Premium essay | Why is Joe Biden in trouble?

Washington: President Joe Biden is in trouble.

Close to 18 months after he took over office, successive polls have shown the popularity ratings of the United States President Joe Biden plummeting consistently. Published on June 8, a Morning Consult-Politico survey found that 39% approve of the respondents Biden’s performance while 58% disapprove. A Reuters/Ipsos poll, published on June 7, found that 41% approved of his performance while 56% disapproved. Biden’s popularity ratings have been below 50% since last August.

As mid-term elections approach — all 435 seats of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate’s seats will be up for grabs later this November — the overwhelming consensus in Washington’s power corridors, including within Democratic Party, is that the Republicans will take the House and the race for the Senate majority is too tight to call. At present, Democrats have a slender majority in the House and the Senate is tied 50:50, with the Vice President’s vote tilting the balance in favour of Democrats. This gives Biden’s party, on paper, complete control of both the executive and legislative branch — even though the story is far more complicated in practice.

There is, also, talk within Democratic circles about whether Biden is the best person to lead the party into the 2024 elections, even as the President has made it clear he intends to run for a second term. None of the names doing the rounds for the post-Biden Democratic leadership — Vice President Kamala Harris and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg are mentioned most frequently, as are others who took a stab at the nomination in 2020 like Elizabeth Warren — are, at the moment, seen as having the winnability quotient against a Republican challenger, especially if that challenger happens to be Donald Trump.

So what has gone wrong for the 46th President of the United States — a man who was elected to the Senate in 1972 and then served as Vice President for eight years? As someone who knows the intricacies of the US political system, players and culture like few others, how and why did Biden fumble? Or did he?

This reported essay on Biden’s political trajectory is based on an extensive reading of Biden’s speeches and policy statements on 2021 and 2022, on-background conversations with Democratic and Republican leaders, donors and political aides as well as diplomats who have closely tracked the US’s political evolution in the past year, and critical assessments of the presidency published in recent months in a range of policy and popular media platforms in the US and internationally.

What Biden inherited

Biden inherited what can only be described as a political chaos and administratively anarchy when he took office on January 20, 2021.

Politically, for the first time in American history, a sitting US President obstructed the peaceful transfer of power by first questioning the legitimacy of the electoral outcome and then summoning and sending a mob to the Capitol to block the certification of the results. This was also a deeply divided country, where 72 million people voted for Donald Trump despite his categorical rejection of the norms and policy framework that had governed the American polity.

Administratively, Biden inherited a health crisis with the pandemic having ravaged American lives and economy, and a governance and institutional apparatus that had been laid hollow by Trump’s penchant for theatre and tweets.

While Trump did reset America’s China policy and engineered a set of unlikely accords in West Asia — both of which the Biden administration has sustained and built on — the Trump presidency undoubtedly eroded American standing and credibility, ruptured the US’s ties with traditional allies and partners in Europe, undermined the global governance architecture which had served American interests well, and inaugurated a mood of hostility to the open economic and trading arrangements that has outlasted the last administration and become a feature of American politics.

To be fair to the President, Biden has done a remarkable job in restoring a degree of normalcy on all these fronts.

What Biden did in 2021

Biden’s immediate priority on taking over was tackling the pandemic. This had two dimensions — lives and livelihoods.

By then, Trump’s support for vaccine development efforts had paid off — and the new administration focused on intensifying vaccination efforts. Around 68% of the American population is now fully vaccinated, and this helped lower the hospitalisation and death rates through 2021 and 2022. The administration did fumble in ensuring the supply of enough testing kits during the Omicron wave during the winter, the pandemic remains an unfinished story, but the push towards vaccination, including boosters, and ease in testing has helped the US partially stabilise the situation born out of the pandemic.

But there remains a formidable constituency of vaccine sceptics — who, at great risk to their lives and the lives of those around them — have refused to get the jab which would enhance their protection against Covid-19. Biden’s effort to institute mask mandates was frowned upon or actively opposed by a segment of the population — fed on misguided notions of individual liberty — and then struck down by the judiciary. The prolonged in-person school closures also exasperated parents, an issue that Republicans leveraged to build up resentment. So even though Biden did seek to bring science back to the Covid-19 response strategy, and did what can be considered a reasonably competent job, his efforts did not break through the partisan silos that have become integral to American politics.

On the economic dimension of the pandemic, Biden pushed through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to address distress. This act extended unemployment benefits, ensured direct cash transfer of $1400 to individuals, provided for emergency pay leave, extended a 15% increase in food stamp benefits, expanded child tax credits, gave grants to small businesses and affected sectors as well as educational institutions, enhanced support for housing, carved out outlays for additional health care spending, among other steps.

