Democrats are ringing alarm bells and coming to the simplest of conclusions: It’s the pandemic, stupid.
ATLANTA — 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.
One woman said she wanted to buy a car but supply chain issues were delaying new shipments to the dealership. A man complained about understaffed restaurants.“There is a malaise,” said Sarah Longwell, a moderate Republican strategist who became a vocal supporter of Biden in 2020, and led the focus group of Democratic voters. “People don’t feel like their lives have been improved. They did sort of feel that promises aren’t being kept.”
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.
Longwell said she was struck by how similar the concerns of Democrats sounded to Republicans, and also by how little Democrats in her surveys blame Republicans for standing in Biden’s way. It’s a point echoed by nearly a dozen strategists who have compiled or reviewed research into Biden’s precipitous decline.
Biden and Democrats in Washington “are in a morass of fighting with each over bills that nobody knows what’s in,” Longwell added. “It just looks like a cluster.”
The White House has never disputed the notion that Biden’s political fate is tied to his handling of the Covid-19 fight. It’s why they quickly moved to pass a $1.9 trillion relief bill upon taking office and placed such an emphasis on getting people vaccinated. But recognizing a hurdle is different than clearing it. Early, bullish proclamations about the country reopening proved to be premature, as did the belief that they could use persuasion, access and education to increase vaccination rates.
Biden’s job has been complicated by some Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, who have spread anti-vaccine conspiracies and rejected vaccine and mask-wearing requirements in predominantly red counties. But public health experts have also criticized the administration for being confusing with itsmessaging and slow to adopt new approaches. A recent push for vaccine mandates has led to an uptick in vaccination rates, but tens of millions have still not received a shot.
For the president and his allies, there’s only one clear way out: Reports from leading party operatives, some shared with the White House and Democratic committees, and polling provided to POLITICO, all point to Biden needing to get a handle on the virus to claw his way out of the muddle.
In one widely circulated memo, Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg argued that Biden’s steep drop-off can only be explained by the public’s perception of his uneven handling of the pandemic and a belief he is not prioritizing it. Rosenberg, who has been in touch with White House and party committee officials, contends that the tens of millions of dollars being spent to sell Biden’s Build Back Better agenda is “reminding” voters that the president isn’t focused on the virus. Even passing both bills won’t be enough to significantly improve Biden’s standing without Democrats first establishing they are the party responsible for defeating Covid, he said.
“The president’s decline is alarming. It’s serious,” Rosenberg said. “But it also can be reversed. And it isn’t going to be reversed by passing these two bills alone. He has to get Covid under control.”