COVID has a big effect on Biden’s presidency


President Joe Biden recently passed his six-month mark in the White House. It might end up being the high-water mark of his presidency.

Biden’s job approval rating is positive, about 52% in the RealClearPolitics average of polls. That is, of course, higher than the ratings of Biden’s predecessor, President Donald Trump, who never exceeded 47% approval in the RCP average, but it is lower than President Barack Obama, who stood at about 56% at this time in his presidency.

What is striking about Biden’s rating is that it is based largely on the public’s approval of his handling of the COVID pandemic. There is a large disparity between voters’ view of Biden’s performance on COVID and their view of his handling of everything else. 

For example, in a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, Biden had a 63% approval rating for his handling of the pandemic. His approval rating for handling the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border was 37%. His approval rating for handling crime was 39%.

Biden’s numbers were somewhat higher for his performance on the economy, the environment and racial inequality, but they’re still 10 or more points below his approval for handling COVID. And, of course, his big legislative accomplishment so far is a massive spending bill that he sold to the public as a “COVID relief” bill. 

So it is not an exaggeration to say that Biden’s has so far been a COVID presidency. Without support for his handling of the pandemic, Biden’s job approval rating might well have dipped below 50% for his first months in office. But during those months, the COVID news was nearly all good. The number of new cases plunged dramatically – more than 90% – in a process that started in the final weeks of Trump’s time in office. Biden also scaled up distribution of the vaccine developed by Trump’s Operation Warp Speed. Americans, who elected Biden last November at a time of grave concern about the pandemic, approved of the Biden approach.

Now, though, with the delta variant, the COVID story has changed again. The number of new cases per day is rising – after hitting a low of about 11,000 per day in June, the total is now over 50,000. (It’s important to remember that is still way down from 254,000 in early January.) The question of how to persuade more Americans to get the vaccine is sure to vex Biden, caught between supporters who favor a more authoritarian approach and those who want to continue the administration’s persuasion efforts.

But the bottom line is, going forward, the COVID issue promises to be a mixed bag for Biden, compared to the positive story it was in his first months. He has also reached a point where he can no longer mis-describe spending bills as “COVID relief.” And his non-COVID agenda faces rough going on Capitol Hill. 

Biden’s much-ballyhooed bipartisan infrastructure deal, focusing on projects like roads, bridges, airports, trains and more, appears to be in serious danger. And Biden’s enormous “human infrastructure” bill – a multitrillion-dollar extravaganza that progressives in his party want to focus on “climate, jobs and justice” – will have to be passed with a 50-50 tie in the Senate broken in Biden’s favor by Vice President Kamala Harris. And that is only if Biden can corral all 50 Democrats for the bill and win the approval of the Senate parliamentarian to use the device of reconciliation to pass it without a Republican filibuster.

As all that is happening, the Gallup organization says Biden’s approval rating is “showing the first signs of meaningful decline.” Most ominous is his decline among independents, from 61% in his first weeks in office to 48% today. That is the first time Biden has fallen below 50% with independents, among whom he is no longer reaping the benefit of simply not being Donald Trump.

But perhaps the biggest warning for Biden is in one simple question in the ABC poll: “Thinking about the next 12 months, would you say you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the ways things are going in this country?” In a survey at the end of April, 64% said they felt optimistic, versus 36% who felt pessimistic. Today, just 45% feel optimistic, versus 55% who feel pessimistic. That’s a huge drop in just two and a half months. And it indicates a lack of confidence that things will get better under the Biden administration.

So at six months, Biden faces a tough situation. The COVID issue has changed under his feet, passing his ambitious agenda with the flimsiest of legislative majorities will only get tougher, and public optimism is falling. Difficult political times could lie ahead.

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