Byron York: Has Biden’s presidency been transformed?

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 4, 2022

Russia’s war on Ukraine comes at a moment of political weakness for President Joe Biden. His job approval rating is low, low enough to drag down his party’s chances in the midterms, Americans are angry watching their standard of living diminished by inflation, there is lingering frustration about the president’s handling of COVID and there are widespread doubts whether the 79-year-old Biden — the oldest president in the nation’s history — is physically and mentally up to the job.

But the war, as emergencies sometimes do, has lent a new look to Biden’s presidency. “A presidency transformed,” was the headline of Politico Playbook recently. The New York Times said the “dizzying events of the past week” have “pushed to the sidelines the congressional squabbling over Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda, and are already redefining the arc of his presidency.”

If any presidency needed a new arc, it is Biden’s. But it seems unlikely to significantly change Biden’s political fortunes for one reason: Joe Biden is still Joe Biden. The reason the president’s job approval rating is low is because he is not doing a good job. The polls reflect a fundamental deficiency in his performance. Yes, Biden is old and slowing down, and that does not help. But Biden in his prime would not have been a good president. There is no reason to believe he can suddenly become one now, after one speech.

Biden’s job approval rating in the last four polls in the RealClearPolitics average of polls was 38%, 39%, 40% and 38%, respectively. That is a reflection of the public’s negative view of how Biden has handled key issues and his presidency, in general.

Start with the economy. In a recent Fox News poll, just 37% of those surveyed said they approved of Biden’s handling of the most important issue in this or most any other year. Sixty-one percent disapproved. On handling crime, Biden’s approval rating was 35%, with 59% disapproval. On immigration, the numbers were 34% approve, 62% disapprove. On uniting the country, 38% approve, 58% disapprove. And finally, on handling COVID — which used to be Biden’s strength — the numbers were 47% approve, 51% disapprove.

Now Biden is handling the crisis in Ukraine, and it should be no surprise that the public has doubts about that, too. A new Suffolk poll found that 35% approved of Biden’s handling of Ukraine, versus 49% who disapproved and 17% who don’t know. (The “don’t know” portion of responses to Ukraine questions is pretty high from poll to poll, reflecting not just many Americans’ unfamiliarity with foreign policy issues, but genuine confusion about what is going on in Ukraine and what the best American course would be.)

But all the issue ratings are subsets of the larger question of Biden’s leadership. A recent Washington Post poll asked two key questions about that. The first was: “Do you think Biden is a strong leader, or not?” You can’t get more basic than that. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said no, they do not think Biden is a strong leader. Thirty-six percent said yes, Biden is a strong leader, while 5% had no opinion. Even Biden’s party has doubts: 20%, or 1 in 5, of Democrats said Biden is not a strong leader. A whopping 65% of independents agreed.

Then the Post asked: “Do you think Biden has the mental sharpness it takes to serve effectively as president, or not?” A majority — 54% — said no. Forty percent said he does, and 7% did not know. Broken down by party, 13% of Democrats said Biden does not have the sharpness, versus 88% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Even if the Republican number reflects strong partisanship, having 59% of independents doubt the president’s capacity to serve is a serious problem for the White House.

These are fundamental problems with Biden’s presidency that will limit his ability to recover from his current low standing in the polls.

The one success Biden can count on is the coming Senate confirmation of his Supreme Court nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson will likely win the support of a Republican or two, but even if she does not, a Democratic SCOTUS nominee is one thing Senate Democrats will unite around. So barring some incredible, unforeseen news about the nomination, Biden will win confirmation of his choice. But that is just one small bit of good news in an otherwise bleak landscape.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the White House was hoping for some sort of “reboot” for the president’s term, starting with his State of the Union address, to spur action on Biden’s legislative agenda. Now, the Ukraine war has changed the subject. But it has not changed the essential nature of the man in the White House.

This content originally appeared on the Washington Examiner at

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.