Opinion

Biden needs more than an agenda. He needs some energy.

Quick Joe, act like you’re doing something!

You can feel it in the air — the palpable panic among Democrats about the wipeout that awaits them in the midterm elections this November.

They're right to be concerned. The historic pattern has the party that holds the White House losing seats in Congress in elections midway through a presidential term — and with both houses so narrowly divided, any loses in either will hand control over to Republicans.

But the distinctive alignment of forces this year could produce historic losses for the Dems. Back in 2010, during President Barack Obama's first term, Republicans managed a net gain of 63 seats in the House of Representatives, the biggest shift for a party since 1948. When that happened, Obama's approval rating was hovering around 45 percent and between 3-4 percentage points underwater (the difference between a president's approval and disapproval).

Today, Joe Biden's aggregate approval at FiveThirtyEight stands at 41.8 percent. That leaves Biden roughly 10 points underwater, considerably worse than Obama was doing at this point in his presidency as well as on the day the midterms were held in 2010.  

That could point to a bloodbath or a disaster to come. But of course Biden also has more than six months to right himself — and then another two years before he faces re-election. What can he do to turn things around for his party? Answering that question persuasively depends on accurately diagnosing the problem.

And there, analysis has been somewhat shortsighted. Progressives think Biden's conceded too much to moderates. Moderates think he's allowed his administration to be hijacked by the left. Others blame inflation. Or crime. Or scenes of chaos at the southern border.

The truth is that Biden has been pulled down by all of this and more — and above all by the cumulative effect of all these stories combined with the reactive way the president and his team have responded to them.

Looking back at the trajectory of Biden's approval, it's possible to identify the precise moment things began to turn bad. For the first six months of his presidency, Biden kept within a fairly narrow range of approval, between 54 and 51 percent. But then, right at the end of July 2021, he began a slide down a steep slope. He fell below 51 percent on August 3rd. He dropped below 50 percent on August 16th. And he plunged underwater for the first time (with approval of 47.2 and disapproval of 47.5 percent) on August 30. Since then, despite a few modest and short-lived reversals, it's been a slow and steady decline to his current and fairly stable level in the low 40s.

What happened between late July and the end of August? First the Taliban took over a series of cities in Afghanistan. Then they conquered the capital of Kabul, while the U.S. military struggled to complete its withdrawal from the country after a nearly 20-year presence there and as horrific images of desperation and violence were beamed around the world. And all of this happened after Biden had assured the country that U.S. forces would be leaving the country in "a secure and orderly way."

Does this mean voters are still punishing Biden and his party for the way that Afghanistan ended up? Not at all. Lots of other things have happened since then — but all of them reinforce the perception that the president and his team are struggling to master events.

Biden declared national independence from COVID-19 on July 4, 2021 — only to have the Delta wave, then the Omicron wave, and now a couple of Omicron subvariants scuttle hopes for decisively exiting the pandemic.

Biden also proposed an ambitious spending package along with support for reform bills on voting and labor rights that have come to nothing in Congress.

The administration has downplayed a surge in violent crime that has produced record-high homicide rates in a long list of cities.

The president promised to fix the problems and injustices plaguing immigration policy in this country, but instead he's overseen one crisis at the southern border and seems poised for another this summer.

For months Biden dismissed concerns about inflation in the hope that it was transient — merely a function of pandemic-related supply-chain disruptions that would fade on its own — only to discover it's more deeply entrenched than the administration believed.

And then there's Russia's war on Ukraine, where I think the president has been handling a difficult and dangerous situation with considerable deftness. That should be something to buoy his standing with the public. Yet the very fact that the war demands the U.S. hang back, helping Ukraine in its defense and quietly working behind the scenes to keep NATO unified, has the effect of reinforcing the impression of an administration most comfortable standing on the sidelines, passive in the face of world-historical events, reacting rather than leading.  

That's hardly fair to Biden, but politics in a mass democracy is always as much about image and perception as it is about concrete accomplishments. With that in mind, I suspect Biden's struggles are mostly a function of the perception that he's holding back or incapable of acting decisively, allowing himself (and the country) to be repeatedly blindsided by events.

What might he do to change that impression? I'd say the single most important thing could be acting more forcefully and aggressively, displaying the kind of "energy in the executive" that Alexander Hamilton encouraged. That means repeated public statements, especially about inflation, crime, and immigration — all of which would be seen as evidence that the administration recognizes voters are anxious about all three and is doing everything it can, using every power at the president's disposal, to address them. Even in areas where a president has little ability to effect policy (like crime), such efforts could change the impression that Biden and his team tend to be caught off guard by developments unfolding in the country and the world.

This may well end up being too little, too late for the midterms. But it could be essential for 2024. Obama bounced back from his party's drubbing in the 2010 midterms to defeat Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. Biden could do the same, provided he still has the energy, focus, and ambition for an eye-catching display of confidence — in his own abilities no less than in the resilience of the country and its capacity to overcome its problems.

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