Joe Biden won the White House mainly because of who he was not. Now, after nearly 10 months in office, voters are expecting the president to stand on his own — and are increasingly dissatisfied with what they’re seeing.
Many voters thought Biden and unified Democratic control of the federal government’s elected branches would bring back normalcy. Instead, they have been struggling to keep the government open, extend the debt ceiling in order to avoid default, and rack up basic legislative accomplishments. They scrambled ahead of Thursday’s deadline to broker a stopgap deal to prevent a partial government shutdown, while Biden’s centerpiece infrastructure deal hung in the balance between warring Democratic factions.
Biden’s party, which was united in its opposition to his predecessor, is splitting along progressive and moderate lines now that Donald Trump is no longer in office as a unifying figure. Each is pursuing its own visions of Democratic politics, as well as its own political self-interest — the progressives mainly hold safe seats and are therefore free to pursue ideological objectives with minimal electoral risk, while the moderates fear for their re-election next year and need to demonstrate their independence from Biden and the rest of their party’s leadership.
Each flank likes to claim credit for Biden’s win, and is now pushing him to deliver on their priorities. This disconnect might be bridged if Biden was in a stronger position and could bring them together. Instead, each wing of the party is flying off in a different direction now that Trump has been vanquished.
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Indeed, the political danger to Biden with Trump out of the way was apparent the morning after the election. According to a Morning Consult exit poll, 44 percent of Biden voters said they were primarily voting against Trump (only 22 percent of Trump’s voters said they were voting mainly against Biden). Just 54 percent of Biden’s voters said they cast their ballots primarily as a vote for him.
That meant that Biden, like Trump versus Hillary Clinton in 2016, was well-positioned against his rival in a binary choice election. But it also meant that there were risks ahead when Biden was finally judged on his own merits.
That’s not to say that Biden’s personal characteristics and considerable resume in government weren’t major contributing factors in his election last year. But even here, the contrast with the incumbent Trump loomed large.
Biden’s 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president were pitted against the background of a president who had never so much as run for dog catcher before seeking the Oval Office, at a time when the federal government was confronting a pandemic. Biden’s reputation for empathy and compassion were held up against Trump’s bluster and perceived narcissism in a time of fear, suffering and death.
Trump had been well-prepared to run for re-election touting low unemployment, a booming economy and national pride, tying all of the above to his business experience and “America First” platform. Covid-19, the resulting economic downturn and the protests for racial justice that followed George Floyd’s death in police custody created conditions for which he was much less equipped.
The Morning Consult exit poll found that 85 percent of Biden voters said it was very important for a leader to have a “strong moral compass” (just 63 percent of Trump voters did). Eighty-three percent of Biden voters similarly valued being compassionate (only 51 percent of Trump voters did). A pre-election survey by Quinnipiac University concluded that 42 percent thought Trump cared about average Americans to 61 percent who said the same about Biden.
Now, the latest Quinnipiac numbers show Biden underwater. His approval rating among independents, a crucial voting bloc for Democrats in next year’s midterm elections, is stuck in the 30s. Biden has a negative score on his handling of the economy (52 percent disapprove, 42 percent approve), the job of commander in chief (55 percent disapprove, 40 percent approve) and foreign policy (59 percent disapprove, 34 percent approve).
These poor numbers persist even in places that he expected to be areas of wide bipartisan support. Six in 10 believe U.S. troops will have to return to Afghanistan, where Biden had hoped to gain credit for ending America’s longest war. On Covid, long an area of strength, respondents are split: 49 percent disapprove, 48 percent approve.
Biden has yet to face a referendum election on his performance. At 78 — the oldest man to ever serve as president — perhaps he never will. But whether or not he’s on the ballot, Democrats will be assessed in large part on the job Biden has done in office as they try to defend exceedingly narrow majorities in both houses of Congress.
The midterms are a long way off, and the 2024 presidential election is the political equivalent of a lifetime away. Biden’s legislative agenda could quickly shift from teetering on failure to being a resounding success.
But voters have looked at Biden’s management of immigration and the border and crime and gun violence, as well as the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the pandemic and find it, to varying degrees, wanting. Confidence in Biden’s competence, a core advantage over Trump, has taken a major hit. And that’s before a government shutdown or a default at a time when Democrats control the White House and Capitol Hill.
All is not yet lost. The last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, endured early setbacks, including the loss of their congressional majorities in their first midterm elections, only to win re-election. And Republicans haven’t quit Trump, who may still be the party’s 2024 nominee. So perhaps simply being preferable to Trump is the only edge Biden will ever need.
But for a president who wants to walk in the footsteps of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson, more than being “not Trump” is likely to be necessary at some point — soon.