Washington insiders read polls like the rest of the country looks at baseball scores: Relentlessly, daily, obsessively. A politician’s “numbers” are akin to understanding his political health. A basic rule of thumb is that any president with an approval rating over 60 percent can tell Congress what to do and be pretty sure to get what he wants, so great is his sway with the public. On the other hand, a president with a rating below 40 percent must spend his time trying to squelch rumors that he is dead.
So, on its surface, it is notable that President Joe Biden’s recent numbers tell of his survival from a near-death political experience. Following months of intraparty Democratic bickering, the White House’s signature “Build Back Better” initiative — a multitrillion-dollar bill stuffed with progressive wish-list items like universal preschool and free community college — fell victim to both Senate moderates (such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) and the alarming resurrection of inflation. In the wake of this ignominious defeat, Biden had only a 40 percent approval rating in RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential polls. The president found himself on the cliff-edge of continuing relevance.
Recently, however, things have begun to look up politically for the White House, as Biden’s numbers have slowly but clearly edged upward to about 43 percent approval; far from great, but trending away from the writing off of his presidency. Two seminal factors explain the marginal improvement: The abatement of COVID-19 and the advent of the Ukraine war.
In the case of the first, after two grim years of lockdown, death and economic stultification, at last things seem to be returning to something approaching normal, with the children back in school (if still too often masked, in defiance of “the science”), parents back at work and commerce picking up. The fourth quarter of 2021 saw US gross domestic product increase 0.5 percent, 1.7 percent quarter-on-quarter, and the American economy enjoy its best year as a whole since 1984, growing at a robust 5.7 percent. While these impressive numbers are contextually a reaction to the deep dive the US economy took just before as a result of the pandemic, they do signal a very welcome return to economic normality.
At the same time, the Biden of old has reemerged as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Measured, moderate and clear-spoken, the president has made it obvious that, while he supports the hard-pressed Zelensky government in Kyiv, he is sensibly not prepared to risk widening the conflict by adopting a dangerous no-fly zone over Ukraine. Following his lead, and despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned pleas, NATO has unanimously followed suit.
Biden’s pro-Ukrainian tilt, then, has its limits. While genuine, it is secondary for the president to containing a possible escalation of the war. Beyond being strategically reasonable, Biden’s position is where most Americans are regarding the conflict. The war has reminded US voters of the “safe pair of hands” they thought they were electing in the first place, before the Biden White House came to be hijacked by the left wing of the Democratic Party.
But it is far too early for White House staffers to be quaffing champagne regarding Biden’s political comeback, as a number of overexcitable commentators have done. For one thing, a three-point “bounce,” while better than a drop, hardly amounts to a sea change in how the American public views the president. A March 15 Wall Street Journal poll confirms this. Only 29 percent of US voters think the president will run for reelection, with a dominant 52 percent believing Biden will call it quits after only one term in office.
If Biden were to run and win again, he would be 82 at the time of his second inauguration, by far the oldest man to have held the most demanding job in the world. Given his increasingly stiff gait, often rambling answers to questions and abject forgetfulness, it is unkind but true to note the president has lost a step over the past few years. The world seems dangerous, complicated and demanding. A large majority of the American people do not think Biden is up to a second term.
Beyond the personal, one issue above all has reared its ugly head, stifling the prospects for Biden’s comeback. As this column has long worried about, it is now increasingly clear that the beast of inflation — long cowed by the resolute actions of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and President Ronald Reagan — has slipped its restraints. Inflation increased to an eye-popping 7.9 percent year-on-year in February, the highest level in fully 40 years. Food, rent and fuel costs were dangerously climbing even before the Russian war has made an energy price shock a reality.
As the world looks increasingly like the dreary 1970s — stuck in a stagflation of low growth, high inflation and decreased living standards — Biden is sure to be blamed for this, just as Jimmy Carter was in 1980. Biden’s uptick in the polls is a blip, not a salvation. Instead, longer-range forces are bearing down on the White House, making it likely that, one way or the other, Biden is merely a one-term president.
This post was originally published in Arab News.