Democrats are growing increasingly worried about President Biden’s standing in the polls seven months out from the midterm elections.
Biden hasn’t seen a boost in his approval ratings amid Russia’s war in Ukraine despite support among Americans for the steps that he has taken.
While the economy continues to gain jobs and the unemployment rate is low, something Biden touted on Friday, inflation is at a 40-year high and gas prices are through the roof, exacerbated by the Russian invasion.
Democrats for months have feared they will lose the House majority this fall, and they are worried about losing the Senate, too, with polls showing Biden performing poorly in key states such as Arizona.
“It’s bad,” said one Democratic strategist. “You have an energy crisis that’s paralyzing and inflation is at a 40-year high and we’re heading into a recession. The problem is simple. The American people have lost confidence in him.”
The news from the job market on Friday was that the U.S. economy added 431,000 jobs in March, more signs of a strong economy. Yet those figures have not translated into a boost for Biden.
“My hypothesis is that, unless and until inflation comes down appreciably, that there’s going to be a ceiling on his job approval that’s a lot lower than the White House wants it to be,” said Bill Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program and a former domestic policy adviser to President Clinton.
Biden initially appeared to receive a slight bump in support after his State of the Union address, where he forcefully rebuked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war in Ukraine that had been launched less than a week before.
Since then, Biden’s numbers have remained deflated as gas prices have stayed high.
“High gas prices are one of the biggest anchors on presidential approval,” said Gallup senior editor Jeff Jones, pointing to the impact high fuel costs had on Presidents George W. Bush and Carter in the 2000s and 1970s, respectively.
Jones also said that the high degree of polarization among the electorate means it is less likely that Biden will see a boost amid the war in Europe.
An NBC News poll released on Sunday registered Biden’s approval rating at 40 percent, the lowest of his presidency in that poll. A Marist College poll released Thursday found 39 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, down from 47 percent immediately after the State of the Union address at the beginning of the month.
Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said he wasn’t surprised by Biden’s declining numbers, noting that past presidents also saw similar declines over the same period in their presidency. The president’s party also historically performs badly in midterm elections.
“I’m not shocked at all by the numbers because they look exactly what normal looks like,” Kessler said. “The question is, given a lot of the good news in the country — the jobs numbers, businesses opening, the masks are off, the Russians are in full panic, America is astride the top of the world — can we do better? Can we do better than normal? And I think the disappointment right now is we’re not.”
According to Gallup, 1 in 5 Americans cited the high cost of living or fuel prices as the most important problem facing the nation. In comparison, 9 percent named the situation with Russia and Ukraine and 3 percent said the coronavirus, matters for which voters tend to give Biden higher marks.
The White House has very limited options when it comes to bringing down inflation and largely needs to wait out the storm — something officials hope will pass throughout this year as the pandemic and related supply chain woes that have fueled higher prices ease.
In the meantime, Biden is doing what he can. On Thursday, he announced the release of one million barrels of oil from the United States’ strategic reserve per day for the next six months to address rising gas prices — the largest ever such release.
“What the president is doing is using every tool available to him to bring prices down for the American people at the pump,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters.
As he championed the March jobs report on Friday morning as evidence the economy is “on the move,” Biden made clear that addressing inflation was a focus of his administration.
“This job is not finished,” Biden said. “We need to do more to get prices under control.”
Administration officials have tried to put the blame on Russian President Vladimir Putin for high gas prices — referring to it as “Putin’s price hike.” Biden on Friday said Putin’s war was causing global spikes in food prices as well.
But even some in the Biden administration acknowledge the message is not resonating as much as they’d like.
“For whatever reason, the messaging hasn’t gotten through,” one administration official acknowledged. “At times it feels like we’re spinning our wheels.”
Kessler argued that the White House needs to “narrow” its messaging when speaking to the public about the progress Biden has made in his first 12 months in office.
“It’s ‘we beat COVID, we’re beating Russia, and we’re going to beat inflation,’” he said.
The Democratic strategist, speaking on background, was more critical, saying the Biden White House has shown an unwillingness to change course.
“It’s not like Bill Clinton in 1994 who does a 180,” the strategist said.
Other Democrats said they don’t fault Biden.
“President Biden has a near-impossible job. Most presidents do,” Democratic strategist Christy Setzer said. “Though Trump’s problems were largely self-inflicted, Biden’s aren’t. He inherited a mess of an economy, a public health crisis and an emboldened Putin.”
Still, Setzer said, Biden could do more to emphasize what the White House is doing.
“I get it; he doesn’t want to upset his ever-sensitive potential Republican allies in a 50-50 Senate,” Setzer said. “But when you’re creating a narrative about Why Things Are The Way They Are, your audience needs to understand how we got here.”
“It’s not enough to address the problems,” Setzer added. “He also needs to repeatedly hammer home that he’s the one getting us out of the ditch, not the one who drove us into it.”
Biden is expected to deliver remarks on Monday about the administration’s trucking action plan, which is part of an effort to unclog supply chain backlogs that have contributed to inflation.
The White House also signaled it will adopt a centrist message ahead of the midterms with the release of Biden’s budget earlier this week, emphasizing plans for deficit reduction and security funding.
White House economists say inflation will likely ease over the coming year, but it’s unclear to what degree Russia’s war in Ukraine will impact that timeline. Officials have been warning Americans to prepare for not only higher gas prices but also higher food costs due to the ongoing conflict.
Political observers say Biden’s popularity will be dampened for the time being by all of the turmoil. And it could slip lower still if his son Hunter Biden is indicted for his foreign business dealings, as some expect.
“In terms of Biden, I think these can only be called rough political times,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “At least going into the midterm, these poor perceptions of his leadership and the inflationary pressures will weigh him and the Democrats down.”
“Though he gets credit from many for how he is handling Russia, the instability in the world simply adds to troubled perceptions of the state of the union,” Zelizer said.
Many in the party are hopeful that Biden will see his numbers rise again as inflation eases. But the Democratic strategist argued that it’s too late for the party to turn things around.
“Everyone needs to come to terms with the reality that we’re going to get slaughtered in November,” the strategist said. “That’s a fact. His polling has gotten worse, not better. It’s indicative of the fact that people have lost confidence in his leadership. There’s nothing they’re going to be able to do.”
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