Column: Biden’s in deep trouble. He can still bounce back

WASHINGTON —

When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, he had all the advantages of a nonincumbent in a year when everything had gone wrong.

Biden waged a careful, disciplined campaign, built around a simple message: He would end the pandemic, rebuild the economy and restore normalcy. That was enough after the Trump years of chaos.

Governing has been more difficult. The Delta variant of coronavirus caused the pandemic that didn’t stop. The recovery of the economy has been accompanied by alarming inflation, supply chain problems and shortages. According to public opinion polls, the majority of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Small wonder, then, that Biden’s popularity has tumbled so precipitously. His job approval rating in the Gallup Poll has fallen 14 points, from 56% in June to 42% in late October — making him less popular at this point in his tenure than any other recent president, with the singular exception of Donald Trump.

“We’re in a bad political, economic and COVID environment,” Biden’s pollster, John Anzalone, told me last week. “Sometimes it takes a new year to push the reset button.”

A Republican pollster, David Winston, elaborated on the theme. He said that expectations were high following the [Biden’s] election. People expected COVID would be over. It isn’t. Voters thought they were electing normalcy, but that’s not what they’re getting.”

“Biden’s problem isn’t just that several things have gone wrong; it’s that nothing seems to be going right.”

Presidents often run into trouble during their first year in office, and some manage to recover. Ronald Reagan took the economy into a deep recession in 1981 and lost 26 House seats the next year, but once the economy recovered he was reelected by a landslide. Bill Clinton presided over a disastrous first year and lost control of Congress in 1994, only to master the art of bipartisan negotiation and win reelection in 1996.

Biden’s challenge is finding his own path to recovery — a way to bring about that “reset” his pollster talked about.

Step one is fixing the two big problems the president promised to address in the first place: the pandemic and the economy. Biden has focused on those priorities, but his progress has been slower and bumpier than many voters expected.

After months of delay, the House of Representatives gave him a boost on Friday by passing his $1-trillion infrastructure plan in a bipartisan vote. He was clever to announce that he will invite both Democrats and Republicans for a signing ceremony. This is a graceful way of reminding voters that he has managed to convince members from both parties to cooperate once again.

But he still needs the House and Senate Democrats for his other cornerstone legislative agenda, a $1. 75-trillion social spending bill that isn’t bipartisan at all.

Meanwhile, there’s something else he can do: Look for kitchen-table issues he can solve, or at least show voters that he’s trying.

People are unhappy about rising gasoline prices. Biden spent in Europe last Wednesday urging oil-exporting nations to increase their production. This was a strange action for a trip that was supposed to be focused on climate change. The oil producers didn’t immediately respond, but it was smart politics.

Similarly, Biden and his aides have announced several actions aimed at easing supply chain problems, including keeping the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach open 24 hours and fining shippers who don’t move containers fast enough. These moves won’t solve the problem by themselves, but the president can point to something that he did in helping to ease bottlenecks.

Another suggestion: Overpromise and underdeliver. Biden has often declared premature victories, which is too often the case. This has led to his declining popularity in the polls.

Biden celebrated the end of COVID on July 4.

The Delta virus soon swept the country, taking the president’s victory away and throwing the economy into chaos.

The president declared victory once again on Friday after the Labor Department released strong October job numbers.

“Our economy is starting to work,” he said. “This recovery is faster, stronger, fairer and wider than almost anyone could have predicted.”

He acknowledged that inflation was still a problem, but said his social spending bill “will lower inflationary pressure” by holding down the prices of child care, healthcare and prescription drugs. He will need to have some luck in order for his prediction to be realized in an economy that is experiencing labor shortages.

Despite those problems, a Biden recovery is still possible, even in a deeply polarized country.

“Republicans have decided that the country is going to hell in a handbasket because Biden and the Democrats are in charge, but independents and especially Democrats are driven far more by events,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said.

“If COVID gets under control, the economy starts humming, inflation comes down, and Congress actually passes part of Biden’s agenda, then those voters will become more positive about the direction of the country.”

Biden has waged comeback campaigns before. Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign has been declared dead multiple times. He bounced back to win both the nomination and the election. Anzalone stated that he and his aides have a simple plan. They want to campaign on the “strongest Democratic message ever.”

Biden’s instincts are to put his head down and plow ahead. He’s done it before. We’ll see if it works again.

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