The D.C. Media Comes for Biden

Joe Biden
Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Peter Hamby
September 14, 2021

The people change, the stories are different, society evolves. But in Washington, presidencies still tend to have a rhythm. And with my deepest apologies to Gloria Estefan—the rhythm is always gonna getcha, no matter how hot you started on Inauguration Day. 

For new presidents, there’s some built-in goodwill to start, which may even last through those precious first 100 Days, unless you do a Muslim ban or something. Then the reality of governing starts to set in, and that sweet public affection somehow gets lost in the greasy gears of legislating and an onrush of unforeseen events. The president’s popularity begins to fade—a fresh angle for a press blob that has no interest in nuance or long-term thinking, but simply who is up and who is down, until the storylines reset each Monday. 

The rhythm has now come for Joe Biden, suddenly an unpopular president after a boastful start to the summer, when he told us that “America is finally on the move again,” with jobs coming back and vaccines coming online. Just three months ago, after his first 100 days in office, Biden was boasting a 54 percent approval mark and a disapproval rating of only 40 percent. But the summer has been ghastly. Biden has presided over slowing job growth, the endless pandemic, and a clumsy exit from Afghanistan that was trailed by 13 dead Marines and clunky answers about what went down. The Kabul video was bad—as Mitt Romney knows, a video always makes it worse—and the air of negativity was magnified by a torrent of hostile coverage from TV networks that sanctimoniously decided to care about a conflict they had mostly ignored for a decade. Today, looking at an average of the polls, Biden is what political savants call “underwater”—his disapproval rating (47.8 percent) is now higher than his approval (45 percent). More Americans today, almost two-thirds, are saying the country is on the “wrong track” compared to when Biden first took office. 

This is all chum, of course, for the Take Gods, who are now coming to fulfill their prophecies. Predictably, the right-wing media is salivating. After the Kabul bombing, “Resign, sir!” became the new red hat cri de coeur, repeated endlessly on Don Bongino’s pod and other grifter channels. But it’s not just the freak show. Bret Stephens, the contrarian on The New York Times op-ed page, went so far last week as to declare “Another Failed Presidency at Hand,” calling the Afghanistan departure a moral stain that will forever haunt Biden and the nation. Biden, he wrote, is “ambitious but inept”—almost as bad as Donald Trump! To claim that Biden is on the precipice of “a failed presidency,” after just eight months in office, is either scorcher of a hot take or just another example of lazy political analysis that constipates op-ed pages these days. Maybe both. But the Stephens column was a marker of something in the water. 

A post-Labor Day narrative has clearly taken hold in the mainstream press: Biden the old-timer, now hobbled by his first big crisis, is outmatched by today’s world and running out of time to be a consequential president. His expansive liberal agenda is imperiled by Democratic-infighting, with moderate kingpin Joe Manchin holding hostage the administration’s $3.5 trillion plan to remake the economy, and lefties like Bernie Sanders and A.O.C. revolting with a promise to block the bipartisan infrastructure plan (the BIP!) unless the larger economic bill goes through. With the tiniest of majorities in the House and Senate, Biden has to get this stuff done before the midterms, before up-for-reelection members start to weigh the political calculus of each vote, and before Biden possibly loses control of Congress entirely. 

Meanwhile, the government will run out of money at the end of September unless the debt ceiling is raised. Which means it’s not an ideal time for Biden to ask Congress, as he is, for $24 billion in recovery funds after the twin disasters of Hurricane Ida and the western wildfires—and another $6 billion to help resettle Afghan refugees in the United States. It’s enough of a cumulative headache to allow Washington’s prestige commentariat to wonder aloud: Is Biden Toast?

Biden’s challenges, it should be noted, extend beyond CNN and Twitter. Out there in America, outside the field of view of college-educated Washingtonians who have salaries and health care benefits and care a lot about congressional negotiations, COVID unemployment benefits are expiring, the eviction moratorium expires at the end of September, and a gallon of gas costs a dollar more on average today than it did a year ago. These are real-world financial concerns—possibly even calamities—that in the coming months will fall back on a lot of working people, many of whom don’t follow politics closely. Meanwhile, the Fed’s early warnings about winding down quantitative easing is likely to put a chill on economic hopes on the other side of the new year.

If there is an ongoing sense of economic malaise, it’s pretty easy to guess who will get blamed at the ballot box. The real-world concern encompassing everything else, of course, is the pandemic, and the Delta variant is out here playing rope-a-dope. Infections are finally coming down, but the caseload and lack of widespread vaccinations are still slowing the economic comeback that Biden promised and throwing a wrench into back-to-school life for kids and parents everywhere. 

