Joe Biden’s approval ratings aren’t great, a trend that could have disastrous consequences for his party in November’s congressional midterm elections.
Polls have consistently shown Biden’s approval rating below the 50% mark, with steep declines among both liberal-learning young people and Hispanics. The FiveThirtyEight polling average, meanwhile, has Biden at 42% — suggesting bipartisan dissatisfaction with his administration.
Biden’s first year in office was marked by some historic victories, but the bulk of his agenda in Congress has totally stalled. His numbers tanked after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and his party’s dysfunction in Congress hasn’t helped. Still, Democratic lawmakers say the resurgent coronavirus pandemic and its economic effects deserve more blame.
Americans have increasingly disapproved of Biden’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak since the summer, when the delta variant first surged. The more contagious but milder omicron variant — which emerged during the holidays, exacerbated labor shortages and highlighted insufficiencies in COVID testing infrastructure — has not helped Biden’s numbers.
“The effect of the pandemic is still psychologically very burdensome on everybody,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “I think the American public might be feeling differently in eight months or so.”
“I think a major factor is inflation,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), adding that he thinks Biden is “blamed for stuff that’s beyond his control. People go buy gas and milk and they’re angry. We need to stop the rise in prices. He’s taking some steps in that direction.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), perhaps the single Democrat most responsible for Biden’s trouble enacting his agenda, had his own theory.
“Maybe enough people aren’t listening to him,” Manchin told HuffPost. “He makes a lot of sense and gives a good talk.”
With Build Back Better stalled, Biden’s poor approval ratings have become an “I told you so” moment for progressives, who held up a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill for months, demanding that Build Back Better, their social spending and tax proposal, be passed alongside it.
“If you’re a moderate in the Democratic Party, 2021 played out exactly like you wanted when only infrastructure passed Congress after the Rescue Plan,” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ communication’s director Mike Casca tweeted this week. “So how do you answer for low approval ratings for the president and dimming prospects for the party in November?”
In November, moderate Democrats got their way after Democrats lost the Virginia gubernatorial election, claiming the political toll of not passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill was simply too high. Congress passed the legislation just days after the loss in Virginia without any meaningful progress on Build Back Better.
The timing may have ruined Biden’s bipartisan moment of glory and turned it into more of a consolation prize, said Ian Russell, a pollster and former director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“We stepped on our own press with infrastructure,” Russell said. “It was a panicked response.”
As for Build Back Better, both Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that the bill would be “transformational,” with Democrats likening Biden to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Expectations got out of control,” Russell said. “Biden is at his best when he talks about just making things a little better for regular people.”
The White House is trying to do just that. On Friday, the president is set to speak about the implementation of the infrastructure law two months after its passage, highlighting the first wave of $27 billion to rebuild bridges around the country. The White House has also highlighted bits of good economic news, including job growth that outpaced economists’ expectations from the beginning of the year.
But in the face of another wave of COVID-19 cases and inflation, and at a time when many of the emergency economic relief programs passed during the earlier waves of the virus have already lapsed, the infrastructure bill is clearly not on voters’ minds, and earlier accomplishments — like the American Rescue Plan — have totally faded from political view. Frustration remains high.
“The American people are having an incredibly challenging time, the most challenging time I think our country has had since potentially the Civil War, so it’s understandable that people are trying to figure out their own lives at the same time that all this other stuff is happening,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.).
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said the American people haven’t “fathomed” everything Democrats have already accomplished. He also suggested that major political events could occur this year that will drastically change the historical likelihood of Democrats losing the House.
“You have a Supreme Court that’s poised to toss out Roe v. Wade. You got Donald Trump still agitating. There are revelations today that Leader McCarthy knows more than he’s telling [about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack]. All this could add up to something that is far different than historical determiners.”
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said Democrats would get a boost from finishing Build Back Better, but also that the infrastructure bill is a big deal by itself.
“If infrastructure was all we passed, it’s a significant victory,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that the American public understands how big it is. So that’s our challenge.”
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.