That doesn’t mean what you think it does, but nor does it mean what Democrats think it does, either. The alarming decline they highlight is in Joe Biden’s polling rather than his cognition, which has fallen precipitously over the last two months. Politico reports on Democrats’ recent focus group efforts in Pennsylvania among party voters to determine the cause of Biden’s fall from grace:
In a focus group last week, Pennsylvania Democrats one after another articulated the issue vexing top White House aides, party operatives in Virginia and voters in Georgia: Why isn’t President Joe Biden’s diminished job rating rebounding?
All nine participants from Tuesday’s session gave Biden C- grades or lower. And their answers circled back to a similar point: The pandemic and the many ways it continues to hinder normal life is souring their views of Biden.
In the first place, why are they asking Democrat voters this question? The decline in Biden’s job-approval ratings are mainly coming among independents and never-Trump Republicans, the coalition that got Biden elected. Biden’s standing among Democrats has eroded a little, but a solid legislative win would probably woo some of those back. The risk is in the center, not inside the tent.
By focusing on Democratic voters, the focus group effort ends up getting blinded by its own biases:
Nearly nine months into office, Biden and his team contend that the ravages of the pandemic are starting to recede due to his actions. They point to polling showing strong support for his legislative agenda, anchored by physical infrastructure and social and climate spending packages. They note how rare it’s been for Democratic lawmakers to break ranks, even during this current, difficult period.
But Biden’s standing with Americans has plummeted, with his average approval rating plunging by nearly 15 points since late June. He’s seen a drop among Democrats and even more with Republicans, but the decline has been particularly steep among independent voters. In the same time period, the president has scrambled to salvage his domestic initiatives amid infighting among Democrats over their size and sequencing. He has presided over a chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan and faced criticism for his response to the inhumane treatment of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But it’s the pandemic that looms over it all, making it all the more difficult for the White House to turn back the slide.
Progressive analysts have pushed the idea for weeks that the pandemic is driving Biden’s job approval collapse, but that’s nonsense. The pandemic started giving the White House fits in May, when the Delta variant threw sand in the gears of Biden’s attempts to declare an end to the COVID-19 mitigation regimes. By July 4, his promised Independence Day from COVID, it became clear that Biden would back toughening of restrictions rather than easing of them.
And if that was the cause of Biden’s collapse, why did it start in late August? Here’s the chart for RCP’s aggregate of Biden’s approval ratings in national polling:
The inflection point of late August points to one very clear catalyst — Biden’s disgraceful abandonment of Americans in his botched retreat under fire from Afghanistan. Prior to August 11, Biden didn’t have one net negative job approval rating in any national poll tracked by RCP, and he had an aggregate 50/46 approval rating. Nine days later, Biden’s aggregate had flipped negative, and by September 1 had flipped to 46/49. Since the end of the withdrawal, only one pollster has had Biden above water outside the margin of error in a national poll — Harris/The Hill, with two +5 results. Biden’s current RCP average is 43/52 and getting worse.
With all of this data, it’s absurd to keep arguing that the pandemic drives these numbers. What massively negative pandemic-related event occurred in mid-August that would have driven this dramatic reversal? It’s a tactic to allow Democrats to keep pretending that abandoning Americans to the Taliban had no impact at all — and for that matter, to allow the media to pretend as well. It takes two-thirds of the article before Politico gets to Afghanistan as even a contributing cause:
It isn’t the virus’ resurgence alone that’s hindered Biden. While Afghanistan and the border have largely faded from the news cycle, polls show they contributed to his slide, especially in how voters judged his competency in the job. In Georgia, Democrats said they remained confused and upset by Biden’s decision-making on Afghanistan, migrants at the border, and the intraparty feuding around his economic agenda. “Disappointed” was a word used by most of the Black and white voters who spoke to POLITICO in the metro Atlanta area when describing Biden’s time in office. But none said they were prepared to abandon Democrats in 2022 and 2024.
Sylvia Bernstein, a 71-year-old Biden voter from Atlanta, said Biden had “made horrible mistakes,” particularly on Afghanistan and refugees. “And now this budget that he’s trying to pass — $3 trillion — I don’t see that happening,” said Bernstein, who is white. “And I don’t think he’s gotten much support from other Democrats. Everybody seems to be floundering around.”
This is a classic confidence-crisis cascade. Biden’s disgraceful abandonment of Americans in Afghanistan forced everyone to readjust their assessment of his abilities, and now the scales have fallen from the eyes of many voters. Thus, non-Democrats and even some within the party have no confidence in Biden’s leadership on anything — the pandemic, the economy, legislation, and national security especially.
How can Biden recover? The answer isn’t just a legislative win, as Politico’s sources suggest. Democrats run Congress, so legislative wins are a minimum expectation, even for Biden. In order to recover, Biden will first have to recognize that he’s failed and then make amends for it. Needless to say, Biden has shown little capacity for self-awareness in his decades in Washington, preferring to deeply believe that he’s the smartest guy in any room in which he happens to be. You can’t make amends when you think you’re right and everyone else is wrong; all you can do is double down on stupid, which is a pretty good description of Biden’s approach to everything.
If anything, that aspect of Biden’s personality has only grown worse since taking office in January, along with his aphasiac moments at the podium. The question from Politico’s headline will have to get addressed in all of its contexts sooner or later.