So much has gone wrong so quickly, it’s hard to remember we are only nine months into Joe Biden’s presidency. Less than one-third of the country now thinks America is “on the right track,” according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. That’s a dramatic deterioration since last spring, and a disturbing one, not only for the Biden and his party but for the country. Three developments are driving this collapse in confidence.
First, Biden is pursuing a self-proclaimed strategy to “transform” America despite his campaign promises to bring the country together, stress bipartisanship, and restore comity and normality. That’s not what he’s done. He’s tried to force big, progressive changes, a strategy that was bound to be divisive since he didn’t campaign on that platform or win a congressional mandate to pursue it. Second, all Biden’s major policies so far have failed — some spectacularly. He can point to no major triumphs to offset them. Third, Biden himself has been unable to mount an effective, coherent defense of his administration and its priorities.
The cumulative result is a sharp decline in public approval, especially among independents. Biden won the White House because he carried their votes, or perhaps because Donald Trump lost them. Now, with Trump gone and Biden standing alone, only one in four independents approve of the job he’s doing in the Oval Office.
Instead of heeding those red flags, the Biden administration is plowing ahead, undeterred, as the disasters mount. What the public sees are rising prices, bottlenecked supply chains, an open Southern border, and a bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan. They see a wobbly president who seems overwhelmed by a sea of troubles.
The immigration failures were evident from the start and have gotten progressively worse. The problems began on the campaign trail, when Biden and Kamala Harris contrasted their “humane” approach to illegal immigration to Donald Trump’s wall of resistance. Potential migrants in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America heard that message as “Y’all come.” So did the human smugglers who would transport them, as well as drugs and gang members, across the border. Once the new administration took over, it confirmed this new approach, ending construction of the border wall (including sections already contracted and paid for but not yet built) and discarding Trump’s policy requiring migrants to stay in Mexico while applying for asylum.
These new policies have yielded predictable results. Illegal immigrants began arriving in unprecedented numbers. They continue to do so, and the flow shows no signs of slowing. The New York Times reports that law enforcement encountered a “record 1.7 million migrants … trying to enter the United States illegally in the last 12 months, capping a year of chaos at the southern border.” Those are the highest numbers since the government began keeping records in 1960. So far, the administration has not proposed any serious plan to stop, or even slow, this continuing human wave.
Energy policy is another failure, with a huge public impact. Biden’s mandates and executive orders kept faith with the party’s green energy wing but led to spiking prices, well above inflation rates. Those prices are painfully apparent at the gas pump and will be crushing when winter heating bills arrive. Faced with these swelling difficulties, Biden has chosen to stay the course and beg OPEC nations to produce more oil. What he won’t do is change the domestic policies that squashed oil and gas production and distribution.
Energy prices are not the only ones rising. Overall inflation is the highest in three decades. That’s a problem in its own right and a major obstacle to passing Biden’s huge social-spending initiative. The bill is meant to reward specific constituencies, a standard practice by all presidents, and to lock in Washington’s metastasizing role in our society and economy. Biden’s bizarre sales pitch is that these mammoth programs are absolutely free. Hardly anyone believes him. What millions of Americans do believe is that profligate spending will make inflation worse and lead inexorably to higher taxes and slower growth.
The administration’s latest claim is that it can pay for everything with taxes on billionaires’ prospective capital gains (that is, on unrealized gains from unsold securities). Even if that confiscatory measure passes constitutional muster, an iffy proposition, it won’t come close to raising enough revenue. The enormous shortfall means either vast increases in deficit spending or higher taxes that go well beyond the top 1%. Since all but the most left-wing Democrats recoil from those taxes, most of Trump’s tax cuts are likely to survive.
The public doesn’t seem to care about federal budget deficits. They didn’t under Reagan, Bush, or Trump, and they won’t under Biden. What they do care about, though, is inflation. They already see troubling signs at the supermarket, drug store, and restaurants. They see it, too, in emboldened activity by organized labor, as workers go on strike. Who can blame them? They demand raises to keep up with prices and have the leverage to do it in a tight job market. They may also notice that the White House is no longer proclaiming that price increases are only temporary.
Foreign policy has not been a bright spot, either. The president came into office promising to restore America’s standing abroad. That hope collapsed at the gates of Kabul airport where 13 American military personnel lost their lives. This tragedy was followed by another: a U.S. drone strike killing 10 innocent civilians. Hundreds of Americans still appear to be trapped in country, though the administration is reluctant to say how many. (On Tuesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that around 450 Americans are still trapped, more than twice as many as the State Department declared only last week.) Several NATO allies publicly rebuked Biden for this disaster, furious because he withdrew without coordination and after privately assuring them that America would ensure stability in Kabul as it departed. Beyond the problem of potential hostages, many wonder if this humiliating defeat will lead to more provocative challenges from Russia, China, and Iran. The Afghan experience leaves both friends and foes with scant confidence in the president’s ability to handle them.
Compounding all this is Biden’s inability to defend or even explain his own policies. That’s not just because the policies are indefensible. It’s because Biden seems unable to justify them in unscripted settings. Instead, he makes short speeches, reading from a teleprompter, then turns his back and leaves the room.
Biden’s silence was a winning strategy before the election, since it limited his gaffes and kept the race focused on Donald Trump. Team Biden wisely framed the election as a referendum on the 45th president, not a choice between Trump and Biden. That strategy worked. It’s much harder to pull off the silent treatment now that Biden holds the nation’s most powerful office and makes decisions that affect us all. Americans have a right to know why their president makes those decisions and see how he defends them against criticism. Biden rarely offers answers.
Silence may be his best response, however, since he makes unforced errors in even the friendliest settings. In a one-on-one talk with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, for example, the president reiterated his claim that the administration had done a fine job leaving Afghanistan and that no one could have done better. He added that his late son, Beau, had served there. (Since Beau never served in Afghanistan, ABC removed that comment from the footage it aired. That was a deliberate media distortion to help a politician the network supported.) The president also claimed, in multiple settings, that he had followed the unanimous advice of his military leaders and intelligence officials to remove all U.S. troops from the country. Actually, most had urged him to leave some 2,500 troops there for intelligence and special operations.
Biden’s latest unscripted adventure came last week with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and it was filled with gaffes and worse. One was a clear-cut pledge to defend Taiwan if Beijing attacked. That statement, which Biden reiterated when Cooper repeated the question, represented a major change in American foreign policy, which had maintained “strategic ambiguity” about Taiwan’s defense for several decades. The White House spent days trying to walk back the president’s comments, as it did with his comments that he would deploy the National Guard to deal with trucking shortages. Only governors can deploy the Guard.
What worries the White House now is more than the gaffes, confusion, failed policies, and sinking poll numbers. It is the public’s growing conviction that Biden is simply not up to the job. As his policies crash and burn, he refuses to change directions or acknowledge he is pursuing a divisive agenda far different from the one he ran on. As questions mount, he dispatches aides to parry them while he remains incommunicado.
It is not a happy picture. President Biden has squandered the public’s trust and morphed from his carefully constructed image as Good Ol’ Scranton Joe into something closer to a fumbling, incompetent cartoon character: D’Oh Biden.Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.