Biden, by then, had become more ambitious and sought to push through what many in DC began calling his Roosevelt-like ambitious roadmap which had two components — focused on infrastructure and social care and resilience.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill focused largely on improving America’s dilapidated infrastructure and was, in the Keynesian model, an attempt to spur public spending as a way to stimulate the economy and generate employment. It had financial investments of a scale of $1.2 billion, and was eventually passed in November 2021.

At the same time, Biden also sought to push through Build Back Better Act. This entered the more contentious terrain of American politics, with an attempt to expand social welfare benefits including for child and elderly care, make long-term investments to battle the climate crisis, provide partial relief on medical costs, make investments in higher education to enable students to access community colleges, and tax the wealthy. And while the House passed a bill that would have entailed an investment of $2.2 billion, Biden failed to muster up the required support in the Senate. This was not because of Republican opposition (they opposed it of course), but because Biden was unable to hold his own Democratic cohort together, with two prominent dissenters – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both belonged to states where Republicans posed a formidable political challenge, both had powerful social and economic constituencies that they did not wish to antagonise, and both found themselves more aligned with the Republican worldview on many political economy issues than the progressive wing of their own party.

These twin legislations — one of which passed and the other did not — cost Biden extraordinary political capital in 2021 and are critical to understanding how the political narrative began to slip outside his control.

This was because, through most of the summer and fall of 2021, the progressive caucus within the Democrats in the House of Representatives insisted on passing both bills together. They feared that if this was not done, while the infrastructure bill would go through, the build back better bill would get stuck. This was a legitimate fear but in the process, neither bill passed till a set of state-level elections in November saw the Democrats lose the governor’s race in Virginia and face a close contest in New Jersey. This scared the party into eventually mobilising its members to push through the infrastructure bill at the very least; the build back better framework was, effectively, dead with Democrats lacking the numbers in the Senate to push it through.

So, over 2021, three separate things happened on the domestic front, each of which was to have implications for 2022.

One, Biden tackled the pandemic better than Trump — and his efforts saved lives and paved the way for a return to some kind of economic normalcy. But he did not get political credit for it beyond his base. And a stronger government hand in pushing through vaccination and preventive measures riled up the Republican base.

Two, Biden pumped money into the economy both through the rescue plan and the infrastructure initiative. While this provided both immediate relief, generated jobs, and laid the foundations for the longer-term revival of America’s physical assets, it also, as former Treasury secretary and Harvard economist Larry Summers had warned, had inflationary consequences. These were amplified because supply chains remained disrupted in the wake of the pandemic and popular spending patterns shifted to goods from services. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has now acknowledged that the administration was wrong in terming inflation as a transitory feature.

Three, Biden sought to please the progressing wing of his party by attempting to push both the infrastructure and build back better bills together. This cost him time and first put off the centrists within the party and gave Republicans a talking point. He did not succeed. And eventually, the social care legislation wasn’t passed. This alienated the progressives who felt the White House hadn’t fought enough.

Juxtapose this with Biden’s most serious national security crisis till that point — Afghanistan. The administration extended the deadline of withdrawal of troops but largely stuck to the Trump script of getting out of Afghanistan. To be fair, Biden had been sceptical of deeper engagement in the country ever since he became Vice President in 2008 and had opposed Barack Obama’s surge. After 20 years of being on the ground, there was little popular support for the continued American presence in Afghanistan.

But the manner of the American exit, the immediate collapse of the Afghan government and security forces, and the swift Taliban takeover of Kabul shattered American standing in the region — and led to an avalanche of criticism at home against Biden. Republicans, who have honed the narrative of Democrats being weak and incompetent on national security for decades, found in Afghanistan solid ground to attack Biden, even though Trump had signed a flawed peace deal that allowed Taliban legitimacy despite the terror group neither giving up its coercive apparatus nor its ideological agenda. It is no coincidence that Biden’s approval ratings begin falling in August, the same month as the Afghanistan withdrawal.

And then, by the end of the year, Omicron hit. And suddenly, it appeared that the administration was not in control. Delays in testing did not help. And Biden lost some of the political credit he had gained on pandemic management, even within his base. By the time 2021 ended, Biden’s political peak was over. The Roosevelt-like dreams of rebuilding America had collided with cold political realities. The divisions within his party were there for all to see, with the President appearing like he was not a man in control. Neither the centrists were listening to him, nor the progressives. And despite record employment numbers, it was not jobs but prices that was the dominant talking point. And this is when the narrative shifted to Ukraine.

