Joe Biden is an unpopular president, and without some recovery, he could easily lose to Donald Trump in 2024.
By itself, this is no great wonder: His two predecessors were also unpopular at this stage of their presidencies, also endangered in their re-election bids.
But with Trump and Barack Obama, there were reasonably simple explanations. For Obama, it was the unemployment rate, 9.1% in September 2011, and the bruising battles over Obamacare. For Trump, it was the fact that he had never been popular, making bad approval ratings his presidency's natural default.
For Biden, though, there was a normal honeymoon, months of reasonably high approval ratings that ended only with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. And since then, it's been hard to distill a singular explanation for what's kept his numbers lousy.
The economy is better than in Obama's first term, inflation is ebbing, and the feared recession hasn't materialized. The woke wars and COVID battles that disadvantaged Democrats are no longer central, and the post-Roe culture wars seem like friendlier terrain. Biden's foreign policy team has defended Ukraine without (so far) a dangerous escalation with the Russians, and Biden has even delivered legislative bipartisanship, co-opting Trumpian promises about industrial policy along the way.
This has created mystification among Democratic partisans as to why all this isn't enough to give the president a decent polling lead. I don't share that mystification. But I do think there's real uncertainty about which of the forces dragging on Biden's approval ratings matter most.
Start with the theory that Biden's troubles are mostly still about inflation — that people just hate rising prices, and he isn't credited with avoiding a recession because wage increases have been eaten up by inflation until recently.
If this is the master issue, then the White House doesn't have many options beyond patience. The administration's original inflationary sin, the overspending in the American Rescue Plan Act, isn't going to be repeated, and apart from the possibility of an armistice in Ukraine relieving some pressure on gas prices, there aren't a lot of policy levers to pull. The hope has to be that inflation continues to drift down, real wages rise consistently and in November 2024, Biden gets the economic credit he isn't getting now.
But maybe it's not just the economy. Across multiple polls, Biden seems to be losing support from minority voters, continuing a Trump-era trend. This raises the possibility that there's a social-issues undertow for Democrats, in which even when wokeness isn't front and center, the fact that the party's activist core is so far left gradually pushes culturally conservative African Americans and Hispanics toward the GOP — much as culturally conservative white Democrats drifted slowly into the Republican coalition between the 1960s and the 2000s.
Or maybe the big problem is just simmering anxiety about Biden's age. Maybe his poll numbers dipped first in the Afghanistan crisis because it showcased the public absenteeism that often characterizes his presidency. Maybe some voters just assume that a vote for Biden is a vote for the hapless Kamala Harris. Maybe there's just a vigor premium in presidential campaigns that gives Trump an advantage.
In which case a different leader with the same policies might be more popular. Lacking any way to elevate such a leader, however, all Democrats can do is ask Biden to show more public vigor, with all the risks that may entail.
Biden got elected, in part, by casting himself as a transitional figure, a bridge to a more youthful and optimistic future. Now he needs some general belief in that brighter future to help carry him to re-election.
But wherever Americans might find such optimism, we are probably well past the point that a decrepit-seeming president can hope to generate it himself.