President Joe Biden often says America’s best days are ahead. It just doesn’t feel that way right now.
A nation exhausted by a two-year pandemic, struggling against rising food and gas prices, driven to distraction by school closures and torn apart by a political schism that erupted into violence is far from at ease with itself.
The sense of turmoil was captured in a new CNN/SSRS poll released Thursday that showed waning faith in US elections and found that most of the nearly 60% of Americans who disapprove of how Biden is handling his presidency were unable to name one single thing they like that he has done. “He’s not Donald Trump. That’s pretty much it,” one despondent respondent said. Another answered: “I really like his new cat, Willow Biden.”
Also on Thursday there was news that a key measure of inflation had climbed to a near-40-year high last month. Rising prices have a kind of strange magic that not only spooks voters, but also seeds the kind of political derangement in which extremists like former President Donald Trump can prosper. His assault on facts – aided by pliant right-wing media – has his fans yearning for his authoritarian return to power 13 months after he incited the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol. The country no longer has a common understanding of the truth, with 37% of Americans saying Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to be president, according to CNN’s new poll.
This foul national mood is primarily a disaster in the making for Democrats in November’s midterm elections, but it’s been a long time coming.
The first two decades of this century have delivered morale-busting military defeats, a generational economic crisis and an age of political turmoil, including sweeping social and demographic change and an equally intense backlash.
Rising violent crime rates are making a nation awash in guns feel less safe.
Talk of a new civil war in some media outlets is overblown. But divided blocs of conservatives and liberals genuinely seem to believe that the other is determined to rip away their vision of America. A powerful force on the right is the idea that a country that is becoming more racially diverse (partly through immigration), more socially liberal on gender issues and more secular, is being stripped of its quintessential, White identity. Up-and-coming Republicans have seized on public health guidelines and masks, meanwhile, to conjure a wave of fury based on the notion that Americans’ individual freedoms are being eroded.
There’s also angst on the left, where people are furious the Covid-19 pandemic was prolonged by vaccine holdouts. And there’s rising alarm among liberals that a conservative Supreme Court, starting to make radical shifts on social, racial and other issues, is set on turning a cosmopolitan nation into an idealized right-wing version of the 1950s.
A Republican Party wielding the filibuster in the Senate, meanwhile, is thwarting Biden’s power to rescue the country’s democracy from a flurry of new laws in GOP-led states that make it harder to vote and easier to politicize election results.
Trump has weaponized the nation’s divides for his own political ends. His lie that the last election was stolen from him has captivated his followers and made Biden an illegitimate leader in the eyes of millions of people – an impression it will be impossible for the President to mend.
American dominance under siege
The sense of national unease is being exacerbated by events abroad. The unipolar world led by America at the end of the 20th century has evolved into multiple challenges to US dominance from a rising China to a revanchist Russia that threatens the democratic world order. Their mission to destroy democracy is, remarkably, being aided by Trump acolytes inside the United States, in a scenario that would have been impossible to believe a few years ago.
Much of this catalog of woes is impossible to quantify. But everyone sees the strain and emotional toll in their friends and families of a once-in-a-100-year public health crisis. Even if average new daily cases are currently on their way down, the pandemic will bequeath trauma that will take years to heal.
The psychological impact of the way America is feeling will be for history to describe. But it is having political consequences in real time.
A grungy mood in a nation divided in multiple ways is translating to ever-diminishing confidence in political leaders and the system itself. It also helps to explain why a summer economic spurt, a dip in inflation and more legislative success on Capitol Hill are unlikely to rescue Biden’s presidency.
“We have to keep it going. And I think our best days are ahead of us,” Biden said last month at an event highlighting a push to increase the semiconductor supply. But the President’s attempt to buck up the national psyche and his own political prospects rang rather hollow.
