Steven V. Roberts: Can Joe Biden do the job?

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 19, 2021

Can Joe Biden do the job?

That question is being asked, with rising alarm, by a substantial number of Democrats. Their concern has not yet crystalized into conviction, and there is still time for the president to reverse this trend, but the current mood of dismay is unmistakable.

In the latest CNN poll, for instance, the percentage of voters who strongly approve of Biden’s performance has slipped from 35% in April down to 15%. That drop, concludes CNN, “has been driven more by disappointment among his original supporters than an expansion of the group that started off strongly opposed to his presidency.”

In the recent ABC/Washington Post poll, the president’s overall approval rating is down to 41%, and the Post reports: “Biden’s popularity … has slumped among his own base. In June, 94% of Democrats approved of the way he was handling his job compared with 3% who disapproved. Today, 80% of Democrats are positive and 16% are negative.”

There are many reasons for this trend, but let’s start with a basic fact: Joe Biden was not elected because his followers thought he’d make a great president. The primary enthusiasm behind his campaign was generated not by love for Biden, but by loathing of Donald Trump.

Last year, voters measured Biden against the other option. Today, Biden is being measured against himself — against his own promises and record — and that’s why his bungling of the withdrawal from Kabul was so damaging. Voters who couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map were troubled by the images of turmoil and tragedy, which contradicted the central message he had sold them: I’ve been around, I know what I’m doing, you can trust me.

Pictures from the Southern border of white agents harassing Black migrants worsened Biden’s growing reputation for incompetence. And then two mutating viruses — one called the delta variant and the other called inflation — made things much worse.

Even strong supporters of vaccinations and boosters are totally fed up with wearing masks, missing hugs and smiles, feeling isolated from friends and family. These distortions of daily life are contributing heavily to the dismal national mood. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said so at a recent briefing: “People are sick and tired of COVID and the impacts on the economy. We understand that; we’re tired of it, too.”

Then there’s inflation. For a while, the White House talked about rising prices like Trump used to talk about COVID-19 — it was a “transitory” problem that would go away by itself as soon as temporary supply chain problems, caused by the pandemic, dissipated. They were wrong. The latest figures show an annual inflation rate of 6.2%, the highest in 30 years — about the worst possible news for a White House already struggling with declining public confidence.

Rising prices might well be the most damaging of all political issues because they affect every adult every day. Even when you’re not buying gas, you can’t avoid that big flashing sign on your local station saying $3.50 a gallon. You know that your next fill-up will cost $50 and your grocery bill will continue to climb. And you start worrying about whether you’ll be able to afford Christmas presents for your kids this year.

On top of all that, the endless and enervating debates on Capitol Hill, pitting Democrats against each other as they squabble over the president’s agenda, has undermined Biden’s claim to be a master legislator. “I will tell you,” Psaki admitted, “that you don’t design a communication strategy around infighting within the Democratic Party in Washington.”

As a result, the Post writes, Biden’s poll numbers showcase “Americans’ current pessimism: Despite a mix of economic signals — falling unemployment and rising prices — 70% rate the economy negatively, including 38% who say it is in ‘poor’ condition. About half of Americans overall and political independents blame Biden for fast-rising inflation, and more than 6 in 10 Americans say he has not accomplished much after 10 months in office, including 71% of independents.”

Still, it’s only been 10 months. Now that Congress has finally passed Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, be can tour the country touting its benefits. An even larger social spending measure could follow. If supply chain problems ease, if inflation steadies, if COVID-19 cases continue to decline, the president can still recapture his reputation for competence.

But he has to do that before the dismay his fellow Democrats are now feeling hardens into disenchantment.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Contact him at