Jack Shafer: “Joe Biden Is Almost as Unpopular as Trump, Unlike Trump, He Has a Way Out”

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column  on politico.com headlined “Joe Biden Is Almost as Unpopular as Trump, Unlike Trump, He Has a Way Out”:

The Joe Biden presidency has, so far, conformed to the iron law of presidential approval polling: A newly inaugurated president starts out strong in the polls but inevitably drifts lower in his first term. The only unique thing about Biden’s decline is how quickly he burned through his post-inaugural popularity. In February, he hit an impressive 57 percent in the Gallup approval ratings, but recently he’s dipped to 42 percent. That places Biden just a notch above Donald Trump’s Gallup average of 41.1 percent, which is enshrined in the polling hall of fame as the worst approval rating of any president since Gallup started taking the measure of presidents in 1945.

The press has gathered to sing in full chorus about the Biden presidency hitting a new low, slumping, collapsing in free fall, just plain falling and plummeting. Why has his popularity tumbled into the sub-basement? What, if anything, can he do to improve his ratings?…

Trump bragged about his polls when they were high and dismissed them as fake when they dipped. The press, too, has slobbered over approval polls like a favorite chew toy, filling endless column inches with he’s-up-he’s-down-he’s-nosediving-he’s-soaring stories.

Presidents start out with high approval ratings because they’re winners, but as John E. Mueller, the leading academic on the subject, wrote in 1970, after some opening moments of bliss and accord with the public, all presidents tend toward a natural decline….Presidents win the White House by making extravagant appeals and promises to multiple interest groups. These voters become smitten and develop unreasonable expectations about what the president can accomplish. And they are routinely let down.

In Biden’s case, much of the current disappointment in him is the necessary price he must pay for promising a grand expansion of social programs — free community college, dental care for seniors, a path to citizenship for immigrants — but failing so far to deliver. As these proposals have been downscaled or vaporized, some of the constituents who originally swooned for Biden have become disillusioned. Constituents are like that: Promise them $3.5 trillion in benefits and some of them will hate you if you only deliver $2 trillion worth….

Outside of feeding expectations, the variables that move a president’s approval numbers reside mostly outside his control. If he’s lucky enough to hold the rudder when the country plows into a crisis, he can expect to bolster his approval ratings even if he deserves no credit for the response. For instance, Jimmy Carter’s went up when the hostages were taken in Tehran. Later, of course, when the incident reduced him to a pitiful, helpless giant, his ratings folded. Both Bushes saw their numbers surge when after 9/11 and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Neither could sustain those numbers after they went to war….Ronald Reagan’s numbers went up after he was shot.

If the economy goes sideways on an administration, the president’s ratings invariably suffer, Mueller writes. But oddly, if the economy improves, the supervising president generally reaps no reward. If a president is victorious in war — or just ends one as Eisenhower did in Korea — he can expect a bump. But it’s not a sure bet. Biden has gotten almost nothing for ending the Afghanistan intervention, which is curious because he handled it better than President Gerald Ford did the fall of Saigon, and Ford got an uptick in his approval ratings. Mueller writes that the surest way to leave the White House with Eisenhower-like numbers — he peaked at 79 percent and departed with about 60 percent — is to be as likable as Ike or resign immediately after taking the oath of office. Nobody will ever match Ike’s avuncularity and seeing as Biden missed his chance to resign on opening day, he must seek other ways to reverse his numbers….

How invested should Biden become in futzing with his dismal numbers? Let’s say he found a magical way to add another 10 points to his approval ratings. Would the Manchin-Sinema axis become more obedient and help pass his agenda? Surely not. Would it help his party in the mid-term elections? Likely not. Popular presidents lose in mid-terms all the time and Mueller says they’re not ever good gauges of reelectability. Would it make him a cinch to win again in 2024? President George H.W. Bush averaged an approval rating of almost 61 throughout his presidency but was beaten by Bill Clinton (and third-party accomplice Ross Perot) when he ran for reelection in 1992….

The single, undeniable advantage higher approval numbers bring to a president is relief from critical press stories about his unlikability. The less criticism you attract, the more that more people will like you. But being routinely disliked, as we’ve seen with Trump, doesn’t completely blunt a presidency. Trump remade the judiciary, upturned the tax code, helped defeat ISIS and created the Space Force, among other initiatives.

If Biden wants to sugar his ratings, he ought to synchronize his promises with his accomplishments. In a normal world, Biden would be canonized by voters for delivering a $2 trillion spending bill. But because he originally proposed $3.5 trillion, he’ll be punished in the approval game for “failing” if only the $2 trillion measure passes. He’d be wise to consult the arc of the Clinton presidency. Clinton recorded worse numbers in his first year than Biden has, primarily because he failed to deliver on the promised fronts of taxes and health care. By switching to achievable promises, he rebuilt his approval ratings and like Barack Obama finished his presidency on a high note.

Stop overpromising and start overdelivering, Joe, and you might become the new Ike.


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