Biden’s Ukraine gambit

Joe Biden got Ukraine right.

After the erosion in its credibility due to flawed intelligence that provided the justification for the Iraq War, the American intelligence community — with the Central Intelligence Agency led by veteran diplomat and Russia hand, William J Burns — predicted that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. In a remarkable departure from the past, Biden allowed the public release of intelligence as a way to warn the world and build pressure on Vladimir Putin to step back from his invasion plans. Critics have pointed out that this strategy of publicly releasing intelligence may have goaded Putin even more into the aggression and failed in its purpose of deterring the invasion. But the widespread consensus in western strategic circles is that the release of intelligence re-established American primacy and allowed it to gain the narrative dominance on the issue.

This was coupled with extensive transatlantic diplomacy. Donald Trump had left the US-Europe relationship in tatters, with the relevance of NATO under question. The Biden administration invested in repairing ties with Europe, building a consensus on Russia’s aggressive moves, and incrementally goaded even countries such as Germany — which had close economic interlinkages with Russia, exemplified by Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — to begin reconsidering ties with Russia.

The US also began pumping in resources in Ukraine and stepping up its military assistance to the regime in Kyiv so that Volodymyr Zelensky was in a position to take on the might of the Russian forces if the invasion did happen. And simultaneously, the administration — under the leadership of deputy national security advisor Daleep Singh — began preparing what was to become the most severe set of sanctions ever imposed on a major power.

Putin went ahead with the invasion on February 24. And Biden’s plan kicked in.

The US built up an international coalition at the United Nations to castigate and condemn Russia. It cemented transatlantic unity, with even those who had hedged bets till that point such as Germany turning decisively against Russia and calling off the flagship gas pipeline. NATO suddenly got a new life as America stepped up its military presence in Eastern Europe, and countries such as Finland and Sweden giving up their traditional foreign policy positions to entertain the possibility of entering the alliance. The sanctions package — which included freezing Russian assets and reserves, and imposing a set of wide technological and financial sanctions — saw the Russian economy tumble. The Ukrainian leadership and forces, backed by tremendous western intelligence and military support, succeeded in repelling Russian forces from Kyiv and forced Moscow to reset its war aims and turn the focus on southern and eastern Ukraine where the war is currently being fought intensely.

But by April, two consequences of the war started playing out.

In the US, emboldened by the early Ukrainian successes in fighting off the Russians and isolating them to a large extent, there appeared to be an escalation in war aims. From only seeking to safeguard Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, American officials increasingly began speaking of weakening Russia, ensuring a long-term strategic defeat for Russia, and even flirting with the idea of regime change. This introduced a level of tension — which isn’t visible, but exists just beneath the surface — with a set of countries in Europe that recognised that while Russia must be repelled, even a weaker Russia which had faced a strategic setback would remain an important pillar of the global security architecture.

How the war ends will depend as much on what happens on the ground as on the evolution of this debate in western strategic and policy circles on a set of questions — what would be considered a Ukrainian victory; at what point should there be a more concerted push for peace; is Russia acquiring an edge Donbas; what are the compromises Ukraine will have to make for peace; what will be the terms of future engagement with Russia; and is the renewed Western unity a fleeting feature or does it represent a consolidation of western strength that will outlast the current war?

The second consequence was the direct escalation in commodity prices across the world. Energy costs shot up. Food prices spiralled. Shortages became rampant. Countries in Asia and Africa, which were anyway put off with the hypocrisy of the West in framing its own conflicts as fundamental to world order while ignoring security challenges and conflicts elsewhere in the world, began to express their concerns about where the war was headed. The western sanctions regime led to a greater push for self-reliance and realisation among other emerging powers that weaponisation of foreign assets and reserves — due to the primacy of the dollar — could alter global economic architecture and lead to more fragmentation. American power was on display, but that display of power had also caused consternation among a range of political elites in the developing world.

But for Biden, domestically, the most significant impact of Putin’s invasion was a further spike in prices at home. To add to the trends of general supply chain disruptions and infusion of liquidity and revival in the labour markets in 2021, here was now a total disruption in energy trade. Gas prices kept galloping. And record job and growth numbers were not enough to hide the basic fact that Americans were facing the most serious inflationary episode in four decades. This has led to a stock market crash, and the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates, with a mood of gloom hovering around the economic landscape as policymakers and citizens prepare for a slowdown and even possibly recession.

