Administration

The Memo: Dour public mood spells trouble for Biden

The American public is in a dour mood — and that spells trouble for President Biden and his party as next year’s midterm elections loom.

Two polls released in recent days show how dissatisfied voters are with the state of the nation. Unless something dramatic changes, they seem sure to take their frustrations out on the party in power, fairly or otherwise, next November.

A Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday showed a nation in the grip of pessimism, especially on some of the hottest political topics.

Asked whether they expected a range of issues to get better or worse over the next year, voters overwhelmingly took the negative position.

The pessimists in the poll outweighed the optimists by around 30 points on inflation (23 percent saying it would get better and 52 percent saying it would get worse), crime (14 percent better, 47 percent worse) and border security (16 percent better, 42 percent worse). 

The economy in general was rated more positively, but not by much, with 30 percent of registered voters believing it would get better and 46 percent believing it would get worse.

The main bright spot for Biden was COVID-19, where the optimists outpaced the pessimists by 52 percent to 10 percent.

The Wall Street Journal poll pinned the president’s job approval rating at 41 percent, with 57 percent of registered voters expressing disapproval. 

If Biden’s negative numbers don’t turn around, they are near-certain to condemn Democrats to defeat in the midterms. The party is defending a 50-50 Senate, where it enjoys a majority only because Vice President Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote, and a tiny advantage in the House that could be erased by redistricting alone.

In a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday, Americans who believe the nation is on the wrong track outnumbered those who believe it is on the right track by more than two-to-one, 66 percent to 30 percent.

The poll also showed a sharp rise in the share of people listing either “everyday bills” or “inflation” as the biggest issue facing their family at the moment. Twenty-nine percent of adults considered one or the other their biggest challenge, far outpacing the next biggest issue, COVID-19, at 18 percent. 

Inflation hit its highest mark in more than 30 years in October at 6.2 percent.

Amid growing concerns on the topic, Biden has said ameliorating the rise in prices is a “top priority.” 

But Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell told Congress only last week that it was time to retire the term “transitory” to describe inflation. It was Powell himself who had put the word into wide use earlier this year, when he argued that the high inflationary readings were essentially a statistical blip caused by comparisons to the darkest days of the pandemic.

As if all that were not enough trouble to wound Biden, the Monmouth pollsters asked respondents whether the actions of the federal government since the beginning of the year had helped or hurt their top concern, whatever that concern was.

Forty-six percent said the government had done more harm than good, 25 percent said the opposite and 27 percent said the actions of the government had no real impact. 

The fact that the same poll showed voters approving of Biden’s two main pieces of legislation, an infrastructure bill and the yet-to-be-passed Build Back Better plan, suggests the electorate is in a funk that specific policies will not ease.

American voters have felt a general pessimism about the direction of the nation for some years, but the current figures are so striking as to be alarming for Biden.

Even some Democrats acknowledge the problem, though they insist the fate of the midterms is far from sealed.

“The Democrats have to fight this mood,” said Tad Devine, who has worked on Democratic presidential campaigns for decades and who helped Andre Dickens win Atlanta’s mayoral election last month.

“I do think voters are upset right now. And who wouldn’t be?” Devine added. “The country has been enduring a pandemic for over a year-and-a-half, and while there are a lot of good signs in the economy there is also concern.”

Devine argued that there was still time to turn things around before the midterms — in part, he said, because the public mood is more susceptible to sharp changes than it might have been in the past. 

Backing up that point, it’s worth remembering that Biden’s job approval rating stayed in positive territory in the RealClearPolitics polling average from his January inauguration until as recently as mid-August. It’s only since then that a decline, apparently catalyzed by the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, has picked up speed.

Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former communications director of the Republican National Committee, argued that Democrats were getting hammered in the polls in part because of how urgent inflationary concerns feel to voters — and, he said, because the White House has not been effective at communicating that it feels voters’ pain.

“If you go to the grocery store and they either don’t have what you want or the things that you want are more expensive, that’s a problem,” he said, regardless of how much the president and his aides might talk about trying to unclog the supply chain.

Even Heye acknowledged that Biden was getting the blame for some things where he is not objectively culpable. But, he noted, such dynamics tend to come with the job when you’re sitting in the Oval Office.

“No-one can really argue with a straight face that Biden is responsible for COVID. And even inflation, though potentially the boom in spending could contribute to that,” has other primary causes, Heye said. 

“But the reality is — he’s there. So whether it’s his fault or not, it’s his responsibility.”

For now, Democrats are relying on the fact that they have almost a full year before the midterms.

But things may get worse before they get better.

New inflation figures will be released Friday morning. The news is not expected to be good.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage. 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Inflation Jerome Powell Joe Biden

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