anxieties already felt by an American electorate still grappling with new COVID variants, shifting public health guidelines and continued economic uncertainty.
“Voters elected Joe Biden because they wanted things to go back to normal,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster. “With COVID and the war in Ukraine, a lot of them are saying this is not what I voted for.”
Biden, Hart said, also made the mistake of pursuing an FDR-styled domestic agenda far more ambitious than Democrats could realistically pass with their slim majorities in the House and Senate.
Failures to achieve compromises around police reform or Democratic consensus around a budget bill that included $550 billion to combat climate change and benefits for working families have obscured in part the significant legislative achievements of Biden’s first year: the $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan and a $1-trillion infrastructure overhaul that passed with bipartisan support.
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The Trump factor
Biden’s low approval rating suggests that voters — especially the Democratic base — did, in fact, want him to do something beyond denying President Trump a second term.
But it’s worth reminding ourselves that Trump, who dominated media coverage and our collective psyche for four years, has effectively disappeared from the political landscape since being banned from Twitter after fomenting the Jan. 6 insurrection, popping up only for the occasional rally or interview.
Initially, the White House was thrilled that it didn’t have to contend with Trump’s noise as it set about filling out the federal government and pursuing its agenda. But over time, it’s become clear that Biden has suffered somewhat from not having Trump as a foil — and a reminder to voters of the likeliest political alternative.
Just a few weeks ago, Biden himself said he’d be “very fortunate” if Trump decided to run against him in 2024, making clear that he believes he benefits politically from a side-by-side comparison with his predecessor. In fact, Biden’s eventual decision on whether to seek a second term may hinge on whether Trump is running against him.
The long view
In the short term, thinks look bleak for Biden and Democrats.
Ron Klain, the White House chief of staff, hinted earlier this week that the legislative window for salvaging some of Biden’s climate and jobs agenda before the fall may be closing. “The calendar has only so months,” Klain told NBC’s Chuck Todd. Meanwhile, the president’s campaign pollster, John Anzalone, described the 2022 environment to Politico on Friday as “the worst” he’s seen in his 30 years working in Democratic politics.
But as Obama reminded Democrats at the White House a couple of weeks ago, he emerged from his own midterm shellacking to win a second term in 2012. I’ve talked to several people in Democratic circles who foresee a similar scenario, recognizing that the current circumstances — the inflation crisis, rampant pandemic and Ukraine war — are unlikely to shift in time to benefit their party this November, but suspecting that things could look quite different, and more favorable for Biden, with time.
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The latest from the campaign trail
—At the moment, one of the most interesting campaigns in the country is taking place in Los Angeles. Yes, Los Angeles, where the mayor’s race appears to be tied, as real estate developer Rick Caruso has gained ground on the presumed front-runner, Rep. Karen Bass, in the primary.
—That’s left Bass scrambling to shore up lower propensity but more left-leaning voters. Julia Wick, a must-follow on the mayor’s race along with Ben Oreskes, reported this week on Bass working to deepen her support among Latinos, who account for roughly a third of the city’s voters, by rallying alongside former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and civil rights leader Dolores Huerta.
—Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee officially withdrew from the Commission on Presidential Debates, continuing the GOP’s wholesale disavowal of establishment institutions that Trump has deemed hostile to him. The nonprofit commission, established in 1987 to ensure a fair process for organizing debates between the main presidential candidates, has long been run by members of both parties.
The latest from Washington
—California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pushed back Thursday on renewed questions about her age and capacity to do her job after the San Francisco Chronicle published a report based on four senators — including three Democrats — and one Democratic House member stating that Feinstein’s memory is rapidly deteriorating and that it appears she can no longer fulfill her job duties without her staff.
—As Jennifer Haberkorn and Nolan D. McCaskill reported, the 88-year-old senator “is almost always trailed by staffers while walking around the Capitol, and staffers frequently interject on her behalf when the senator gets questions from reporters.”
—Meanwhile, the White House is grappling with the resurgence ofCOVID with the Omicron BA.2 subvariant. Numerous Cabinet members and administration officials have tested positive in recent days, as have a number of journalists, complicating Biden’s efforts to convince the country that the worst of the pandemic is over.
As Erin B. Logan explained in Wednesday’s newsletter, the administration’s outward nonchalance can be explained by its focus on different metrics — hospitalizations, not cases — in the hope that the new variants aren’t as dangerous as previous ones. Press Secretary Jen Psaki has even said that Biden, the oldest president to ever hold the office at 79, wasn’t worried about testing positive at some point because he’s been fully vaccinated.
The latest from California
—A new poll shows that six in 10 California voters give Biden low marks for his handling of the economy, a troubling sign given the state’s heavy Democratic tilt. As Melanie Mason wrote, “the poll captures an electorate deeply pessimistic about the future.” Although 50% of respondents said they approved of Biden overall, two-thirds said they still believe the country is on the wrong track
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