Tom with the BTRTN September 2021 Month in Review.
For a presidential administration there is one word that must be avoided at all cost, and that is the dreaded “B” word: “beleaguered,” as in "the beleaguered Biden Administration."
It is a word that conjures up images of LBJ after Tet, Jimmy Carter and the botched hostage rescue attempt, and George W. Bush after Katrina. And while those singular events may have triggered the label, each were a culmination of sorts, the crushing blow in a series of disasters. According to Webster, the word means “suffering or being subjected to constant or repeated trouble.” It is often the kiss of death for an administration – note the single-term fates of two of those three presidents mentioned above -- a term that implies not only incompetence but also the sense of being overwhelmed by events, and ill-suited to manage them.
Note that Donald Trump does not appear in that paragraph. That is simply a function of so many worse adjectives that were applied to Trump from the outset of his presidency. Trump’s method of operation was so ingrained from the start – the lying (remember the Inauguration attendance flap?), the refusal to listen to experts, the upending of norms, the lack of decency, the blaming of others, the grandstanding, and so on – that the adverse descriptors almost instantly soared well beyond “beleaguered.”
Biden is not quite at “beleaguered” yet. But he and his administration are certainly in a bad stretch, which began with the messy Afghanistan pull-out in August and continued this month with the revelation that the revenge attack against ISIS-K instead killed an innocent family, including seven children; the apparently needless blindsiding of France in an arms deal with the UK and Australia; a Haitian migrant crush under a bridge in Texas; the persistence of COVID, where the corner has yet to be turned and confusion still reigns amongst policy guidance emanating from the FDA, CDC and the Administration; and then the current hot button, the legislative pile-up of “hard” and “soft” infrastructure legislation, an epic budget resolution (now resolved) and an economy-threatening impasse on raising the debt ceiling.
That is quite a bad run, but as yet, the dreaded word has yet to be affixed to Biden. He has worked through the media cycle of most of these issues by now, save the remaining legislation which, while already crucial to his economic agenda, has now become essential to saving a bloodbath in the midterms in 2022, if not his presidency in 2024.
The problem with these issues – apart, of course, from the substance – is that each directly undercuts one of Biden’s supposed core strengths (and, in total, almost all of them). Apart from running as “the anti-Trump” candidate, the Biden brand touted deep global experience that would lead to a restoration of both mainstream U.S. foreign policy and our global reputation; a steady hand and straightforward operating style; a unique ability to turn back the clock to craft bi-partisan legislation to meet the needs of our times; and a devotion to decisions based on science and facts. Well, the Afghanistan and France fiascos have shaken our allies, Biden can’t seem to resist the temptation to get ahead of the science, and the legislative pile-up seems to defy negotiation – even though the Democrats, at this point, do not need a single additional GOP vote to get all four pieces of legislation passed.
Even the “anti-Trump” appeal of Biden is giving some pause. While Biden is about as far from Trump as a politician can get, in terms of personal decency, integrity, empathy and so on, some of these events also carried an uncomfortable sense that not quite as much has changed from Trump as Democrats fervently not only hoped but assumed. Both the Afghan exit decision and the undercutting of the French in the submarine deal echoed Trump’s unwillingness to work with allies, with the only apparent difference being that while Trump routinely dissed the allies, Biden at least says the right things. But, of course, as was clear in the aftermath of Biden’s first U.S. address (not long after France recalled its ambassador to the US in protest) it is the actions that matter, not just the words. This, of course, leads one to wonder what is going on in the minds of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who reveled in the implied weakness of Trump’s America First policy and the NATO divisiveness it begat – and the implication for potential aggressiveness in, say, Estonia and Taiwan.
(And yet another problem with the botched killing of the Afghan civilians is that it immediately undercut the Biden claims that the U.S. could monitor terrorist threats from beyond the Afghan border, or, as they gamely referred to it, “over the horizon” – which the GOP mockingly dubbed “over the rainbow.”)
The image of Haitian immigrants being tormented by Texas Rangers on horseback was, of course, a scene that could have been scripted by Trump’s immigration lackey Stephen Miller. Biden strongly denounced the Rangers’ hideous efforts, but the whole sordid affair did nothing to allay fears that Biden’s immigration policy might merely be an extension of Trump’s.
On the COVID front, the Delta variant continues to rage despite over half the U.S. population being vaccinated. New COVID cases declined from 3.6 million in August to 3.4 million in September, but deaths (which lag cases, of course) jumped from 33,000 to 55,000. But whatever the trends, the absolute numbers are way too high, and concentrated (especially deaths) among unvaccinated people. Biden finally got fed up with them, and announced a series of initiatives, including requiring the military to be vaccinated, and imposing a vaccination requirement on all companies with more than 100 employees. These were announced with a noticeable shift in tone for Biden, from one of patience with the unvaccinated to one of disgust. Clearly he is sick of educating them on the benefits of the vaccine – and he is catching up to poll numbers that show his supporters long ago passed the point of understanding with their unvaccinated neighbors.