The president’s order last week to force businesses to vaccinate their employees or subject them to weekly testing was a signal that he’s fed up with trying to persuade the anti-vax dead-enders with his American unity messaging. The new order predictably had conservatives screaming about fascism and Nazis and Gestapo tactics—brave war cries, shouted from the comfort of their screens, that would surely make the Greatest Generation proud. Those voices get a lot of attention in the media, but polls show majorities of the public are in favor of vaccine mandates as a way to end the long pandemic. Biden entered office with a simple but effective governing strategy: Stay Popular by Doing Popular Things. The vaccine and testing order doubled, then, as an effort to put the vapors of summer behind him and claw his way back to popularity. 

Autumn will be a slog. Every challenge listed above? They’re all happening at once. A story last week conveyed the zeitgeist. “The coming weeks will define Biden’s presidency and shape the midterm elections,” it headlined, freighting “the coming weeks” with a hefty amount of responsibility. “The weeks following Labor Day will reveal answers that will set the stage for next year’s congressional elections,” it went. “They will also help decide whether Biden has the potential for a historically significant presidency or gets swamped by the crises he was elected to conquer.” You read that right. These weeks—these very weeks we are living in right now!—will help decide if there is potential for a historically significant president!

Unless, of course, they do not help decide such a thing. Political writers frequently employ these kinds of rhetorical escape hatches in the event that their “News Analysis” pieces age poorly. And they are writing in such a way now about Biden’s rocky path ahead, in which it’s clear that Biden’s fortunes “could” or “may” change over time. 

Even so, there’s an unmistakable air of fatalism. That his ideas about bipartisanship are outdated and naive. That he doesn’t inspire a visceral connection with Americans like Obama or Trump did. That he’s too old and can’t possibly be up to the job. That he’s boring. That he’s too headstrong and emotional and thus incapable of staying on message. These are opinions currently percolating in the media, in public and private. And I would agree with you, reader, if you suggested that these takes about Biden sound a lot harsher than the rosy assessments of him by the very same people just a few months ago. Approval ratings—they’re a helluva drug.

So, is Biden’s presidency indeed toast? Here is my answer: I don’t fucking know. Do you? It’s. Been. Eight. Months. Biden might very well get stuck in the tar pits of The Swamp and never recover, or he could finally leave office in 2029 as the oldest and most popular president in history. The media hive mind now suggesting that Biden is on the cusp of a failed presidency is the same commentariat that told us Biden couldn’t win the Democratic nomination, the same one that creates new narratives every Monday based on poll numbers, the same one that’s has been wrong about politics time and time and again, because it’s addicted to predictions about a future it can’t possibly see. 

Every lever of Washington, D.C.—bureaucrats, members of Congress, lobbyists, reporters, cable producers—care primarily what is happening right now (“the coming weeks!”), without much consideration for what’s happened before or what might come to pass. After all, those who suggest otherwise don’t make for good cable news hits or guest opinion writers. And right now, Biden is indeed in deep trouble. That, in turn, is defining the new onslaught of negative coverage. 

It’s on Biden to fix it. Maybe Biden is so feckless that his big chance to remake the economy and do something about climate change will fail because he can’t even get Democrats to agree on something. Or maybe something else is true, that this latest congressional dance is just a process, like a zillion other negotiations that we in the media and Biden himself have seen before, and that Democrats will figure something out! It’s far too soon to write obituaries.

The rhythm, after all, can change. Lyndon Johnson boasted a 60-70 percent approval rating during his first two years in office, but by his final year he was so ruined by Vietnam that he decided not to run again. In 1991, after Desert Storm, George H.W. Bush was coasting into his re-election year against Bill Clinton with astronomically high approval ratings—in the 80 percent range! Then a recession hit, and he lost to Clinton—who was also quickly deemed an inept president by the Washington smart set, before turning it around to win re-election and leave office with a 65 percent approval rating. In 2018, Trump was so politically toxic that he would obviously lose both the House and the Senate. But he scrambled the electorate in such a way that Republicans actually gained seats in the Senate that year. According to the rules of politics, that wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did. You get the point.

