Biden’s falling poll numbers — both better and worse than you think

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In 1915 the British Army was evacuated from the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is regarded as one of the most impressive operations of World War I. Meticulously planned, Allied forces suffered zero casualties and removed their critical equipment, only leaving behind food, clothing and trash. 

And then there is the Biden evacuation of Kabul — or, more accurately, the stampede for the exits. 

On practically every dimension, the Biden administration has failed. Failed in protecting American citizens and American supporters, failed in recovery of equipment, failed in coordination with American allies and failed to take responsibility. And, worst of all, it was mostly unnecessary. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of military history knows that these types of retreats are perilous and require extensive contingency planning and thought. They cannot be held to an artificial political/public relations timeline.

The Afghanistan debacle has been politically damaging to President Biden, to say the least.

But what are the long-term ramifications? While the disaster will almost certainly result in significant losses in the 2022 Congressional elections, it may not be as destructive for the Democrats in 2024 — although it will complicate the internal debate over a Biden re-election vs. a hand-off to Vice President Harris.

Bad news for the 2022 midterms

Biden’s approval has fallen, but there is not much consensus on how far. Recent polls have his approval ranging from 41 percent to 50 percent net approval to 46 percent to 55 percent net disapproval. His average approval has fallen from a high of 55.1 percent approval in late March to a near even approval-disapproval currently.

Where Americans do agree is that the Biden administration has badly botched its Afghanistan policy. In a CBS News survey, 74 percent believe the withdrawal has gone badly, including 62 percent of Democrats. The recent YouGov benchmark poll has disapproval at 68 percent to just 16 percent approve, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

This collapse in support spells trouble for the Democrats in the midterm elections. Already likely to lose seats, their House majority is looking ever more ephemeral. As the midterm elections are generally a referendum on the president, any slide in his approval and public confidence is a severe problem. The recent experience of Presidents Clinton and Obama is particularly ominous for Democrats.

Both Clinton and Obama saw initial strong approval ratings after 100 days, Clinton at 55 percent positive and Obama at 65 percent positive. Yet both saw their approvals fall into the low 40 percent range by mid-term election day. Similarly, Biden had high ratings after 100 days (57 percent approval), but now his numbers are sinking — down over 10 points from his high-water mark. Both Clinton and Obama saw their House majorities collapse, losing 54 and 63 seats, respectively.

Beyond the numbers, Biden is simply not handling the first true crisis of his administration well at all. He had a fairly quiet first seven months, and his high approvals seem to be tied not just to the typical honeymoon of any new presidency, but to relief that the tumult of the Trump administration had passed. But not now. Not only has Team Biden looked lost and befuddled, the patina of competence has worn off. If Biden continues his current trajectory, Democrats could be staring into a nasty abyss in 2022.

Biden can recover for 2024

There is good news for Biden. Most Americans don’t blame him for the Afghanistan war in general (Bush is mostly blamed, at 62 percent in the Suffolk poll) and they approve getting out. Americans also still don’t put foreign policy at the top of their concerns. In the most recent YouGov benchmark, respondents put health care, the economy and the environment at the top. National security comes in fourth on the list, with just 9 percent ranking it as a top issue — and that is boosted by Republicans who place it on top (for now) at 16 percent.

Biden has a mixed bag on personal attributes with a plurality considering him “likeable” at 43 percent, with just 31 percent rating him not likeable. But his leadership numbers are weak: 53 percent think he is a weak leader, with majorities among Republicans and independents, while 48 percent would be “uneasy” with Biden in a crisis (only 36 percent are “confident”).

Biden can look to the experiences of Reagan, Clinton and Obama — all of whom had approval ratings that fell into the low 40s but recovered enough for each to be re-elected. For each an improving economy was the ticket to winning — as it has been for most presidents.

Biden’s path to re-election is a strong economy. But Biden faces a host of complicated headwinds that make any re-elect more fraught that for his predecessors. His election campaign strategy of exposing himself as little as possible and simply not being Trump may have been a success, but that strategy has left him with little personal identity and loyalty. What happens if Biden no longer has Trump to kick around? In addition, Kamala Harris seems ever-looming in the background, hoping to run for president sooner rather than later.

After a flurry of bad press for Harris earlier in the summer, her candidacy in 2024 is looking better today. If Biden and his loyalists right the ship, he can keep Harris’s ambitions in check. But, with a suddenly inquisitive mainstream media and more questions over Biden’s competence, every inevitable slip-up by the administration will encourage conflict over who should have the Democratic nomination in 2024.

The debacle in Afghanistan abruptly ended the Biden post-inauguration honeymoon. First-term presidents rarely recover in time for the mid-terms, but often do for their re-election campaigns. For a 78-year-old president who has looked more than a little shaky, a recovery by 2024 is much less certain.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2022 midterm elections 2024 campaign Afghanistan Afghanistan withdrawal Biden approval rating Democratic Party Joe Biden opinion polling Presidential polling Taliban

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