The emperor is naked. The public knows it, and they’re finally beginning to speak the obvious truth. The emperor, in this case, is the president. He took office with high hopes from voters and a promise to bring the country together. Those aspirations are dead. The public has lost confidence in Joe Biden — lost confidence that he can do the job, and lost confidence that he is even minimally competent. They certainly don’t think he has brought the country together (though they think Republicans share the blame for that).
This sour mood hurts more than the president. It hurts his entire party, and will be extremely hard to reverse.
Some decline in popularity is inevitable after a new president takes office. For Biden, however, the losses have been huge. They began as voters evaluated the president’s abrupt, incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan. They grew worse as inflation rose, and the president’s answer was to spend even more. The public never bought Biden’s attempt to blame these problems on Vladimir Putin, even though the Russian leader does bear some blame for higher gas prices: some blame, but not all. Inflation stretches well beyond the gas pump in any case, and fuel prices had begun rising well before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The sharp rise in gas prices is particularly damaging politically, for two reasons. First, the higher costs are passed through to other goods, which require transport. Second, consumers can see the shocking prices advertised every day on every street corner. They feel the pain directly when they fill up.
About half the rise in gas prices is attributable to Russia. The other half was a deliberate policy choice, supported by all national Democrats except Joe Manchin. The administration’s goal was to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels by making them more expensive.
The administration’s problem — and the country’s — is that, once Putin invaded Ukraine, fuel prices jumped far beyond the administration’s targets. The obvious response would be to unleash US energy production, distribution and refining, which Trump had done but Biden reversed as soon as he took office. Biden had promised those restrictions as candidate, and he delivered them as president.
But circumstances have changed. Why didn’t Biden adapt? Because he is unwilling to confront his party’s powerful environmental activists. He would rather go begging to Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those humiliating initiatives haven’t worked; they’ve merely shown how rigid and incoherent the administration’s energy program is.
Biden’s problems don’t end at the gas pump. They have been mounting on multiple fronts, led by the worst inflation since the 1970s and some of the most troubling violent crime since the 1990s. Once again, Biden hasn’t been able to solve them or shift the blame. The result is that voters not only think the country is on the “wrong track,” they think Biden is responsible and cannot get it back on the right one. That judgment is catastrophic for the party in power. Their only hope would be much better economic performance, including higher real incomes.
Democrats now recognize Biden’s serious defects
Mistrust of the Biden administration is now almost universal among Republicans and independents. What’s new is its spread to prominent Democrats. They read the dismal polls and fear the electoral consequences. Some of the shrewdest Democrats, such as David Axelrod, openly say Biden no longer appears to be “in command.” Elected officials are quietly saying the same thing, anonymously, to friendly reporters.
The Democrats’ dismay is grounded in practical politics, not ideology. Unpopular presidents drag down the whole ticket. This is why Democrats expect big losses this November. Barring some enormous shock, they will likely lose the House and could well lose the Senate.
Democrats begin talking about successors
Another signal of Biden’s failures is that potential successors are now being discussed within his own party. The most visible name is California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, who recently ran ads in Florida touting his home state. Actually, the ads were only nominally about the Golden State. They were really Newsom’s signal to activist Democrats that he is eager to take the fight to Republicans. It didn’t hurt him when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis punched back, hard and with humor. (The actual ad buy was tiny; the point was to get the media to publicize it, which they did.)
Why should Democratic contenders signal they are ready to fight? Because the party base doesn’t think Biden wants to or does so effectively. When he tries to rev up the base, he just yells at them. Even his scripted performances are filled with embarrassing glitches. The bully pulpit seems to be bullying him.
It’s more than a “communications problem”
White House aides know these problems all too well. They do everything they can to prevent Biden from answering questions extemporaneously. That strategy worked well during the 2020 campaign, but it’s much harder to pull off in the White House. Still, his aides are trying. They almost never let him visit the press room or sit for interviews. Most days, they put a lid on public events by mid-afternoon. They’ve convinced him not to speak to reporters as he enters or leaves events. He just reads from the teleprompter and walks away.
Those may be the best communications strategies for an aging, bumbling president, but they don’t entirely eliminate major gaffes, which leave the staff with the unpleasant duty of cleaning up. White House insiders now tell reporters that Biden screams at them because he knows these clean-up sessions show his weakness — or worse.
Markers of failure
The clearest indicators of Biden’s naked failures are (1) his dreadful poll numbers — the worst in modern history; (2) the overwhelming number of people who think the country is on the wrong track; and (3) the behavior of sophisticated politicians, who don’t want Biden anywhere near them on the campaign trail. (Republicans in purple states have faced the same problem with Trump since his loss. They need to keep Trump’s voters without alienating moderate voters by appearing too close to Trump himself. Solving that dilemma was a key to Glenn Youngkin winning Virginia’s governorship in 2021.)
The latest example of Democrats edging away from Biden comes from Ohio, where Nan Whaley is running for governor and Representative Tim Ryan is running for an open Senate seat. When the president visited the state last week, both Whaley and Ryan couldn’t appear with Biden because of “scheduling conflicts.” Expect lots more excuses like that across the country. They are the political equivalent of being turned down for a prom date because “I have to wash my hair that night.”
When the president is as unpopular as Biden is, you might expect the vice president to step up. But Kamala Harris is just as weak politically. She is simply not very well prepared, sharp or articulate. She has no policy accomplishments and has failed in the vice president’s principal duty: defending her boss effectively and aggressively. They rarely give her that task anymore. Time after time, her off-the-cuff talks and Q&A sessions have proved banal, confusing and embarrassing. She checks all the demographic boxes but not the one for competence.
The political consequences of failure
The administration’s failures have painful political repercussions:
- Democrats are in deep trouble for the midterms. They do have some good news to share: unemployment is near record lows. The bad news is that inflation disturbs voters, wage gains haven’t kept up with inflation, and polls show people are now disheartened about their own circumstances.
- Biden is a feeble candidate for reelection. He says he’s running, but no one knows whether to believe him. That’s because he would eviscerate his power the moment he says he’s bowing out.
- Whether or not Biden runs, his low poll numbers mean he is likely to face a primary contest. These internal battles are always damaging. The good news for Democrats is that the Republicans face their own primary contest.
- In normal circumstances, the sitting vice president is the heir apparent. Not this time. Although Kamala Harris might run (if Biden doesn’t), she faces strong headwinds. Those were already apparent in 2019, when her polling numbers were so low she dropped out before the first votes in Iowa. Her problems haven’t gone away.
- Democrats’ troubles do not mean Republicans are certain to win the Senate this year or the presidency in 2024. The GOP has weak Senate candidates in at least two key states, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and the presidential contest is a long way off. Trump is anathema to many independents and has lost some support within his own party. Still, top-tier Republicans are reluctant to take on the former president. They know he would target them with savage, personal attacks. And they know that, if they made it to the general election, they would need those Trump voters to win.
The basic message is that Republicans have troubles, but those of Biden and the Democrats are worse.
To paraphrase Biden’s clueless effort to read his teleprompter last week: “End of statement. Repeat.”
Surmounting these troubles will be extremely difficult for the president. It will be even harder now that the public thinks he is simply not up to the job. More and more, they see Joe Biden as a confused, angry, incompetent politician, unable to solve the country’s mounting problems. He has been stripped bare in the public arena, like the naked emperor.
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