There is at least one element of Biden’s future that can be forecast with some reliability: That he and Democrats will lose seats in the House next year (which, to be sure, could or may stifle any hopes of passing bill legislation after that). This isn’t just a piece of flimsy conventional wisdom. The president’s party has only gained seats in the House and Senate during the midterms twice—in 1934 and 2002. Researchers and political scientists have tried to figure out why the party controlling the White House always loses seats in the midterms. The answer actually doesn’t have much to do with the president’s approval rating or the performance of the economy. It’s that Americans simply tend to reward the opposition party, no matter the policies or personalities involved. It’s baked in. Robert Erickson, a political scientist at the University of Houston, found in 1988 that during the midterms, “the president’s party always performs poorly—even when the president is popular and the economy is thriving. The one explanation that does fit the data is that of a presidential penalty. At every midterm, the electorate turns against the presidential party for being the party in power.” Erickson and two more academics published a more recent study about midterm voting in 2010, writing that, “The compelling fact is that with near uniformity, preferences in the generic ballot polls shift toward the out party over the midterm year; in February one can predict the midterm vote better by knowing the president’s party than knowing the generic poll results.”

The electorate has become substantially more partisan since that study was written, when Obama and Democrats got their asses handed to them by the Tea Party, meaning congressional control today depends slightly more on which party’s base is more motivated in an election. 

But independents are still the weathervane of American politics, and they’re not with Biden right now. Historically, the incumbent party’s standing on the generic ballot question gets worse as the midterms approach, meaning that eight-seat Democratic majority in the House could very well be gone. The same might be true for the Senate, a 50-50 split that Democrats only control because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s gavel, even though the real center of gravity in the Senate is probably on Manchin’s houseboat. Democrats are defending fewer seats than Republicans, but there are probably 10 competitive Senate races, several of them in states that were tight presidential battlegrounds in 2020, like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. Again: Biden is likely to lose seats. What can be managed, somewhat, is how many. That depends a lot on how popular Biden is come Election Day.

 In 2018, Gallup examined their polling history and found that “presidents with job approval ratings below 50 percent have seen their party lose 37 House seats, on average, in midterm elections. That compares with an average loss of 14 seats when presidents had approval ratings above 50 percent.” In statewide Senate races, Democratic performance should correlate pretty closely with Biden’s approval rating, too. 

A good indicator of Biden’s true vulnerability will come in November, in the Virginia governor’s race. The commonwealth now tilts blue, so former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, running again after a term on the sidelines, is the favorite. The G.O.P. nominee, a private equity guy named Glenn Youngkin, has accommodated some MAGA ideas but is running as a relatable suburban dad who wants to eliminate grocery taxes. Republicans in Richmond say the race is still an uphill battle, but getting closer, a recent shift they attribute to Biden’s dimming national popularity. “Gotta dance with the one that brung ya,” said Will Ritter, a Youngkin strategist. “Terry rallied with Joe Biden, and is a D.C. cocktail party Democrat running a campaign on national instead of state issues. So when Biden and national Dems do badly, Terry does badly, now he’s gonna pretend he’s never met his date.” 

McAuliffe is savvy enough not to pretend he isn’t a Biden guy, but the many Democrats who bear-hugged Uncle Joe through the 2020 election and early days of this year now have something to worry about. McAuliffe might very well win simply because modern Virginia has so many Democratic voters that Republicans can’t overcome the deficit. But even if The Macker does win, dig into the exit polls come November and see how he performed among independent voters. Suburban swing voters in Virginia look a lot like they do in other battleground states. And Youngkin, not McAuliffe, is winning them right now. 

While it doesn’t square with the aforementioned political science that says issues don’t matter in midterms, Democrats are hopeful that Republicans in state capitals are giving them an opening, by passing strict abortion laws like the one in Texas, restricting voting rights, and promising to overturn vaccine and mask rules. With Trump (at least temporarily) gone as a useful foil, the state-by-state cultural battles are giving Democrats something to run against, a powerful tool in an era of negative partisanship. 

Back in the first two years of Obama’s administration, Republicans famously sat on their hands, refusing to work with the new socialist president from Kenya, instead campaigning relentlessly against his radical health-care plan with death panels and whatever Glenn Beck farted about on his Fox News show. Obama not only struggled to articulate what good he had done, he also didn’t have much of a Republican policy agenda to run against, other than saying that those rich guys want to “take us back.” 

But Biden, whether he gets anything else done before next year, can still try to draw a clear contrast on lightning rod issues like abortion that are suddenly back in the news and sparking another round of women’s marches. The Trumpified Republican Party is less popular than it’s ever been with swing voters. “Republicans have staked out culture war positions that are far more extreme than anything they embraced during the Obama years,” said Jon Favreau, the former Obama speechwriter and Pod Save America host. “They’re now perpetually running a Republican primary to fire up their base, but it remains to be seen whether Democrats can exploit their extremism to fire up both our own base and the less engaged voters who came out in ’18 and ’20, which is harder for the party in power to do in a midterm.” 

But, it might be the only hope Democrats have. If not, Biden’s presidency is surely over. Unless it isn’t.