Talking Points

How a narrative of failure upended Biden's 1st year

Six months ago, it looked like Joe Biden's presidency was off to a strong start. Though the presidential election was closer than most polls had predicted, Biden ran ahead of congressional Democrats. The new president and his party managed to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan less than two months after Inauguration Day, despite razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress. The administration did a good job of making several highly effective vaccines against COVID-19 widely available. And Biden announced the coming withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, fulfilling a campaign promise strongly backed by public opinion. For all of this, the new president was rewarded with approval ratings in the low-to-mid-50s.

Then came the chaotic execution of the Afghanistan exit from late July through the end of August. That sent Biden's numbers off a cliff, and they've never recovered.

Presidential success or failure in Washington is a function of narratives. When a good one takes hold, with a series of positive stories seeming to reinforce it, a president's approval rises or stays steady. But when something goes wrong and appears to be followed by events that demonstrate a pattern of ineptitude, support can collapse.

The defining story since late summer has been one of a president and administration continually sideswiped by events. Withdrawal from Afghanistan unfolded nothing like what Biden had promised. The Delta and Omnicron waves of COVID-19 made the president's early July declaration of independence from the pandemic seem flat-footed and premature. Persistent supply-chain problems and surging inflation have caught the White House off guard and left it sounding defensive. Democrats in Congress have spent much of the past few months bickering amongst themselves about social policy and voting rights, and Biden seems unable to get them out of that rut.

Many point to the persistence of the pandemic as Biden's primary problem. Others highlight rising prices and empty store shelves. Still others blame the administration's fealty to progressive activists or the perception of foreign policy fecklessness. The truth is Biden is faltering because of all of it. Each story reinforces the perception that the country is adrift, lacking in leadership, and persistently knocked off course by forces the White House is powerless to master or control.

The good news is the administration appears aware of the need for a reset. Hence the presidential press conference announced for Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Biden's inauguration. The bad news is that this appearance before reporters may end up being upstaged by defeats in the Senate for administration priorities Biden himself has championed in recent speeches — another story of a White House seemingly outmatched by events. We may have to wait a while longer before we see a true Biden reset.