WASHINGTON — What’s a president to do when his polling numbers are stuck in the basement?
Joe Biden is hoping to figure that out, trying speeches, and policy gambits, and photo ops. But as a White House event this past week showed, success isn’t coming easy.
After meeting with administration officials and baby formula manufacturers about the severe shortage here, Biden struggled to inspire confidence as reporters battered him with questions about that crisis and several others he’s facing.
Biden flatly admitted he didn’t know the formula shortage was a serious problem until April, weeks after the initial recall in February that triggered it. Asked what he would do about record-breaking gas prices, which have strained family budgets and driven up inflation, he argued they “could be higher” if not for steps his administration had taken and said he cannot “click a switch” and bring the cost down.
And finally, as he was walking out of the White House auditorium Wednesday, Biden was asked if he was confident Congress would pass gun safety legislation in the wake of recent mass shootings targeting elementary school students in Texas and Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo. “I served in Congress for 36 years. I’m never confident, totally,” he said. “And I don’t know. I’ve not been in on the negotiations that are going on right now.”
In a nation buffeted by one crisis after another, Biden has had difficulty not only in solving the complex challenges facing him but in simply projecting to the public that he’s up to the task. Touted as the most experienced person ever to occupy the Oval Office, Biden has faced questions about his expertise in leading the federal bureaucracy, pushing legislation through Congress, and navigating foreign affairs — and his approval rating has tumbled accordingly.
His trust in the institutions of government to do their jobs — and hard-won realism about how far and fast the bureaucracy can move — can make him appear passive in tackling problems. His long Senate career can cause him to lean toward incremental solutions. And one of his biggest selling points over Donald Trump — “I will always be honest with you” — can lend Biden an air of powerlessness when he admits that, given the fraught realities of politics, there’s little he can do on his own to quickly lower inflation or place new restrictions on high-powered weapons.
“It’s pretty hard not to like Joe Biden,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, “but people are questioning if he’s the man of the moment.”
For months, polls have shown that a majority of Americans are unhappy with his performance and believe the nation is on the wrong track. Biden’s low approval rating of about 41 percent — roughly where Trump was at a similar point in his tenure but well below the prior four presidents — is dragging down Democratic congressional candidates and has the party fearing the loss of its slim majorities in the November midterms.
“I think people want a sense of creativity, a sense of boldness, a sense of vision, and are desperate for that,” said Representative Ro Khanna, a California Democrat. “I think the president, at times, he gets that. Then I think at other times the administration is more cautious.”
The news has not been all bad for Biden as the government reported another strong month of job growth on Friday. But as he explained the reasons for high gas and food prices, which he largely blamed on the Ukraine war, he acknowledged Americans simply want him to do something about it.
“Look, I understand that families who are struggling probably don’t care why the prices are up,” he said Friday. “They just want them to go down.”
Biden’s fall from polling grace did not appear inevitable when he was sworn in last year after four turbulent years of Trump, a recently ransacked Capitol behind him. Biden’s approval ratings were high at the start of his term as he pushed his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan through Congress and the government administered 200 million COVID vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office. With cases declining and vaccination rates rising, Biden gave a Fourth of July speech in 2021 pronouncing “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.”
But the Delta variant caused a new COVID surge last summer, causing Biden’s approval rating to drop. It fell below 50 percent after the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August and has remained there ever since as high inflation began to take hold — even as Biden has responded with far greater success to the new foreign policy crisis of war in Ukraine.
In Gallup’s polling, Biden’s approval rating fell to 43 percent in September from 56 percent in June. The biggest drop was among independent voters, said Gallup senior editor Jeffrey M. Jones, who analyzes its polling data.
“What happened with COVID and Afghanistan and now the economy, put all of that together it kind of creates this impression of lack of competence, or inability to deal with these problems,” Jones said.
With continued crises hitting the country, Biden will have a hard time reversing that public view, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who teaches at the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley.
“A lot of voters seem to have decided that Biden is a perfectly nice guy who doesn’t know what to do,” he said. “That perception may have begun with Afghanistan, but it’s since transferred over to their concerns about the economy.”
He unveiled a new three-point plan to try to lower inflation that is running near a four-decade high. He convened a meeting of administration officials and baby formula manufacturing executives to highlight efforts to ease the shortage, including government-organized shipments of millions of bottles of formula from abroad. And he addressed the nation in prime time Thursday night to urge Congress to pass new gun safety measures after recent mass shootings.
“For God’s sake, how much more carnage are we willing to accept?” Biden said. “How many more innocent American lives must be taken before we say ‘enough’? Enough.”
But each of those attempts to take the reins came with its own difficulties.
Biden’s call for enacting gun restrictions, including banning so-called assault weapons and repealing gun manufacturers’ immunity from lawsuits, goes well beyond the more modest measures being discussed by a bipartisan group of senators. His meeting on the baby formula shortage raised new questions about why federal officials didn’t act sooner to avert the crisis and why Biden himself didn’t learn of the problem until April.
And his inflation plan was criticized for including one action item that involved no action at all — a pledge not to interfere with the independent Federal Reserve’s efforts to bring prices down by raising its interest rate.
“You can respect the Fed’s independence, but that’s not a plan,” said Khanna, the California Democrat, who immediately wrote a New York Times opinion article published Thursday outlining additional steps he believed Biden needed to take to reduce inflation.
Khanna, a progressive who cochaired Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, said he “100 percent” supports Biden and his reelection. But Biden needs to do more to ease Americans’ economic anxiety or voters will make Democrats pay in November, Khanna said.
“It has to look like we’re willing to go through a brick wall to deal with people’s economic conditions and we’re doing everything possible and we’re being creative about it and bold about it,” he said. Absent that, Khanna added that Democrats will be “competing with one arm tied behind our back in a very tough environment” this fall.
LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which works to empower Black voters, said Biden is too concerned with being popular in a divided nation where crises have left many people feeling hopeless. That’s caused him to earn criticism for “moving in too safe of a political way,” she said.
But if acting cautiously is going to result in low approval ratings, Biden has nothing to lose by taking bold steps, such as using executive action to enact widespread cancellation of student debt, she said.
“Do what you think is right and do what you think is going to lift people out of their sense of despair,” Brown said. “Recognize that the popularity results may not just be about you, it might be about what people are thinking about where they are.”
The American Rescue Plan helped boost the economy last year, including providing checks of up to $1,400 to most Americans, but most economists now say it also helped ignite high inflation. Biden’s big follow-up economic initiative, his roughly $2 trillion social spending and climate change Build Back Better bill, got derailed in the Senate, adding to the public impression that he’s not able to address crises, said Brinkley, the presidential historian.
“I think people still trust Joe Biden for being a decent person with great experience and keen leadership abilities but he’s presiding over economic doldrums and a war in Europe and there’s a lot of frustration,” said Brinkley, a professor at Rice University.
Although Biden has been praised for rallying much of the world against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the economy still is the most important issue facing Americans, Brinkley said. He noted President George H.W. Bush presided over victory in the first Gulf War but then lost reelection in 1992 because the country was struggling to emerge from a recession.
Biden needs to be bold, particularly in addressing inflation and the economy, or he’ll face a similar fate, Brinkley said.
“You can’t say that he has vigorous leadership. You can say he has personal integrity and statesmanlike competence,” Brinkley said. “He could sell his act a lot better if the baby formula were on the shelves and the gas prices went down. He’s got to find a way to do that.”