But after decrying Trump continuously for not “following the science” with respect to COVID policy, Biden himself had trouble with the same issue. He announced in late August that Americans should get a vaccine booster shot eight months after their first vaccination, a policy that was cleared in advance by neither the FDA nor the CDC. For this, Biden was rightly excoriated. When those bodies finally made their own determinations on the booster issue, they announced, in turn, three different policy formulations, none of which concurred with Biden’s. The ultimate direction, announced by CDC chief Rochelle Walensky, was for those who originally received the Pfizer vaccine, boosters were recommended for those over 65, those under 65 who suffered from underlying risk attributes, and health and education professionals, all after six months. Walensky’s policy essentially overruled her own team (who did not include the health and education professionals) and the FDA (her policy changes some individuals that the FDA said "should" get the vaccine to "may" get the vaccine). After a month of those conflicting headlines, one might conclude that the Biden Administration has not been following the science per se, nor has it been a model of clarity in vaccine management communications.
On the legislative front, it turns out that the easiest part of the negotiations was taming the GOP. Even Mitch McConnell voted for the $1.2 trillion “hard” infrastructure package, along with 18 other Republican Senators. Biden seemed like a magician when the Senate passed that bill. Who knew that while he could corral the GOP, he would have even more trouble getting his own crazy party on board? House progressives refused to pass the “hard” bill unless the $3.5 trillion “soft” infrastructure bill passed simultaneously as well. House moderates refuse to pass the “soft” bill unless the Senate lined up behind it, which required the commitment of Senate moderates Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But those two refused to back the “soft” bill because, in Manchin’s case, he thinks it is too expensive (he seems happy with $1.5 trillion, with certain conditions), while Sinema has been relatively silent on what it will take to get her to yes.
This is where the Biden deal-making, 36-years-in-the-Senate magic was supposed to come in. Lord knows, he’s trying. At this point, Congress managed to avoid a government shutdown by passing a continuing resolution on the budget, kicking the can to December. The others remain maddeningly out of reach. House progressives’ intransigence forced Pelosi to postpone a vote on the “hard” bill not once, but twice, which is starting to annoy the House moderates – the “Mod Squad” – who thought they had negotiated with Pelosi a hard voting date of September 27.
That the Democrats are committing political suicide with their bickering seems lost to those on the edges of the party. Without these bills, in any form, Biden and the Democrats literally have no story to take into the midterms a year from now, apart from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, passed in the early days of his administration. And yet the principal problem may spring from that old political villain, “overreach.” Biden’s epic legislative hopes for the bills, which rival in scope FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society, were launched with the barest of margins in Congress – far from the mandate (and Congressional supermajorities) enjoyed by his legendary predecessors. Progressives seem to think that just because we need everything they want, they and we should get it. But that is not how it works. If, in a single year, Biden could pass legislation of $1.9 trillion (his original American Rescue Plan), $1.2 trillion (the “hard” infrastructure bill) and, say, $1.5 trillion (Manchin’s number for “soft” infrastructure), that trio alone could stand alongside FDR and LBJ’s transformative packages. But that simple fact has been lost.
There was one bit of news that, while awful for the many who are affected, was actually a gift from the GOP to 2022 Democratic electoral prospects, and that was the Texas bill banning abortions after six weeks. This blatantly unconstitutional bill, which the Supreme Court remarkably has allowed to stand until the coming court challenges, has energized the Democratic base like nothing else. That energy may go a long way to preventing the bloodbath.
Biden can also take comfort in the fact that the majority of Americans favor his agenda. This generally means that there is still time to herd the cats and pass the bills, have them positively impact the economy and help with electoral prospects in 2022 and 2024. There is also time for his COVID policies to work, with the help from growing corporate and entertainment venue vaccination mandates, along with a potential antiviral solution just announced by Merck.
That is the game plan. But the question is, can Biden, the LBJ-wannabe, display the skills required to get it all through, a la the “Master of the Senate” himself? To avoid that “B” word, it is surely time for Biden to start tugging on some lapels.
The “Cyber Ninjas” completed their audit of the presidential election results in Maricopa County. The group was hired by crazed Arizona republicans trying to do their bit to reverse the 2020 election results. They pursued such lunatic tactics as exploring whether 40,000 ballots were made of bamboo, which would supposedly indicate they were shipped in from Asia and were all for Joe Biden. But despite this, they actually found that Biden’s margin of victory in the county was 361 votes greater than that shown in the election.
Trump’s response was typically insane, saying at a rally in Georgia after the audit results were announced: “We won at the Arizona forensic audit yesterday at a level that you wouldn't believe," Trump told the crowd in Perry, Georgia. "They had headlines that Biden wins in Arizona, when they know it's not true. He didn't win in Arizona. He lost in Arizona based on the forensic audit."
BIDEN APPROVAL RATING
Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped another 3 points in August versus July. His net approval went negative for the first time, from +3 to -4. This is Biden’s low water mark for his presidency, and also is just below the highest monthly figure Trump managed in his four years in office (46%, in his first full month in office, in February, 2017).
HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES
Biden again showed slippage across every issue in the last month, though by less of a drop than in August, losing 1-2 points across each. He is still substantially outperforming Trump’s ratings at the time he left office on all measures except his handling of the economy, Trump’s strongest issue.
When compared to Trump’s levels across an average of the entire year of 2020, Biden looks about even with Trump, ahead of COVID, behind on the economy, and even in the other two areas.
The “Bidenometer” remained virtually unchanged in September, moving from +64 in August to +63. All five measures showed very minor movement, with the net being a drop of one point.
As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.
With a Bidenometer of +63, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.
This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points: the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP. The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery. Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it. Now we have seen it move upward to +63 under Biden.
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Notes on methodology:
BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters. The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.
For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.
The Trumpometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump took office. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.
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