Anyone who’s served on a White House staff, Democrat or Republican, has some sympathy for what President Biden and his team are going through. Crisis after crisis at home and abroad, a stalled legislative agenda, lousy polls, a divided party, plenty of critics—including usually friendly voices—and internal backbiting spilling into public view: Team Biden is beset by all this and more.
For beleaguered West Wing denizens, there’s some good news. Things will probably get better. The bad news? Not much better, and it won’t be enough. Democrats will still suffer a whooping this fall.
It’s a distant memory now, but 2020 unfolded well for Mr. Biden as he executed his unorthodox but brilliant campaign strategy—hide out in his Delaware basement while President Trump bollixed Covid and wore out his welcome with voters. Mr. Biden made a few promises: He’d handle Covid better, bring America together, and just be normal.
But after striking these notes in his inaugural and scoring initial political successes with reversing Trump regulations and passing a $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill, he became more ambitious. The bigger his proposals and the more he moved left, the more praise he drew from the mainstream media and liberal intelligentsia. He was applauded for having “done more with 50 Democratic senators than Barack Obama did with 57” and hailed as “an aspiring modern-day FDR or LBJ who will lead the country out of crisis.” Mr. Biden liked being seen as more transformational than President Obama, “seeking a much more dramatic sea change.” Caught up in the hype, Mr. Biden threw his weight behind the proposed Build Back Better Act to transform fundamentally America’s economy and climate policy, and joined the push for a federal takeover of local elections.
The problem is that Americans are generally not fond of transformation, except for a few exceptional moments in our history. This isn’t one of them. Most times, Americans like changes to be incremental and, if they’re really significant, approved by commanding congressional margins and strong bipartisan support. Mr. Biden had neither.
The more he pushed for transformational change while holding a razor-thin House margin and a 50-50 Senate, the more negative public opinion grew. The president’s job approval fell from 56% approve, 36% disapprove at the start of his presidency to 41% approve, 53% disapprove now in the RealClearPolitics average.
This happened in part because he hasn’t focused on problems that ordinary Americans face. He wanted a smorgasbord of new welfare benefits in Build Back Better, few of which would help voters worried that prices were growing at the grocery store and gas pump much faster than their paychecks. And a federal takeover of elections is not as high a priority as jobs and wages.
On Covid, Mr. Biden overpromised by predicting its end by July 4 and underdelivered when Omicron spiked this winter. Not surprisingly, the president’s numbers on handling Covid went from 69% approve, 31% disapprove a year ago to 45% approve, 48% disapprove now in the FiveThirtyEight average.
One mistake was not appointing a spending watchdog as FDR had with his budget chief, Lewis Douglas, who cut waste and sought efficiencies during Roosevelt’s famed first 100 days. Instead, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s Covid spending tracker says $5.6 trillion has been spent or distributed to deal with the virus—while another $1 trillion of appropriated money hasn’t been deployed. Despite this, Congress is talking about appropriating more money, leaving a growing number of Americans to wonder why.
This compounds the administration’s mistake of dismissing inflation as transitory, which undermines public confidence. Many Americans understand that Mr. Biden’s massive federal spending has been a big contributor to inflation, flooding the market with too much money chasing too few goods.
Further, when the president heralds historic job gains, Americans know that’s baloney, and that the snap-back happened as businesses re-opened and people began living with Covid’s presence. It had nothing to do with government spending. Then there are the millions who dropped out of the workforce. That’s not good, yet Mr. Biden seems strangely unaware of its ramifications for America. Maybe that’s why 64% think the country is headed in the wrong direction and only 28% believe it’s on the right track in the RealClearPolitics average.
Presidents can recover from difficult moments like this, but there’s no easy way back. Even a dramatic reset, shuffling Mr. Biden’s staff and upgrading his lackluster cabinet all seem unlikely to make a difference for the president. For now, Team Biden is stuck riding it out. It’s their own damned fault.