Thursday, September 23, 2021

Biden's (In)competence

 From Amy Walter, at the Cook Political Report, "The Competency Question":

When Biden was running for president, his message was pretty straightforward: I'm the guy who will bring normal back to Washington. Where President Trump was unorthodox and chaotic, Biden would be conventional and organized. Trump ran the White House like a reality show, Biden stocked his cabinet and high-level staff with Washington insiders with establishment credentials. He was going to usher in an era of boring, but predictable.

But, less than a year into his tenure, voters don't see the 'return to normal' they had been promised. Far from turning the corner on COVID, the country remains anxious and divided over everything from booster shots to vaccine mandates. A botched Afghanistan pull-out was quickly followed by more chaos on the southern border. Earlier success at bipartisan legislating has dissolved into intra-party fighting over the contours of the president's signature legislation.

"I'm kind of a little weary," said one woman in a recent focus of voters who had supported Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. "I think it [Biden's term] started off strong, but some scary things are happening now."

All of this has taken a toll on Biden's standing with the public. Not only are his national job approval ratings underwater (the average currently has him at 46 percent favorable to 49 percent unfavorable), but he's slipped under 50 percent in a recent Washington Post poll in Virginia — a state he easily carried in 2020. Private polling is picking up double-digit drops in Biden performance in competitive House seats.

There's nothing that remarkable — or unique — about a first-term president hitting a soft patch early in his tenure. New presidents often confront a crisis they didn't expect. For Bill Clinton, it was the April 1993 stand-off in Waco, Texas, between federal law enforcement officers and cult leader David Koresh that resulted in the deaths of 75 people. Other times, presidents create their own crises; Trump was probably the best at that (see: Comey, Charlottesville, late-night tweeting, etc.) Obama ran as a transformational candidate who would unify the country. However, his legislative efforts on health care and economic stimulus brought about significant backlash from Republicans in Washington and at the grassroots level.

The bigger question, however, is whether a president can recover after early stumbles. This is even more relevant in this ultra-polarized era where a president starts with unified support from his base, but a shallow reservoir of "benefit of the doubt" from the opposite party or independent voters. In other words, a president doesn't get much of a bump in approval rating when things go well, and he doesn't get much sympathy when he messes up (or is perceived to have messed up).

Trump was able to recover quite a bit from his 'summer swoon' of 2017. For example, at this point in 2017, Trump's job approval rating had plummeted to just 37 percent. But, by late October of 2018, his approval had climbed 6 points to 43 percent. That wasn't enough to help Republicans hold onto their House majority, but his stronger standing was enough to help red-state candidates expand their majority in the Senate.

However, the challenge for Biden is that these early mistakes go directly to the very rationale of his presidency; that it would be low drama and high competence. This was especially true with Afghanistan. While Americans are eager to have our troops out of the country, and may even have assumed there'd be some chaos due to that drawdown, they also expected that this administration's deep expertise and experience, would prepare them for any unexpected snafu. That turned out not to be the case...

Still lots more.