Biden’s culture battles

Even as the Biden presidency was focused on the pandemic, the political economy, and most potent security challenge Europe had faced in decades, it was also operating in the larger backdrop of the culture wars that had engulfed America in recent years. Indeed, Biden has consistently said he fought the presidential elections to save the “soul of America”. But being polemical has been easier than framing a strategy around these wars.

These culture wars have revolved around a set of traditional issues that have divided American polity for decades — abortion, guns, and affirmative action — and other issues that have been a part of the discourse but become even more salient in recent years — educational curriculum, voting rights, criminal justice reform, the so-called “Great Replacement Theory”, LGBTQI rights, and immigration.

Take six of these issues, what Biden has done and not done, and how they possibly benefit Democrats and possibly harm them from the narrow prism of electoral politics.

Abortion is back on the ballot as a primary political issue with the unprecedented leak of the draft opinion of a majority in the Supreme Court majority that overturns the protections guaranteed under Roe v Wade. If the final verdict resembles the leak, a framework that had gradually seen an expansion in abortion rights and minimised government interference will get altered. States will be empowered to pass legislations that either outright ban abortion or circumscribe it. It will lead to the legal Balkanisation of the US, where progressive and Democratic states will ramp up protections while Republican states will curtail it. Since abortion-related protections were provided as a part of the right to privacy, the reversal of these protections could also potentially inaugurate an attack on other rights that Republican-leaning judges, legislators and base have opposed — including same-sex marriages.

In response, Biden, a Catholic who opposed abortion in the past, has taken a strong stance against the possible verdict. He has framed the issue around the principles of reproductive rights and the right to privacy, and pushed through an attempt in Congress to create a national framework to protect Roe v Wade. This legislative attempt was bound to fail given the lack of numbers in the Senate for Democrats to overcome the filibuster, but was seen as an important signal to the base and to voters who are unhappy about a potential reversal of these rights.

Indeed, opinion polls have consistently shown that there is widespread public support for abortion. Democrats hope that this will galvanise voters later in the midterms to turn out to vote against the Republicans, and win over swing voters, particularly women. This is a rare culture issue where Democrats, at the moment, have a possible electoral advantage. Republicans, on the brink of a historic ideological and judicial victory, are keen to take credit for the verdict but have been careful not to gloat yet, for they are aware that while this galvanises their base, it may erode their prospects in swing seats and among swing voters.

Guns too are back on the national agenda. This is not just due to the recent shootouts in Buffalo and Texas, though they have undoubtedly given it a sharper public focus. It is also because there have already been a record 250 mass shootings this year. 2021 saw over 750 mass shooting episodes, a jump from the 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019, according to the Washington Post.

With the right to own guns protected under the Second Amendment, the debate in American politics has never been about banning guns — but the conditions under which guns can be purchased, who can purchase it, what guns can be purchased, and what are the background checks and guardrails that can be instituted. Given the recent shootings and the public outrage it has generated, there has been a rare — though limited — breakthrough in gun reform laws. A bipartisan group of senators have agreed to push through a legislation that would enhance background checks, prevent gun sales to domestic violence offenders, and increase federal funding for school security and mental health programmes, among other steps.

Democrats are hoping that the public outrage against gun violence will spur voters in the midterms to back candidates who speak out against the unfettered right to own guns, even though it would be a mistake to underestimate the well-funded gun lobby — which has both a material and ideological advantage given how closely gun ownership is linked to American identity. And therefore each time Democrats speak up against gun violence and propose reforms, Republicans caricature them as a party that would take away second amendment rights. 

The third broad set of issues relates to education — both in terms of curriculum and inclusion. Republicans have begun a campaign at the state level to paint any teaching of racism by painting it within the broad brush of “critical race theory”; this allows them to tap White anxieties about how the history of slavery and oppression is taught and, in an act of political chutzpah, paint Whites as victims who are at the receiving end of being seen as racist. This is a key issue that Virginia governor, Glenn Youngkin, leveraged in his successful campaign last year.

This is coupled with an attack on pedagogy around sexuality, especially LGBTQI identities and rights, with Florida governor Ron Desantis, a Republican presidential hopeful for 2024, leading the way in banning or restricting how this is taught. This allows Republicans to paint Democrats as ultra-leftists who are out to disrupt social and gender norms, which would break up families and disrupt family structures.

To add to curriculum battles, there is a concerted Republican push to characterise any attempt by Democrats or African-American civil rights groups to push for greater inclusion of Black students in schools — and colleges — as against “merit”. With this, the Republicans hope to not just tap into White grievances but also strike a chord with other minority groups, especially Asian-Americans, who see affirmative action for Black students as coming at a cost to their seats in educational institutions. Given the premium that Asian-American parents, including Indian-Americans, place on education as the tool for upward mobility, this is a raw emotive issue that could create an unlikely coalition of social groups.

