Biden’s bizarre presidency limps toward electoral shellacking

As Richard Adams, the author of the beloved children’s book Watership Down, put it: “Bunnies … are like human beings in many ways.” This quotation popped into my head last week during the latest bizarre episode in the increasingly bizarre presidency of Joe Biden.

Fulfilling the ceremonial side of his job —the president is both head of state (like the British queen) and head of government (like the prime minister) —Biden was called upon to officiate at the annual Easter egg roll, a tradition in which children push an egg along the White House lawn with a long-handled spoon. Festivities include appearances by the president and the first lady, staffers dressed up in Easter Bunny costumes, and exhibits of elaborately decorated eggs. This would seem to be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and certainly not any public relations danger. However, such a seemingly placid event failed to reckon with this administration’s painful and growing disarray.

For, as we have said here before, Biden has lost an intellectual step since the time I knew him during his frequent visits to Europe as both a senator and vice president. Stiff gaited, peering off into the horizon, and perpetually distracted, the president is a public relations disaster always waiting to happen. In this case, reporters started quizzing him about foreign policy, even as the president and the first lady were standing somewhat uncomfortably with a 6ft rabbit, supposedly a White House press aide, dancing next to them. While the rabbit and the children were raising their arms and dancing, Jill Biden whispered to the president to do the same. Bewildered, he followed her orders.

But even worse was to come. While officiating over the Easter egg roll, the president was asked questions about foreign policy by the White House press corps. Confused, he began to talk off the cuff about Afghanistan and Pakistan … only to be firmly led away by the rabbit, who may have forgotten what he was wearing but not his role as press aide — above all, do not let the president attempt to answer unscripted questions.

Writing this seems cruel, but it is surely not so. Rather, it confirms for many the fears that Biden is not up to the job. Worse, he wants to run for another term. The president, now 79, would be 82 at the time of his next inauguration should he win re-election. Nevertheless, acording to The Hill, the venerable newspaper of record for those around Congress, re-election is precisely what Biden is aiming at. They have gone on record with two sources saying the president told his former boss, Barack Obama, that he is indeed planning to run again in 2022, a prospect that sent shudders up the spine of much of the country.

The Real Clear Politics average of polling finds the president with a current job approval rating of only 41 percent, while a majority 52 percent disapprove of his performance. Given that the president’s job performance is the most reliable indicator to the outcome of the mid-term elections in November, the result looks set to be somewhere between a decisive defeat for the Democrats and an outright political tsunami.

Historically, first term mid-terms are always a trial for the White House, as the voters tend to experience a severe case of buyers’ remorse. For example, the Clinton administration lost a net 54 House seats in 1994, while even more Democrats (63 in net terms) lost seats at the 2010 mid-terms during the Obama administration. Given the carved-out safe districts put in place for both parties since, there is no chance the absolute numbers will be as bad for the Biden White House this time around.

Saying this, I have yet to find a single political operative who privately thinks the Democrats will retain control of the House, while the Senate (to my eyes) also looks like it will end up with slim Republican control. Loss of both chambers of Congress would surely signal the definitive end of the Biden administration’s domestic agenda in early 2023.

Of the many issues working against him, dramatically rising inflation is the most important issue to most Americans, putting the administration behind the policy eight ball. Rising to a stratospheric 8.5 percent in March, inflation is at its highest level since faraway 1981. Nor do the White House’s feeble efforts to blame price rises on Vladimir Putin seem to be working; significant increases were already in the works before the Ukraine war, which began only in late February.

Rather, the simple, unvarnished truth is that, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the administration miscalculated how quickly the resilient US economy would bounce back — over-egging the economy with an additional, gargantuan 15 percent in federal spending, even as the economy quickly returned to normal. The math is simply the math. Vast new federal spending is to blame for raging inflation. Despite his recent familiarity with bunnies, Biden will not be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat here; his mid-term electoral shellacking awaits.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Biden’s political comeback much less than meets the eye

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.

