U.S. President Joe Biden began his term under the long shadow of the January 6 Capitol riot, a grinding pandemic and an increasingly divided America.
As he now rounds the one-year mark, he faces many of those same challenges – all as he tries to push through a sweeping and expensive legislative agenda.
The difficulty of governing through the triple threat of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, increasing consumer prices and political polarization from Congress to city halls across America is neatly reflected in Biden’s approval ratings, which hover around 45%. Since he took office on January 20, his approval ratings have weakened, with 50% of Americans now disapproving of his performance, according to the most recent Ipsos poll.
That, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, comes with the territory.
“You have every challenge at your feet — laid at your feet, whether it’s global or domestically,” she said this month, as Biden’s proposed voting rights legislation stalled in Congress.
“And we could certainly propose legislation to see if people support bunny rabbits and ice cream, but that wouldn’t be very rewarding to the American people. So, the president’s view is we’re going to keep pushing for hard things, and we’re going to keep pushing the boulders up the hill to get it done,” she said.
It’s the economy – and the pandemic
There are two main drivers of this discontent, said Mallory Newall, vice president of public polling at Ipsos: the economy and the pandemic.
Biden campaigned on a platform of addressing the pandemic and healing the wounded economy. As inflation recently hit a 39-year high, the economy has taken the lead, Newall said.
“The economy – and certainly inflation as part of that, has started to surge as a main issue,” she said. ”We see that in our Ipsos core political data. We see that as the top issue for the American public right now. And the president’s approval rating on the economy is underwater, meaning more disapprove of the job he’s doing than approve.”
And then there’s the pandemic, which has long overstayed its welcome with humanity.
“The longer the pandemic goes on, the more uncertainty and the more frustration the American public has in general, but they are starting to look at the top,” she said. “Especially considering that President Biden campaigned so strongly on COVID-19 and tackling the coronavirus once he was in office.”
Amid those challenges, Biden has tried – so far, without success – to leverage his party’s slim Congressional majority to back trillions of dollars’ worth of legislation that he says is necessary for the U.S. to keep pace with the rest of the world. That includes a stalled spending plan worth about $2 billion that aims to address everything from child and elder care to environmental justice, affordable housing and paid family leave.
Do this, not that
Biden’s critics say he should focus more on healing the ailing economy.
“The Biden administration is acting as though it can ignore fundamental economic problems forever,” Andrew Puzder, a visiting fellow in business and economic freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote on the organization’s website. “News flash — it can’t. The longer we wait to seriously address inflation, labor shortages, and supply chain problems, the worse the threat of an inevitable and deep recession becomes.”
Critics also dislike Biden’s handling of the pandemic, with conservative columnist Jarrett Stepman describing Biden’s vaccination mandates as “draconian COVID-19 policies of increasingly dubious effectiveness,” on the website the Daily Signal.
Think of the puppies
Kevin Kosar, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the White House’s own messaging is also to blame. He noted that the Biden administration has missed opportunities to tout successful legislation, such as a new bill – passed within five months, with little fanfare – that gives wounded veterans access to emotional support puppies.
“A lot of the conversation coming out of the White House and done in coordination with Democratic leadership in both chambers has been focused on the things that they haven’t been able to get done,” Kosar said.
“And a lot of it has been kind of a circular firing squad, where they’re pointing at, you know, their own senators, and complaining that these people will not get on board, and why are they holding things up? And then trashing Republicans in the process. And for the most part, Americans don’t well respond to that. They don’t like hearing toxic partisan talking points, or like hearing excuses,” he said.
New year reset?
As Biden begins his second year in office, and the pandemic begins its third year, “the mood in the country is tough,” Newall said.
“There’s this collective pause, and with that pause, comes frustration. And with it comes questions and uncertainty. And particularly when this was the number one issue that the president campaigned on, you know, for him to be losing ground on COVID, it doesn’t necessarily bode well for other issues either, because the collective mood is one of questioning and frustration,” she said.
She added: “And I think that does spill over into issues related to the economy, getting back to work, curbing inflation, dealing with other domestic policies. As we enter this collective pause, that’s going to spill over and have a ripple effect.”
Both Biden’s critics and supporters have suggested a reset, but Psaki said the White House is committed to its current path.
“We are still continuing to work with members to determine the path forward on Build Back Better; that we have the vast majority of Democrats in the Senate supporting voting rights,” she said. “That’s a path forward for us. And our effort is to do hard things, try hard things, and keep at it.”
Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.