The Democratic base is furious with these moves. But Biden has chosen largely to stay away from the education wars. This appears to be a part of a tactical decision to not fight on issues that Republicans can use to inflame public opinion and win over swing voters, but critics allege that the Democratic leadership’s lack of willingness to fight more aggressively on education betrays ideological weakness and cedes the political space to Republicans to caricature liberals.

The fourth issue is criminal justice reform. In the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement in 2020, which exposed the structural racist prejudices that governed the functioning of police forces in America, the Democrats promised an ambitious roadmap to reform the criminal justice system. Some more radical segments of the party even began a “Defund the Police” campaign. But over the past year, as crime has increased and the perception of increasing lawlessness has sharpened, Biden has decisively distanced himself from the radical wing of his party. In his State of the Union speech, he, in fact, played around with the slogan of the need to “Fund the Police”. The search for order spans across social groups, but the silence on criminal justice reform has alienated civil liberties activists and African-American political and social groups which see it as a betrayal of promises. At the same time, a large segment of White Americans — fueled by Republican rhetoric — continue to see Biden as “soft” on crime because he is hostage to his voting base, in what is a not-so-subtle reinforcement of racist stereotypes.

The fifth issue is immigration. Donald Trump redefined the American political discourse with his rhetoric against migrants — and his campaign to build a wall on the Mexican border. Republicans have (inaccurately but successfully) painted Democrats as a party that gives a free run to illegal immigrants, who then are responsible for a surge in crimes and snatching away livelihoods. Biden has been unable to move on immigration reform at all, which in turn has alienated his Hispanic base. At the same time, with Fox News leading the charge, the Republican base sees him as “pandering” to illegal immigrants.

And finally, and most disturbingly perhaps, there is a concerted far-Right push to spread what has come to be known as the “Great Replacement Theory” — a conspiracy-based claim, with no factual basis, and fuelling the politics of hate. The premise of this theory is that a set of elites are deliberately, through permissive policies and political design, bringing in immigrants and encouraging people of colour to replace “native Americans” — with the explicit aim of disenfranchising Whites and reducing their political power. Absurd as it is, this theory cuts to the heart of the current battle in American politics.

While the Republican Party officially distances itself from the violent far-Right on the issue, it is leveraging the fears of the dominant White majority about the demographic transition underway in what has traditionally been a country of immigrants; this demographic transition, under a democratic framework, is of course leading to a shift in power equations with other social groups finding a seat at the high table of power; each instance of this successful political rise of other communities is used to feed into prejudices and fears. The US intelligence community now recognises the fusion of White Supremacism and domestic terrorism as possibly being the foremost security challenge for America — and January 6 was a reflection of that.

Biden has aggressively challenged the Great Replacement Theory, spoken out against this majoritarianism, and sought to reassure other social groups — from Blacks to Asian-Americans — that he would stand with them against this politics of hate.

And so, Biden has adopted a nuanced and mixed approach on issues which have broadly come to be clubbed as culture wars. On abortion, he has stepped up and adopted an aggressive position against the reversal of rights. On gun reforms, his exasperation and empathy strike a chord with the base and moderates. On education, he has chosen to largely remain silent. On criminal justice, he has prioritised immediate order over structural reform. And on White Supremacism, he has sought to defend America’s “soul”. But with this mixed approach, in the electoral process, he runs the risk of neither winning over the White majority nor keeping together his more marginalised base (of women, immigrant groups, Blacks, sexual minorities), with the former believing Biden has gone too far and the latter convinced that he hasn’t gone far enough.

Where Biden stands

It is this mix of issues — pandemic management where vaccination has saved American lives but Biden hasn’t really got political credit for it; the political economy where jobs have been created and distress has been addressed, but record inflation and now an emerging slowdown threatens to undo all of Biden’s achievements; the Ukraine war where American power was on display but the costs of the war are slowly coming home, adding to Biden’s economic challenges; and political and cultural issues, some of which Biden has taken on aggressively, others where he has retreated into silence, and somewhere he has changed course altogether — that will determine Democratic prospects in the mid-term elections.

The party that holds the White House, historically, has ended up losing out in the mid-terms. But while that may be a disadvantage that Biden anyway begins with, it is this set of political issues that explain why America’s 46th president — a veteran of political battles — is now staring at what may be his toughest political challenge so far.

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