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How to Read Biden’s Plummeting Polls



President Biden speaks at the New Jersey Transit Meadowlands Maintenance Complex in Newark, N.J., Oct. 25.



Photo:

peter foley/Shutterstock

After nine months in office,

Joe Biden

is in trouble. His job approval has fallen nearly 10 points from its high last spring, and Americans have downgraded their assessment of his presidential capacities.

It is far too early, however, to write off his administration as a “failed presidency,” as Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin and other prominent Republicans have begun to do. In recent decades, presidents of both parties—

Ronald Reagan,

Bill Clinton

and

Barack Obama

among them—have recovered from dips in their popularity to win re-election. Reagan won in 1984 in a landslide—but his job approval averaged 43% in 1982 and had fallen to 35% by the beginning of 1983, according to Gallup.

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Still, there are reasons why Mr. Biden’s popularity has faded. In the early summer, the administration unwisely encouraged the hope that the pandemic would soon end, increasing the psychological impact of the Delta variant. Inflation crept higher, and seems likely to last longer, than many experts predicted. Snarled supply chains created shortages of goods, and the situation may deteriorate as holiday shoppers hit the stores. Illegal crossings at the southern border surged to levels not seen for two decades, and the Biden administration still hasn’t figured out what to do about it. Rates of violent crime, especially murder, have risen, forcing mayors to reverse the changes in policing made in the aftermath of

George Floyd’s

death.

Many Democrats have been disappointed by the lack of progress on immigration, criminal justice and voting rights and by the compromises in the reconciliation bill forced by centrist Democrats in the House and Senate. On the other side of the aisle, the debate about critical race theory in public schools has mobilized many parents against the administration.

And many political observers underestimated the impact of the hasty and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the beginning of Mr. Biden’s presidency, his reputation as a steady, experienced hand in foreign policy was one of his strengths. The scenes of disorder and desperation in Kabul changed that. By early October, only 37% of Americans approved of the president’s performance as commander in chief and 34% retained a favorable view of his foreign-policy management. Solid majorities questioned his leadership skills and competence in running the government. Ominously, only 43% describe him as “mentally sharp,” down 11 points since March.

Time and a bit of luck could take the edge off some of these problems. If the Delta variant turns out to be the last surge of the pandemic, life will be much closer to normal by the spring. Vaccinating schoolchildren will allow millions of parents to return to full-time employment while balancing work and family obligations. Inflation may ebb faster than the pessimists predict. If the infrastructure and reconciliation bills pass soon, some voters may give the Democrats credit for improvements they perceive in their lives.

Other problems will be harder to solve. Policies that effectively address the surges of illegal immigration and violent crime will require steps that many Democrats will be reluctant to take. The president can’t meet his supporters’ demands on voting rights without weakening or abolishing the Senate filibuster. It isn’t clear that Mr. Biden can get all 50 Democratic senators to agree to this. And even if he can, this procedural change would allow a simple majority of Republican senators to reverse Democrats’ legislative accomplishments as soon as they capture the White House.

The erosion of support for Mr. Biden has been especially steep among independents, for reasons that cut to the heart of his presidency. During his campaign, he sent two basic messages, one to his party, the other to his country. He promised to bring Democrats together around an agenda carefully negotiated before the 2020 election began, as the leader of a party in which all Democrats from the center to the left would have a voice. At the same time, he would bring Americans back together by treating Republicans with respect and by doing his best to craft policies that appealed to both parties.

In practice, these two promises have proved incompatible. There have been some discrete bipartisan successes, such as the infrastructure bill and a measure to boost investment in technologies to counter China. But there is no Republican support for Democratic approaches to social programs, voting rights, immigration, criminal justice and public education.

Faced with a choice between party unity and national unity, Mr. Biden has chosen the former more consistently than independents had expected, and their disappointment is showing up in the polls. He will have a hard time regaining their support without trying harder to reach across party lines. But in today’s polarized climate, such a démarche might well fail.

Journal Editorial Report: Does Joe Biden even have a border policy? Image: Pedro Pardo/AFP via Getty Images

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