There has been some mystification in Washington as to why administration successes have not registered more. The unemployment rate is near 50-year lows following a bumper monthly jobs figure last week. America’s economy is recovering more quickly than many other developed nations’ after the pandemic. A huge vaccine rollout saved thousands of lives. A massive Covid-19 relief bill that passed early in Biden’s presidency made significant reductions in child poverty. And while an audacious multitrillion-dollar climate and social spending bill is stalled in the Senate, Biden did what all of his recent predecessors had failed to do – pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
A terrible poll for Biden
But Biden is getting little credit, and CNN’s latest polling is simply brutal for the President.
Just 41% of those asked approve of the way Biden is handling his job. His approval rating on the economy has dropped to 37% – down 8 points since early December alone. Only 45% approve of his handling of the pandemic he was elected to end. When those who disdain Biden’s overall performance were asked to name a single thing he’d done that they approved of, 56% had nothing positive to say. “I’m hard pressed to think of a single thing he has done that benefits the country,” wrote one respondent.
It is true that no modern president has faced the confluence of crises that Biden did when he was sworn in nearly 13 months ago. And any commander in chief might have struggled. But Biden has rarely reached the heights of empathy and rhetoric he showed in an inaugural address meant to bring the nation back together after the pandemonium of the Trump years.
“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonization have long torn us apart,” Biden said after he was sworn in.
A year on, the second half of that equation appears to be dominating the first, not least because of the pernicious influence of his predecessor, who seems to be plotting a 2024 comeback attempt.
But Biden may also have done too little to rally the nation behind him. He lacks the steadying and sunny confidence of President Franklin Roosevelt, who piloted his nation through the great crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Some Americans also saw the ambition of Biden’s social spending plan as a betrayal of the moderate image he had cultivated on the campaign trail. The pandemic’s refusal to loosen its grip over the first year of his presidency hammered his reputation for competence. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which should have been a political winner, was instead a parable of presidential incompetence when it descended into bloody chaos. High inflation has been responsible for ending countless political careers in the last century, and the White House’s repeatedly wrong comments downplaying the seriousness of price hikes for basic goods haven’t helped.
Biden has restored decency and decorum to the White House. But a President nearing 80 may lack the galvanizing power to inspire much younger Americans. And Biden admitted last month that he had not fully mastered the role of the presidency after decades in the US Senate.
“One of the things that I do think that has been made clear to me – speaking of polling – is the public doesn’t want me to be the ‘President Senator.’ They want me to be the President and let senators be senators,” he said.
Republicans are deepening the national malaise
So entrenched are America’s divides that it’s hard to see how Biden will get his approval rating up the 10 or 15 points or so that history suggests is a safer zone for the party of first-term presidents in midterm elections. Even sudden deliverance from Covid-19 and an economic spurt might not alter perceptions of a country in crisis, especially given the lack of a common national reality.
Given the circumstances, the midterm elections ought to be some of the easiest on record for Republicans hoping to win the Senate and the House of Representatives. But the party is tearing itself apart, split between lawmakers fully bought into Trump’s personality cult – either by conviction or political cowardice – and an apparently smaller, more traditional bloc of conservatives. The feud erupted afresh this week when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized a Republican National Committee censure resolution that described the January 6 insurrection as “legitimate political discourse.” Trump and his acolytes quickly hit back, raising the possibility of internecine GOP strife that could detract from its midterm message and once again alienate the suburban voters who helped eject Trump from the presidency after a single term.
The widespread appeasement of Trump and efforts by his partisans to whitewash the truth about the Capitol insurrection, which are being revealed by the House select committee, have raised questions of whether the GOP has now become an anti-democratic movement that sees violence as a legitimate form of political expression. Trump has, for instance, recently issued racially explicit threats against prosecutors probing his election-stealing efforts and his business empire. While he retains a hold over the party, the GOP’s course only seems more certain to tear the country further apart.
In previous eras, an election might have been seen as a cathartic device to ease divides and frustration. But the fury of recent months may have rendered that traditional, democratic balm less powerful. In the CNN poll, 56% of respondents said they have little or no confidence that elections reflect the will of the people and about half think it’s likely that a future election will be overturned for partisan reasons.