How the Biden presidency became a wreck

There is a famous quote widely attributed to 18th-century French philosopher Voltaire that urges us to always look on the bright side: “Life is a shipwreck, but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” However, with the Biden administration on Thursday passing its one-year mark in power, there is little cause for such good cheer. The Biden White House — despite real legislative accomplishments such as passage of the COVID-19 economic relief package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill — resembles nothing so much as a political shipwreck.

A year into his term, the RealClearPolitics poll of polls finds the president’s approval rating underwater, with a 42 percent job approval, as opposed to 52 percent who disapprove of Biden’s performance. The standard political rule of thumb in Washington is that if a president’s approval rating stands above a lofty 60 percent, he can simply tell Congress what to do, so great is his popularity. On the other hand, a subterranean rating below 40 percent finds the occupant of the White House trying to squelch rumors that he is dead, so inconsequential has his administration become. Viewed in this Washington insider context, the Biden White House finds itself on life support.

What explains Biden’s dramatic fall from political grace? Beyond the specifics of politics and policy, the president has failed in a more elemental way. At his inauguration, after all the storm and tumult of the Trump years, the new president promised to restore competence, steadiness, decency and a boring, bipartisan normality to governing and to a country exhausted by four years of riding the Donald Trump roller coaster. He has signally failed to achieve this.

Instead, despite a 50-50 tie in the Senate and the slenderest of majorities in the House, Biden — long known as a moderate — tacked to the progressive left, unveiling a series of domestic initiatives as ambitious in their efforts to expand the role of the state as anything since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. The difference, following the Democratic landslide in 1964, is that Johnson had overwhelming majorities to work with in both houses of Congress.

Perhaps the fatal flaw in Biden’s time in office so far is the disconnect between his highly ambitious (and highly ideological) domestic policy ambitions and the meager reality of his governing majority. With Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia effectively derailing the crown jewel of the Biden agenda — the mammoth Build Back Better progressive wish list bill — the White House has looked alarmingly leftist and legislatively maladroit. For a man elected to restore bipartisan competence and normality, this has been a political killer. With Build Back Better languishing in the Senate, the rest of Biden’s domestic agenda looks to be derailed for the next year, leading up to what looks to be a midterm shellacking in both houses of Congress.

Beyond these failures of policy, tone and ideology, the Biden team has besmirched its initial reputation for competence. The administration’s alarmist vaccine mandate — an odd and highly restrictive policy choice given that the omicron variant of COVID-19 seems to infect the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike — was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The rise from seemingly nowhere of the beast of endemic inflation — the December inflation rate reached an almost 40-year high of 7 percent year on year — was badly missed and then downplayed by the White House. This has emerged in recent polling as the country’s primary concern, a problem almost entirely of Biden’s own making, which alone (if unchecked) has the power to sink his presidency.

Finally, even in international affairs — supposedly the president’s strength, given that he was long the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — the Biden administration has looked inept. While a majority of Americans were eager for the US to exit the endless war in Afghanistan, the panicky and amateurish manner in which the withdrawal was handled, as suicide bombers struck within Kabul airport itself, sickened all of America’s friends in the world, just as the debacle emboldened all of its foes.

For all the talk by the president that “America is back,” the grim reality finds Russia probing US weaknesses in Europe, with the transatlantic alliance still very much not on the same page regarding Moscow, the danger emanating from Iran or the rise of China as a peer superpower competitor. Once European allies got over the euphoria of no longer having to deal with Trump, relief quickly turned to concern as the Western ordering power of the world — mirroring the president’s increasing personal shakiness — seems unsteady, weak and flailing.

Ironically, the expected midterm drubbing in November — where the House seems certain to fall to the Republicans and with the Senate also very much in play — is probably the best political card Biden has left to play. This is because the rise of the GOP will undoubtedly tempt Trump back into the political fray. The most recent late December Reuters/Ipsos poll found Trump the favorite of a massive 54 percent of Republicans to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024, with only Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (at 14 percent) also managing double-digit support. A rematch with America’s most polarizing figure in 2024 is Biden’s best chance for improbable salvation.

This post was originally published in Arab News.