White House’s latest challenge is sour public mood

A Biden White House struggling to find any sort of political momentum is facing a stern challenge in trying to shift the sour mood of a public fatigued by the two-year pandemic, annoyed with rising prices and uncertain over conflicts abroad.

President Biden’s approval ratings have steadily dropped since August, and Democrats are headed toward a November where it seems inevitable that they will lose their congressional majorities.

Frustration over inflation and the pandemic has contributed to a dour public mood that is clearly hurting Democrats and Biden, and time may be running out for the party to turn the tide before the midterm elections.

“You have a whole cross section of folks who found Trump unacceptable as president, just from a personality and ethics standpoint, but those people have turned on Biden because of day-to-day quality of life issues like filling up the grocery cart, being able to walk down the street, having my kids in school learning,” said Stewart Verdery, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.

Only 39 percent of Americans in a recent Politico-Morning Consult poll approved of the way Biden has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, while 41 percent gave him a poor rating.

A CNN poll released last week found three-quarters of respondents felt burned out by the pandemic. Sixty percent described themselves as angry about the pandemic, and less than half said they felt optimistic about the lingering COVID-19 virus.

The White House is well-aware of the poor numbers and recognizes the tiredness Americans feel of living with a pandemic that has torpedoed everything from getting kids to school regularly to going to a restaurant or taking a vacation.

“We recognize people are tired of the pandemic. They’re tired of wearing masks. I bet all of you are. I certainly know I am. We all understand that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month.

But the empathy shown by Biden and White House officials has appeared to do little to make voters more empathetic toward Biden.

Just 35 percent approved of Biden’s job as president and only 33 percent approved of his handling of the economy, a Feb. 16 Quinnipiac University poll found. Meanwhile, 43 percent approve of his handling of the COVID-19 response and 35 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy issues.

Inflation is a huge worry for Democrats that has left Republicans gleefully comparing the Biden administration to the Carter administration.

The consumer price index rose 7.5 percent annually by the end of January, the fastest rise since 1982. Americans are paying nearly $4 per gallon at the pump, and prices are expected to rise further ahead of the summer driving season that unofficially begins on Memorial Day weekend.

Tensions with Russia, which appears on the verge of invading Ukraine, could cause prices to bump up further.

Joel Benenson, who served as a polling analyst on former President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, argued bad polls are not an indicator alone of a doomed White House. He noted former presidents Clinton, Reagan and George W. Bush all saw their approval ratings drop below 40 percent before rebounding to win a second term.

The same path is possible for the Biden White House, though that will be cold comfort to congressional Democrats if Republicans win House and Senate majorities in November.

There are some Democrats who are optimistic that things can change. Biden was riding relatively high in the polls just last spring, and politics and the public’s mood can sometimes shift on a dime. 

“I think there are ways that Democrats can turn some of these numbers around, and they need to before the midterms,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy, education and politics at Third Way. “The country’s mood changes very quickly right now because we’ve got so many existential things going on.”

The most hopeful Democrats see an end to the pandemic as potentially giving Biden and his party a big boost.

Coronavirus cases skyrocketed in the winter months as the omicron variant hit the nation hard, but numbers are now descending nearly as quickly as they once went up.

That’s led Democratic governors in a number of states to end indoor mask mandates and mask requirements in schools. Erickson argued that it would be a smart political move for the Biden administration to get behind such efforts.  

“Being able to say, ‘OK, we’re done with this now and we’re done talking about it,’ would be extremely helpful. It’s signaling an approach that we are now moving towards the point that COVID doesn’t need to be the number one thing we talk about every single day,” she said.

A long-awaited return to normality with kids in school, no masks and people moving about more freely could be a mood-booster for the public that might also bump up confidence in Biden.

A Gallup poll released at the end of January found 85 percent of Americans are satisfied with their personal life, but only 17 percent are satisfied with the direction of the country.

The poll showed that while many Americans are personally happy with their circumstances, such as their income level, broader issues that don’t affect them as directly like partisan divisions and culture wars have left them frustrated with how things are going in the country.

The White House believes it has the evidence to prove to the public things are on the right track.

Officials have emphasized that the economy is strong, adding millions of jobs since Biden took over at the height of the pandemic last winter. The administration has acknowledged for months concerns around inflation and looked for ways to combat it, and they have highlighted legislation like the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure law as delivering tangible benefits and funding for communities.

A summer of low COVID-19 infection numbers similar to last year, paired with good economic news, could be enough to convince voters the White House’s agenda is putting the country on the right track.

“I think especially during the summer and into autumn, that’s a completely different political world than the one we’re in right now,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist.

“Once people are three or four months away from this, it becomes less of an immediate annoyance,” added Burns, who is an opinion contributor for The Hill. “This is all frustration of people who have sacrificed a lot and want to go back to normal. And once that normal is back, I think people will reset the baseline to what their sense of normal is.”

—Updated at 10:50 p.m.

Tags Barack Obama Biden agenda Bill Clinton Coronavirus COVID-19 Inflation Jen Psaki Joe Biden White House
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