Not long ago, I wrote about how Joe Biden had entered a politically perilous stage of his presidency. After hovering a couple of points above 50 percent for the first six months of his time in the White House, Biden's approval ratings took a dive in August and early September, landing him a little above 45 percent. Would the dip prove temporary, with the president bouncing back above water before long? Or would 45 percent become a new normal? Or might he fall even further, into the low 40s and beyond?
That was in early September. A month later, things are looking considerably worse. Glancing at the latest numbers, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Biden presidency is foundering.
As I write, Biden's aggregate approval at FiveThirtyEight stands at 44.2 percent, more than four points under water. (His disapproval is 48.3 percent.) Through much of the latter half of September, he seemed fairly stable at a new low of 45-46 percent. But toward the end of the month, he crashed through the 45 percent barrier. Since then, the slide of late summer has resumed.
But Biden's troubles aren't just limited to the somewhat vague measure of overall approval. A Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday is chock full of terrible news for the administration. On a long list of policies (response to the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, how the president is doing as commander in chief, taxes, foreign policy, immigration, and the situation at the Mexican border), Biden is languishing. The same is true for personal traits (honesty and leadership skills). And perhaps most devastating of all after the shambolic experience of the Trump presidency, when asked whether the Biden administration is competent to run the government, just 42 percent say yes.
Now the Quinnipiac poll could certainly be an outlier. It also puts Biden's approval at a truly anemic 38 percent, which is more than six points below the aggregate number. On the other hand, FiveThirtyEight gives Quinnipiac an overall A- rating for accuracy, and notes that the polling organization tends to have a slight (0.5 point) pro-Democratic bias.
But even if we assume that, for whatever reason, this particular poll is skewed by several points against Biden, its findings remain deeply troubling for the president — because on most of the issue questions, the gap between positive and negative responses is far greater than six points. Worst of all are immigration and the Mexican border, where Biden is more then 40 points under water. Only on handling of the pandemic is the president anywhere close to even in his approval rating.
So Biden's polling is terrible, and quite a bit worse nine months in than we've seen with recent administrations prior to Donald Trump's uniquely polarizing presidency. (The exception is Bill Clinton, who won the White House with just 43 percent of the vote in a competitive three-way race and spent most of his first year in office below 50 percent.)
Why is it happening?
For one thing, because Biden himself appears to be faltering across a range of issues. He declared our independence from COVID-19 on the Fourth of July, but the Delta variant proved that was premature. He promised an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of August, but the reality was chaotic, bloody, and demoralizing. He proposed an ambitious legislative agenda and vowed to get it passed using a baroque two-track process in Congress, but so far the result has been intra-party squabbles and dithering.
Put it all together and we're left with a picture of the Biden administration as feckless and more than a little overmatched by events.
Then there's the dynamic I wrote about last week in reference to the risks of progressives playing hardball in Congress over passage of the infrastructure bill and reconciliation package. Rather than trying to enact an agenda that responds to public opinion (which is closely and deeply divided), Biden took a gamble on tacking to the left in the hope that passing enormous amounts of spending would boost the popularity of Democrats in general and Biden himself in particular.
But the practical result of trying to pass something so ambitious when the party's margins in Congress are so narrow is lots of infighting and delay. And that's not good for the president. Most Americans don't care about, and a fair number positively loathe, Washington process battles. The longer this drags on, the more it looks like no one is acting as captain of the ship of state, with the crew consumed by bickering and the vessel drifting on aimlessly, listing to the port side. (How many weeks this year have articles about the ultimate process story, whether or not Democrats will "nuke the filibuster," dominated the news?)
So can Biden look forward to a strong bounce back once Congress finally does pass something, a month or so down the road? (This assumes, of course, that something does pass and negotiations don't break down entirely.)
It's possible, but the evidence is pretty thin. Another poll this week, from Morning Consult and Politico, shows that fewer than half of respondents (47 percent) credit Democrats for the $300-per-child checks that began to go out earlier this year, and that only 38 percent credit Biden. Meanwhile, half support the payments in general, but only 35 percent want to make them permanent. (They are scheduled to expire next year.) That's hardly a blueprint to a strong path back to popularity for the president when and if his agenda finally triumphs in some form on Capitol Hill.
Joe Biden got himself into this mess. The question now is whether he or anyone else can get him out of it.